The United Arab Emirates is an undeniable art hub.
Art Dubai, a lavish annual contemporary global art fair, held its seventh edition in March 2011 with $45 million worth of art, coinciding with the 11th Sharjah Biennale, a major regional art extravaganza.
Abu Dhabi is the designated sight for Middle Eastern branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. The oil-rich country has been heavily investing in the arts and culture scene, attracting groundbreaking contemporary artists to the region. But is the United Arab Emirates investing as heavily in its indigenous art landscape?
The United Arab Emirates is participating in this year’s Venice Biennale, which kicked off earlier this month with a solo exhibition Walking on Water by contemporary Emirati artist Mohamed Kazem. Curated by Palestinian Reem Fadda, the UAE's third consecutive national pavilion introduces the Venice Biennale audience to home-grown art from the country.
The United Arab Emirates was the first Gulf Nation to take part in the monumental art festival in Venice, La Biennale di Venezia. Hamdan says that the national pavilion was in a way, "a natural progression of the country’s diverse and growing art scene."
Cultural exchange, with art as a currency has been a clear mission of the UAE government.
Participating in the Venice Biennale, which Hamdan dubs the "Olympics" of the global art scene, "has created the most significant international platform for Emirati art possible." She estimates that through participating in the previous three art festivals in Venice, Emirati art has been exposed to an audience of 450,000 guests, among the art world's elite.
Mohammed Kazem - Walking On Water - Walkthrough from UAE Pavilion Venice Biennale on Vimeo.
The solo exhibition at this year's Venice Biennial is a specially-commissioned video installation by contemporary Emarati artist Mohammed Kazem that was originally conceived in 2005, but was brought back to life for this exhibition.
Walking on Water is based on Kazem’s Directions series, a conceptual work that he has constantly revisited over the past decade. Sparked by an incident in which the artist was lost at sea for half an hour, the Directions series utilises the Geographic System (GPS) coordinates to constantly document his location. Such coordinates are repeatedly replicated and represented in multimedia installations and photography series. As in his previous works, natural elements feature prominently in Walking on Water, with a particular emphasis on water and the sea.
"In some ways this year’s National Pavilion of the UAE at the 55th Venice Biennale is an indication of the dynamism of the UAE’s contemporary art practices," Commissioner of the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates Lamees Hamdan told Ahram Online.
"The message is no longer: 'This is who we are,' It is: 'this is what we are achieving'," she says.
Hamdan explained that the continuous exchange the UAE engages in through international art fairs, for example, has led to the bridging of different cultural narratives.
"The UAE is assuming its historical geographical role as a meeting point between the East and the West in the cultural scene… becoming the space where these diverse identities then produce, negotiate and present their works," she says.
Part of the country's leaders’ vision has been to support local cultural developments. Such initiatives as the Saadiyat Island and the Sharjah Biennial have "played a key role in ensuring that the UAE has not only "caught up" but has positioned itself at the very least as a regional leader in contemporary arts and culture," argues Hamdan.
Art fairs such as Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art have garnered growing attention in the region. A burgeoning gallery scene, showcasing international artists is also a key indicator's of the UAE's regional prominence.
Hamdan says that the UAE is no toddler when it comes to producing its own art. "The UAE is mistakenly perceived internationally as a young nation with a short history of contemporary artistic practice," starts Hamdan. But, she says Mohammed Kazem's work is only a snippet of a legacy of contemporary artistic practice in the UAE.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Mohamed Kazem reveals that starting the dawn of the 1960s until the 1980s, Emarati artists were influenced by "the European artistic tradition, mainly using conventional media, which was influenced by Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptians academics and artists."
An essay by Walking on Water curator Reem Fadda, published in the exhibition’s monograph describes that the onset of Emirati contemporary art practices coincided with the country's move towards modernity. The declaration of independence of the UAE, then, was a pivotal point in the nation's history in more than one way.
Fadda suggests that to understand the history of today's visual art landscape in the UAE, and certainly to understand the work of Mohammed Kazem, we need to examine the father of contemporary Emirati art, Hassan Sharif. As a pioneer of conceptual, experimental and performance art, Sharif has radicalised an art scene long immersed in traditional practices of painting and calligraphy.
Sharif had studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art in the UK and brought back a conceptual-based practice that set him apart from his contemporaries in the region. In many ways, the evolution of Sharif's body of work has mirrored that of the development of the urban landscape that surrounds him. The growth of a city echoes in the growth of an artist, and in turn, on the growth of a contemporary art movement in the UAE.
Similarly, Kazem's oeuvre reacts to the surrounding context. He was born at the brink of change, and grew up against a backdrop of a desert's metamorphosis into an ultra-modern city.
Kazem says that at the onset of the contemporary art movement in the UAE, the main obstacle was that local audiences "found it difficult to accept the language of contemporary art."
But in recent years, the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority has established a number of programmes to nurture diverse local art practices, including the Gulf Film Festival; SIKKA Art Fair, an annual initiative established to support and showcase Emirati art; the Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre, now in its fifth year; and the Artists-in-Residence Dubai programme, which is run in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Art Dubai, and Tashkeel.
"There has been a surge of enthusiasm amongst people about art in the Middle East, which is both a wonderful opportunity and a challenge for your artists, who are in some ways expected to fill a certain voice that the international community expects from the Middle East," says Kazem.
The National Pavilion of the UAE has been awarded a long-term hospitality agreement with the Venice Biennale: for the coming 20 years, Emirati artists will be represented in Italy.
"A ‘permanent pavilion’ in the Arsenale will afford us a strong platform from which to present the development in the UAE’s arts and architecture scenes," says Kazem. The artist states that it as a "great honour and also big responsibility" to be presenting his work in Venice this year.