3. Pop(Corn): UAE National Pavilion
By NiccolòAcram Cappelletto
Published on September 5th, 2022
Usually, Global Art Daily’s Pop(Corn) section is dedicated to an emerging protagonist of a local art world scene. For this E-Issue on the Venice Biennale, we opted for an emerging idea, in this case, a Pavilion.
The Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates was first presented in 2009 with the exhibition It’s not you, it’s me curated by Tirdad Zoldhadr featuring the artworks of Lamya Gargash. Since then, the UAE National Pavilion has tremendously grown and has continued to represent the local art scene of a thriving art ecosystem. In the latest edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Pavilion won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation with the project Wetland curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, signaling the great spirit of collaboration of the Pavilion and the impact that such a young project may have.
Since the original project of GAD was born in Abu Dhabi and in the context of New York University Abu Dhabi, this article offers the space to reflect on this year’s UAE Pavilion at the Biennale Arte: Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset. We have published an interview with Chief Curator and Executive Director of the NYUAD Art Gallery, Maya Allison, who curated this year’s Pavilion featuring an original body of work by Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim. We republish here extracts from that interview that are still very relevant to understanding the context of this Biennale’s Pavilion. Attached to it, I had the chance to have an Express Interview with Tala Nassar, a recent NYU Abu Dhabi graduate and former David Webb Museum Fellow at the NYUAD Art Gallery, who has been an active part of the curatorial team for the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. After Maya’s interview, I thought I would ask Tala about reflections on her experiences and outlooks on Venice, the UAE art ecosystem, and her advice for young emerging curators.
Maya Allison, Curator of the UAE National Pavilion for the 59th Venice Biennale
This interview was originally published on March 21st, 2022. The following excerpt has been condensed and re-published for the present article. Read the original interview in full here.
Niccolò Acram Cappelletto: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. Let us start with the Venice Biennale exhibition. How is the preparation going? How are you feeling with the opening coming so soon, and how is everything right now?
Maya Allison: The preparation is done. The work is now getting ready to ship. The book is going to print tomorrow. And it is a major book actually. At this point, the main thing we are focusing on is how to tell the story of what we are doing to the press that might never have heard of the UAE beyond Dubai. We have now revealed that the work will be a single major piece, made of lots of smaller pieces, that fills the whole space. A part of his [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, the artist selected to represent the UAE at the next Venice Art Biennale] paper-maché sculptures series. The show will be a contemporary presentation of his current work and the book will be a retrospective of his life's work to date.
N.A.C.: Is it your first show curated at the Biennale?
N.A.C.: That must feel exciting.
M.A.: Yes. It is a wonderful boost of confidence to have been nominated by the artist–and then the pavilion and the government confirmed that nomination. So I feel honored and empowered by that trust in my understanding of his work and ability to translate it across such different audiences.
I feel honored and empowered by that trust in my understanding of his work and ability to translate it across such different audiences.
N.A.C.: I guess you kind of replied already, but what did it mean for you to get selected by the artist? And not in the usual way, as some would say, the other way around: a curator that chooses the artist.
M.A.: I have been saying for a long time that this artist really needs to go to the Venice Biennale. I mean, not even Venice in particular, but I have said that we have not seen enough of his work. It is really important and interesting. At every chance I get to work with him, I always commissioned new work, such as when I was a guest curator at Abu Dhabi Art and then again for the Cultural Foundation. There was no mystery that he would be ready for the Biennale. When I got the news, there was no question in my mind whether or not I was going to do this. It was an obvious choice. If it was an artist that I did not trust could [represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale], I would have said no.
Bottom: Entrance to the Arsenale - Sale d'Armi, La Biennale di Venezia 2018. Photo courtesy National Pavilion UAE.
N.A.C.: Speaking about the artist, Mohamed Ibrahim, you have known him for quite some time now. How does an event such as the Venice Biennale impact the relationship between you two? How did you support each other in the artistic and curatorial processes?
M.A.: A big part of the process has been me interviewing him. I would say the book is the major part of the work. He would go back and forth with me with a couple of different ideas and I would say yes to this one or this one I have this question about. At a certain point, he said: “Okay, I'm thinking Between Sunrise and Sunset [a phrase which later became the title of the exhibition] as the concept. The work will shift from black and white to color.” I said: “That sounds amazing.” Then we talked about what the division point would look like, and what the forms look like. We wanted to do additional work on the walls and we left it as open as possible. His process does not arise from rigorous planning. He finds the work in the material. A lot of the process consisted in setting the frame together and within that, him finding the work and the material, this paper-maché. I would visit him and see how it was going and we would talk about the different groupings and what he thought of them. Something then clicked for him, and he started an intense period of production. Suddenly he had produced a full work. And then it became a matter of us refining the layout – very few adjustments, really. While he was doing that, I had spent several days of continuous, sustained interviews with him about every aspect of his body of work. I asked him everything that I thought of, and included sort of casual-ongoing interviews over the year. I would go visit him about once a month and spend a couple of days with him. I was really trying to make sure that I understood his work, his work's progression and his influences from the source.
