UAE art in Venice

As the UAE makes its debut appearance at The Venice Biennale this week, we talk to curator Tirdad Zolghadr


What were you trying to convey about the UAE through this show?
On the one hand it’s trying to present some good art and artists from the UAE without making a claim about the country as a whole. We’re making Emirati photographer Lamya Gargash centrestage. Then there are three artists as part of a showcase: Tarek Al Ghoussein, Hassan Sherif and Huda Saeed Saif [with a space designed by Traffic]. But it’s also going to try and speak about the UAE through the theme of World Fairs, about exhibition-making in a place like Venice Biennale and why national pavilions are still around.

What do you mean by World Fairs? Is Dubai and the UAE itself like a sort of World Fair?
I can see why you say that, especially the malls that explicitly play on that idea, but I was more interested in what we see at the Biennale. When Venice Biennale kicked off in the late 19th century, if you said show or exhibition to somebody then the Biennale was exactly what popped up in people’s minds. It was the dominant mode of exhibition-making at the time and that’s why the Biennale looks the way it does today. That’s why there are those awkward national pavilions standing around, and all these nations vying to present their artists in them.

But aren’t World Fairs a little outmoded nowadays as we become more globalised?
That’s true, but if you only look at that side of the equation then you’re making it all too easy for yourself. The art world loves to see itself as very cosmopolitan and transcending national boundaries. But the fact is that the country you are from greatly determines your career – the passport you hold, the languages you speak, the cultural cache of your country. Then the hands-on side, how does your country fund the arts? At the end of the day it’s not a coincidence that certain countries have a really old tradition of being cutting-edge in art.

You’ve put Lamya Gargash centre-stage, who is known for her Presence series exploring abandoned homes in the UAE. Why the focus on her?
The pavilions that have these huge listings of artists kind of misunderstand how representation should happen in art. People shouldn’t have the impression that they’re getting a buffet of local turf, a little bit of everything. It should be highlighted that there’s a curatorial selection, that this is one curator with a particular agenda and a particular taste.

How have the works turned out that she’s created for this?
I was relieved and happy. The series [titled Familial] stands up on its own and yet builds bridges to whole concept of this pavilion. It deals with national representation because Lamya has photographed one-star hotels around the country, it deals with hospitality, which is a big deal when it comes to concepts of self-representation. The fact that they are one-star hotels turns the habitual image of the country on its head. It’s a bit tongue in cheek, I think.

When you were approached to do this, did you think the UAE was ready to be in the Venice Biennale?
I was very confident. I’d worked in the country before, when I was involved with the Sharjah Biennial, and I knew there was a good handful of artists that I wanted to work with. People were wondering why it hadn’t happened sooner. The advantage of it happening now is the timing. Daniel Barenboim is curator for the Venice Biennale this year and he’s afforded the UAE a huge hanger-sized space in the centre of the Biennale.

The show has been given the title It’s Not You It’s Me. What’s that about?
It’s trying to be funny, but no one gets it. It’s a cliché when you’re breaking up with somebody. It’s always said in bad faith, to wriggle out of a bad situation. “It’s not you who’s the problem it’s me. I have to learn to love myself before I can love someone else,” and so on. Really, you’re saying you are the problem. As people go through the show will they think it’s not the show that’s the problem, it’s the audience? Or will they think it’s not the curator, but the artist? This back-and-forth reflects quite humorously the situation of the UAE being smack bang in the middle of the Venice Biennale. People wondering, where did these guys come from?

On the one hand, they may expect the UAE to be apologetic about being there, but the UAE is being civilised about it. We’re saying, we’re going to be part of the arts panorama for a while and you better get used to it.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer based in Germany. Venice Biennale runs from June 7-November 22. For more info on the pavilion go to

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