I happened to spend a couple of months in Ramallah in 2016, accompanying my wife, who was curating the Qattan Foundation’s Yaya young artists of the year award. It was a good opportunity to do a piece for the FT on the cultural landscape in Ramallah and the Palestinian territories, which Qattan more or less happens to dominate. It’s about philanthropy and also about encouraging culture under adverse circumstances.
Mid-East art in Venice dwells on conflicts present and past
Palestinian cardboard boxes taking over the garden of the Venice art school at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi’s Otherwise Occupied. Palestine is participating with a collateral event and not as a country. Deebi, whose film is showing inside the building said:
“The contemporary moment is a disaster but it’s exciting for creative practice”
Deebi’s work takes a deeper intellectual look at the conflict while Makhoul’s installations works on a more emotional level and is fun too: visitors can add to the jumble occupying the garden with a box of their own design. The work also reflects the idea that even the occupation is temporary, said Makhoul.
Iraq is very much preoccupied with its own recent past and with the effect that it is still having on the present. In May alone more than 1000 people were killed in renewed violence.
In Saddam is Here, Jamal Penjweny does the once unthinkable and places the image of the now executed dictator in a series of places where he would have been highly unlikely to appear. A reference possibly to the American hunt for Saddam. Or to the idea that Saddam is still very much present in Iraq, at least his violent spirit?
The rest of the pavilion is very much focused on daily life in Iraq and its hardships, a lot of materials re-purposed and ersatz rugs. Plus some very funny but very dark cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir.
To stay in the same neighbourhood, Iran’s cheap mullah’s are not funding a national pavilion but an Iranian curated the show Love me, Love me not, in which several Iranians participated. It’s not hard to see what’s on their mind:
But in case it is actually hard to see, this is oil streaming down a gold pyramid named ‘Mother of Nation’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi. I swear I saw a nuclear power sign glimmer through from the inside.
And then, purely for fun if you ask me, Farhad Moshiri’s magazine covers printed on mini rugs:
(Update: I overlooked the rugs with holes in, um, strategic places apparently referencing censorship. My bad.)
Getting back to the focus on the past, Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari deserves a prize for the greatest WTF? factor. Many a Lebanese did a double take upon walking into their country’s pavilion and hearing Hebrew. Relax, it was part of a documentary near the end of the very handsomely produced Letter to a Refusing Pilot. Here’s a screenshot of an explosion in the water, presumably off Sidon:
The idea harks back to Israel’s 1982 assault on Lebanon during which an Israeli pilot refused to target a school in Zaatari’s home town and dropped his bombs in the sea (another pilot did not have such qualms a bit later on). The pilot is oddly absent from most of the piece but Zaatari is not, he keeps reliving his and his country’s violent past.
Not much conflict or much of anything else really at the Egypt, UAE, and Kuwait pavilions. Syria’s was way too far to bother with (maybe isolated on purpose? containment?)(One more update: A, uhm, progressive British major newspaper source defined the Syrian pavilion as, and I paraphrase, Aaaaaaarggghhhh). And conflict was only conspicuous by its absence at the Bahrain effort. Instead we got a woman in Abaya with fish!
Finally, Saudi Arabian art was present as a collateral event organised by its Edge of Arabia promoters. There was conflict there, gangs, in its Takki Cinema of Arabia project. I could say something but will gracefully refrain.