One of the problems [with curating] is that people put their own interpretive lens onto other artworks. A big part of my job is to make sure that, as much as possible, I do not interpret independently. I am trying to theorize upwards. First, I look at that material, and then develop the theory from the work rather than applying any existing theory to it. I had some major discoveries. I thought I knew his work well – we did four other exhibitions together – and we have had many conversations when I interviewed him before. Yet, based on this round of research, I realize how not only the landscape around him is important, but also that there are all these other cultural influences in his landscape. They are so common for him, he does not even think to mention them anymore. But when spending time with him, on a full-time basis, you come to realize the intricacies of his influences. There is, of course, the tradition of rock art, going back to ancient times. I think they call it proto-writing, in a way that he would have experienced it as a teenager, going out in the mountains, seeing these caves where the rock art still is. You can imagine the rock landscape as a normal part of his visual landscape, interlaced with ancient structures, such as the 15th-century Al Bidya Mosque. It is a really old Mosque that may have been a pre-Islamic shrine. History is a very fluid thing when you do not know exactly what is happening in this space. There was also the Portuguese occupation [in the northern Emirates of present-day UAE] and the footprint of that occupation is still there. All of these factors affected his work, over time. And we should not forget about his garden. The plants have histories that are related to other artists that he knows and so on.
I am trying to theorize upwards. First, I look at that material, and then develop the theory from the work rather than applying any existing theory to it.
N.A.C.: The book will contain these precious interviews. How did you incorporate and edit the interviews? Did you extrapolate information from them, or included texts that you wrote yourself?
M.A.: My co-editor, Cristiana de Marchi, and I felt it was important first to collect all the relevant archival material. We engaged Munira Al Sayegh [independent curator in the UAE], and she sifted through the material from Mohamed’s studio archive. Cristiana de Marchi brought in her own archival knowledge, as she was curator at the Flying House [where these artists documented their work over decades]. We put together folders full of images of his work from his entire career, year by year. When I interviewed him, I would ask him about each of those years and those bodies of work. He would tell me stories. The interview was essentially starting with: “Tell me your life story. When did you first start to feel like you might be an artist? How did that come to be? What else happened along the way?” That sort of thing. And we started to delve into the works themselves – this is days-long interviews to get through. When I finally put together all the materials, I started to think: how do I tell the story? I did not want to only tell his life story, but also the story of his artworks and his artistic process through the story’s lens. We also commissioned many other writers, who are his friends and his colleagues, as well as other art historians and curators. This book is a kaleidoscopic view of his practice.
This book is a kaleidoscopic view of [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s] practice.
N.A.C.: The artist's work comes from a specific local context in the UAE [Khor Fakkan] but it also reaches a wide audience. It can speak to many, many different audiences. How have you considered this connection between the artist, his background, and the exhibition context in Venice? I guess that was a big challenge.
M.A.: Yes, and that is actually why I think he will be so important to Venice. I have been going to see the Venice Biennale for some time now, and the main challenge I see is: how to catch a visitor’s attention in a biennale that takes a week to get through. Everything starts to look the same after a while. I feel very strongly that his work has the potential to stand out in that context. My hope is that through the sheer power of visceral presence, the work will invite the viewer to stop and look more closely. [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim] is Emirati, from a small town on the Indian Ocean. His life story does not fit neatly into the usual story of what an artist does and looks like. My hope is that in the journey of understanding the work, audiences will start to realize that they are interacting with an artist who does not fit in any clear-cut categories. This will help raise questions complicating one’s own narratives of what art is, where it comes from, and how it works. I think we have inherited a lot of unconscious colonial thinking about what art is and how it is supposed to look like.
My hope is that through the sheer power of visceral presence, the work will invite the viewer to stop and look more closely.
N.A.C.: Super interesting. Thinking about Ibrahim's origins and the context of Khor Fakkan, how have you developed a relationship, after living all these years here in the UAE, with Khor Fakkan and the Northern Emirates in general?
M.A.: That is a really good question. I can say that now it feels very familiar. I know this drive through the rocky mountains by heart now. Going to Mohamed’s studio and knowing that after turning on this corner, I will see the port. Khor Fakkan has incredible fish restaurants because it is a fishing town. It was originally a port town with a big fishing trade. Just in the span of time since I started visiting his studio in 2016, I have seen the landscape go through many changes. This is especially noticeable as tourism in the region increases. Now cruise ships stop in Khor Fakkan, I do not know for how long that has been going on. They even have this new waterfall, a man-made waterfall. It is kind of amazing. Have you seen it?
