ABU DHABI // The UAE will showcase its most talented artists this year in Italy at the renowned international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale. It will be the first time a Gulf country has had a presence at the event. "It's so important the UAE participates in this," said Lamya Gargash, one of the participating artists. "There're lots of creative people here, and this is our chance to say something. We can change the way the world looks at us."
A photographer based in Dubai, Ms Gargash likes to shoot portraits and explore architectural themes. She works regularly with the Third Line Gallery, where she recently exhibited. "Artists in the UAE aren't limited in terms of subject, but in resources," she observed. "There is an interest in art here, there is, but the way it is supported it's a little chaotic right now." Inaugurated in 1895 and held every two years, the Venice Biennale is considered by many to be one of the top contemporary art shows in the world. It now includes displays from more than 70 countries and regularly draws about 300,000 visitors. The 2009 event will take place from June 7 to Nov 22.
Tirdad Zolghadr, curator of the UAE pavilion, which at 800 square metres is the largest at the show, hopes to draw attention to questions about how best to develop an arts centre in a city. "The UAE should get some recognition for what is going on within the country," he said. "In the past we've been eclipsed by artists in other countries, but we're discovering our own art scene. But it's been moving at such speeds that it's difficult to judge, to evaluate."
The pavilion is called "It's not you, it's me", a name Mr Zolghadr said he hoped would be interpreted as equally playful and provocative. "Coming from a new arrival at the Venice Biennale, the title might be interpreted to mean ,'Look, it's the UAE's turn now'," he said. "The UAE pavilion will be unapologetic about documenting the nation." Ms Gargash said the Biennale would be an opportunity to debunk a common world view of the UAE as a glamorous, glitzy country with no substance.
"There are so many stereotypes about this region, these people," she said. "This isn't going to be an explanation; we're just going to be honest and introduce ourselves again to the world." Tarek al Ghoussein, 49, will be showing photographs from his self-portrait collection. For him, the exhibition will be as much an opportunity to open the eyes of the international arts community to the UAE as to explore issues of identity and place for Emiratis.
"It's not black and white any more, where you come from and where you represent," he said. "I'm a Kuwaiti citizen but I've lived in the UAE for the last 10 years, and I appreciate, really appreciate, being chosen to go to the Biennale to represent the UAE." Mr Zolghadr, the curator, cautioned against exaggerating the impact of the UAE's participation in the Biennale, saying that development of an arts community in any city or country was a gradual process.
"It's easy to overestimate what arts can do, and the effect is long-term," he said. "With this show, we hope to make a contribution to what's happening in the UAE. But if I said it would forge a national identity, that would be insane. It's a slow contribution to our art scene." Beyond Mr Zolghadr and the artists, a volunteer programme has recruited about 50 young Emiratis, aged 18 and over, to man the pavilion over the six-month run of the exhibition. Financed in part by the Emirates Foundation, student volunteers with an interest in art and architecture will work week-long shifts.
Organisers hope the exposure to another country, and the other cultures and art at the Biennale, will influence the volunteers, broaden their views of the world and affirm a sense of place within it. "We want everyone in the pavilion to be an Emirati national," said Eliza Ilyas, one of the UAE pavilion's organisers. "We want Emiratis to be the ones to explain the exhibition, to talk about their country."