Abdullah Al Saadi’s Venice Biennale exhibition

The National Pavilion UAE has detailed its exhibit at this year’s Venice Biennale. It’s titled Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia, and comprises eight artworks by Abdullah Al Saadi.

We were enthusiastic about the choice of Abdullah Al Saadi (in his studio, above) when he was named last September as the UAE’s Biennale artist. He ticks several boxes – a serious artist with a growing international reputation, one of the pioneering Five conceptual artists who inspired the development of post-modernism in the UAE (along with Hassan and Hussain Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim), an artist whose commitment to landscape and memory suits his unstated role as an art-world ambassador for the country and also fits the post-Cop narrative of ecological concerns.

As Laila Binbrek, the National Pavilion UAE’s director, put it: “Through this exhibition, the National Pavilion UAE highlights a member of the UAE’s remarkable community of well-established conceptual artists as we continue our commitment to reveal the untold stories of the UAE.”

Abdullah Al Saadi, Box 26. Photo: Roman Mensing

The exhibition also sounds like a celebration of his process. We’re told it is based on “chronicled journeys into the wilderness” with a creative process that echoes the practices of classical Arab poets centuries ago – Al Saadi starts to draw, paint, or write during his journeys once he feels immersed in nature; the poets cited the same kind of immersion as a prerequisite for their own compositions.

“I always like to travel alone,” says Al Saadi, “with the company of a specific book, music, animal friends, or means of transportation. The presence of these travel companions has a significant impact on my artworks, as they accompany me during my exploration of the land and humankind’s place in it.”

The curator is Tarek Abou El Fetouh, currently Senior Curator and Director of the Performance Department of Sharjah Art Foundation. He said he was pleased to be working with Abdullah again, not least “to show the persistent and diligent work he has been engaged in for over 40 years”, and described the exhibition as performative – “summoning the atmosphere of Abdullah’s studio in a re-enactment of his rituals of archiving and showing his work to visitors.”

So the exhibition, the design of which is directly inspired by Al Saadi’s artworks, will have visitors discovering Al Saadi’s singular world via both displayed pieces and others hidden in metal chests – maps, stones, scrolls, and drawings that Al Saadi produced during his journeys and that he numbered, dated, and coded as if creating and preserving a collective memory for the future. A selection of the hidden artworks will be revealed by performers who will be constantly in the space.

The result, said the UAE minister of culture Sheikh Salem bin Khalid Al Qassimi, should be “a thought-provoking exhibition inspiring global dialogue about contemporary issues”.

The 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia opens to the public on 20 April and runs to 24 November. The National Pavilion UAE, which is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the Ministry of Culture, has a permanent pavilion at the Sale d’Armi in the Arsenale.

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