N.A.C.: I have, yes.
M.A.: That is new. Mohamed was born back when there was no electricity and people were living in mud wall huts or the type of Arabic houses where he was born – and that is now gone. The mosque next to the house he was born in is still there though. Of course, it has been updated and expanded since, and so on. But the footprint of its life is still there as the city has grown around it. I feel a real affection for it as a place.
N.A.C.: Regarding the curatorial project itself, what was the most surprising and/or inspiring moment as this experience is reaching its culmination with the opening in Venice?
M.A.: I think that one of the things Mohamed has not done a lot of is to make large-scale artworks. He is making something new, and large-scale. The moment of breakthrough, of truly envisioning a large single work for the space, was very exciting. You could really feel the life coming into the work.
That was one moment, and the second one was the product of looking at many of his works over the years and starting to see connections across decades that were quite beautiful, a resonance among certain forms that reappear throughout his work on a large-scale and on a small-scale. I started discovering the patterns of his practice that you can only really see when you start to zoom out and see the whole body of work together. There was a moment where I was organizing the images for the book and I decided to put an image from a piece from 2009. In it, he is in Dijon, France, conducting a performance in which he is walking and clearing the leaves from a patch of grass. The way he is walking back and forth creates a line in the grass. He also made an artwork in 2018 for the Sharjah Art Foundation: that was a long line made out of charcoal. Both works have similar length, width, and compositional feeling attached to them. He and I would never have made the connection otherwise. I like putting those works together and then realizing that these are actually the same form, a decade apart. They both hold this vibration of his compositional signature.
The moment of breakthrough, of truly envisioning a large single work for the space, was very exciting. You could really feel the life coming into the work.
N.A.C.: Do you think he was also unaware of these connections and he discovered them with you during the process?
M.A.: Yes. Some of them were so obvious that he did not even think about it. For others like these two [the artworks from Dijon and Sharjah], I think he was not consciously trying to draw parallels. He often says “when I am making work, I am not consciously making something about something else. I discover in retrospect that there is a connection to either the past work or to my past, my life history.” There is a number of cases like that because he really trusts his process and he does not question it. And then when it comes out the other side, he realizes that he has created something that is related to other elements.
N.A.C.: How did you grapple with his impact on the UAE art scene while doing all the research for the show? He is a major figure.
M.A.: I know that a lot of people admire both his work and his kind of effervescent energy. He is perceived as very warm and friendly man, full of humor, who likes to have a good laugh. In Munira Al-Sayegh’s essay, she writes about learning to see the landscape from him in a way that she never had before – through his eyes as an artist, but also through learning more about the history of the UAE’s art scene. There is also another photographer, who has moved here recently and has been following Mohamed on Instagram. He loves Mohamed’s work. I think that he [Mohamed] attracts a lot of people that admire his independent spirit in some kind of motorcycle-riding way: he has a free-spirit energy. But it has not always been an easy road. Mohamed made a decision in the 1980s that he was going to not worry about what other people think about his work and really create art for its own sake. From that decision, he finds people who connect with him. He trusts the work to speak for him in a way. He might say, for example, “It’s fine if only five people like my work because those will be the five people that I want to talk to.” That decision meant a lot in that era. There was a long period of time when people that did not necessarily like his work. I am sure that is still true today, but the momentum has been increasingly positive with more and more people responding to his work.
I know that a lot of people admire both his work and his kind of effervescent energy. Mohamed made a decision in the 1980s that he was going to not worry about what other people think about his work and really create art for its own sake.
6. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset” publication poster. Image courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia.
Express Interview: Tala Nassar
Post-opening, I thought I would ask Tala Nassar, recent NYU Abu Dhabi graduate and former David Webb Museum Fellow at the NYUAD Art Gallery, about her experience assiting the curatorial team of the UAE National Pavilion. Below are her reflections on her experiences and outlooks on Venice, the UAE art ecosystem, and her advice for young emerging curators.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto: You are a young curator who embarked on this great project with the UAE National Pavilion. First of all, how does it feel to be involved with such an exhibition and what were your expectations going through all of that?
Tala Nassar: I consider myself highly privileged to have been involved in the UAE National Pavilion exhibition. The UAE National Pavilion does not just present exhibitions but tells the history of art in the UAE and paves the way for the study of art in the region. It explores untold stories and allows practicing artists the international platform to present their works.
Before this exhibition, I had never been to the Venice Biennale, so I did not know what to expect. I knew we were given a unique opportunity to tell an important story, so I approached this project with great care and a sense of responsibility.
N.A.C.: What did it mean to you to be part of this curatorial project, compared to your previous experiences/exhibitions/events at the NYUAD Art Gallery? How did it feel to see your name up on the wall text of the UAE Pavilion?
T.N.: We were creating an exhibition for a large-scale international audience. People flock every year from all over the world to attend this event. We were giving artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim the recognition he deserved. I am proud to have been a part of this opportunity and felt an immense joy when I saw my name on the wall text of the UAE Pavilion.
N.A.C.: Maya mentioned in her GAD interview that ‘there was no mystery that [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim] would be ready for the Biennale’. What was your relationship with the artist and how did you approach his art for the exhibition? For instance, did it make you feel more connected to the UAE art ecosystem than before?
T.N.: My first introduction to the UAE art ecosystem was in 2018 when I served as a curatorial research assistant to Maya Allison on the Cultural Foundation opening exhibition, titled Artists and the Cultural Foundation: The Early Years. This opportunity gave me a taste of the rich history of the UAE's early generations of practicing artists. The UAE National Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale allowed us to take one focal point of this vast history and expand on it. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim is integral to the UAE's avant-garde scene and has undoubtedly been ready for the Biennale.
For the Venice Biennale, I visited the artist's studio and went through boxes of archives with him to learn about his practice as an individual and as part of a group. We worked together for several months, and while I still have much more to learn, I feel more connected to the UAE art ecosystem today than I did before.
N.A.C.: How did you feel at the opening of the Biennale? What was your experience of such a big event in Venice?
T.N.: I remember walking down the streets of Venice and running into members of the UAE art community at every corner. Everyone was there for one reason: to experience art and to support the UAE National Pavilion exhibition. It felt surreal to experience the support of this community in Venice and to see the reactions of everyone who came in to experience Mohamed's artwork.
I remember walking down the streets of Venice and running into members of the UAE art community at every corner.
N.A.C.: You have been working at the NYUAD Art Gallery for a few years now and I can’t believe that we started almost together there. Looking back, how do you feel the Gallery shaped your curatorial practice and thinking?
T.N.:You are right! I recall working together as front desk receivers for the very first time in February of 2018.
I started at The Art Gallery as a Student Assistant before moving on to become the inaugural David Webb Museum Fellow. I then became Curatorial Assistant on the UAE National Pavilion to the Venice Biennale and Editorial Assistant on the accompanying publication. Now, many years later, I am about to transition to a new title at The Art Gallery as Associate Manager of Curatorial Projects.
The Art Gallery is shaped by its extraordinary team of museum experts. Our small-team structure allows me to delve into different roles and learn from other departments in a manner that would not be possible in large-scale museums. I have learned the importance of telling stories through art and the art of curating for an audience.
The [NYUAD] Art Gallery is shaped by its extraordinary team of museum experts.
N.A.C.: Maya acknowledged how quickly the artistic and cultural scene changed since the opening of the NYUAD Art Gallery. You experienced part of those changes as an art student and then as a gallery professional: what are the moments that you think most impacted your practice? How did these changes affect you?
T.N.: Since I joined NYUAD in 2015, the UAE art scene has grown immensely, and I feel like I am witnessing a new generation of art practitioners, of which you and I are a part, who are working towards a more inclusive UAE art community. It is continually growing and embracing local artistic talent within our own contexts and cultural narratives.
N.A.C.: Looking ahead, where do you see yourself in the future and how will the UAE remain with you?
T.N.: In the near future, I look forward to pursuing a master’s in the study of art. I hope to follow in the footsteps of those who mentored me, including Executive Director of The Art Gallery Maya Allison and pioneering art historian Salwa Mikdadi. I believe in empowering narratives of art through storytelling and curating. I have spent eight fruitful years of my life in the UAE and will always carry it with me as an art historian, curator, and person.
I have spent eight fruitful years of my life in the UAE and will always carry it with me as an art historian, curator, and person.
N.A.C.: Now the same last question I asked Maya but from your perspective: do you have any advice for any young and/or emerging curator or artist?
T.N.: Go out and connect with your local community. Do not just rely on the internet to experience art. Take advantage of the many opportunities that you have around you, and if you feel like they are lacking, create those opportunities for yourself. Trust your power to tell a story, and allow yourself to experiment and fail. There is no right way to practice or experience art but to continue doing so.
N.A.C.: I am sure many young art-goers out there will take advantage of your words. Thank you so much.
Do not just rely on the internet to experience art.
Do not just rely on the internet to experience art.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, he was conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy as a Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. Niccolò previously worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.
The Pop(Corn) interviews is an recurring series of interviews with artists, curators, and creative practitioners for each GAD’s E-Issues. We focus on who is emerging in a city, and what is currently popping up in their head. Previous Pop(Corn) have included Hashel Al Lamki, Zeid Jaouni, Nimyu, and Refik Anadol.