Among the art aficionados thronging Venice for the 55th Biennale will be 18 Emiratis who have won places on a scheme to train them to manage the UAE Pavilion, and advance the national arts scene when they return.
UAE's art ambassadors head to Venice Biennale
In one of the world's most beautiful cities, 18 young Emiratis will bring their own unique touch to its most prestigious art event, each hoping to leave a positive impression of their country.
One will bring a card game that he created. Another intends to stand alongside the street artists, painting with them. A third promises to wow the visitors to the National Pavilion of the UAE at the 55th Venice Biennale by wearing embroidered traditional dress, and a fourth hopes to document the whole trip and experience on film.
Khalid Al Ali, 27, from Umm Al Qawain, is one of the 18 candidates selected from a rigorous nationwide recruitment campaign for the Venice Internship programme. Part of his contribution is a card game he designed and created. Ghatra 'w Sheila is a set of 40 cards with a colour scheme related to the UAE national flag and similar to the American card game Uno. It features characters in traditional dress and a mischievous cat, Catwa, who resembles the Joker in a standard pack of cards.
"It will be the ice breaker. I will sit and play this card game with whoever I meet there," says Khalid, who is going to Venice for the first time.
Khalid, who promotes his creation through the website gamesgate.ae, hopes to find inspiration for a new game that will capture both Italian and UAE culture.
"Games, whether board games or card games, are a kind of art in themselves. As it is entertainment and mind stimulating at the same time," he says.
A creative media and technology graduate, he has written scripts, worked in news and studios, created his own calligraphy and produced short movies in the thriller mystery genre.
"I like adventures, and getting to know people and how they live, their habits and their experiences. I can't wait to go to Venice," he says
Initiated in 2009, the programme helps Emiratis to engage with the culture and art scene, with three months' training here and a month in Italy.
This year its partner is Ca' Foscari University in Venice, which has picked six Italian interns to work alongside the Emirati ones. They will work with the curator of the UAE Pavilion, Reem Fadda, and engage with the featured artist, Mohammed Kazem.
Beginning in May, interns will travel to Venice in rotations of three young men and then three young women, each for a month. Khalid will be going from October to November, the last group to leave.
Adel Al Jabri, 24, from Dubai, is hoping to take some film equipment with him to record his stay.
"It won't be three dudes in an Italian apartment," he laughs. "It will be an artistic film, with a bit of everything so that whoever watches it can get the feel of the place and the programme."
Adel is a programmer and coordinator at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and already has several short films under his belt. One is a comedy about stereotypes about the different types of neighbourhoods, or "freej", and his other interests include "mockumentaries".
"I don't like exaggerated Khaleeji drama," he explains. "I like films that are convincing and real.
"I grew up with the film festival. I don't necessarily care too much about the actors and actress, that is just PR. I care about the industry part of it, the execution and so on, which is very stressful. My hair has started to go grey."
Adel expectes the Biennale to expose him to elements of the film industry and an art scene that is "limitless".
"I am so excited about it. You have no idea. I am in love with Italian culture, I like how they walk, how they talk, their food and everything about them," he says.
"I don't go regularly to art exhibitions, so this trip could be the beginning of something new. I will be Dorothy in the land of Oz, and will go wherever the yellow brick road takes me."
He has one surprise in store for his roommates.
"I will cook for them," he laughs. "My youngest sister, Munira, is teaching me to cook. The only condition I have is for them to pretend they like it."
Mohammed Al Serkal, 24, from Sharjah, worried until the last minute that he that he would not be chosen.
"I didn't fit any of the criteria," explains Mohammed, who works at Shurooq, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority.
"But I have the passion for art and for learning. I am a creative writer, an art lover, and I go to museums. I feel art is my new path in life."
The son of a diplomat, Mohammed feels this is his time to be an ambassador of a different kind.
"I will represent my country and my country's history and stories. I will expose Sharjah's art scene as well," he says. "Venice will challenge me to understand art, culture, responsibility, and how to sit and interact with different people."
As a lover of the Renaissance and 18th and 19th century orientalist art, Mohammed says he will feel right at home in an artistic city such as Venice.
"I will write down everything I see. I will write on our official blog and on Twitter about everything I encounter," he says. Mohammed will also be updating his personal blog on food, Dirtyplate.net, to cast a critical eye over the food and restaurants he tries there.
He is proud of his publishing heritage. His mother's uncle was Ibrahim Al Midfaa, who set up Oman, the first newspaper in the emirates, in 1927, followed in 1933 by another newspaper, Sawt Al Asafeer, which means the sound or voices of birds.
"The world's first Twitter," he laughs. "So I am keeping up a family tradition by writing and posting observations and news."
Visitors to Venice will spot Ghaleya Saeed, 23, from Abu Dhabi, a visual art student at Zayed University, sitting near other street artists, capturing the world around her.
"I am going to draw and draw and draw. I will draw nature, the buildings, the people and how they eat Italian food and hopefully whatever animals happen to come into my view," she says.
"It will be my first Eid away from my family. It will be a challenge but a great experience that I am sure to learn a lot from."
One of the issues she has discussed with the other girls travelling there is what they will wear.
"We can't just walk around in an abaya. There is an impression of the abaya that is a bit negative. We don't want too much attention yet we want to present our culture," she says.
So she and her roommates will wear the mukhawara, a colourful, embroidered traditional dress.
"We will stand at our UAE stand in these and we can then explain the different parts of our dress and leave a colourful impression," she smiles.
Munira Al Sayegh, 23, says if she gets her "good Italian coffee" in the morning, she will be ready for anything,
"I will be having the best coffee in the world. I am very serious about my coffee," she laughs.
After graduating in art history with a special focus on Middle Eastern architecture and art, Munira is working with NYU Abu Dhabi on a culture, identity and heritage project known as Houwi.
"I keep a diary and I translate my writings into paintings," she says. "I will take a special diary with me to Venice, a gift from a friend I got last year that I didn't feel was ready to be written in until this trip came about."
For Mouza Al Matrooshi, 22, an interior design and visual art student from Ajman, the architecture and the design and art of Venice will be her greatest inspiration.
"My parents were initially worried about letting me go alone, but now they are OK with it and even encouraging me to do my best," she says.
As someone who also will be away during Ramadan, Mouza purposely wanted this time away to challenge herself.
" I wanted to live and experience life outside the bubble and support of the family," she said. "After I graduate, I want to pave my own way. The trip to Venice is a step to change my life."
Mouza is experimental in her art, and her latest piece is a street installation for the Sikka art fair in Dubai.
"It is empty benches, reflecting the loss of the practice of putting out benches outside our homes for visitors. Before people were closer, now they are not, they are closed up," she says.
Mouza says everyone should try to take part in such internships.
"It will be a whole new experience, whether good or bad it doesn't matter, it will change a person and add new dimensions to their characters.
"The Venice programme will be unforgettable, I am sure of it."
The other participants are Omar Al Busaidy, Talal Al Ansari, Mohammed Al Ameri, Ahmad Al Areef, Hasan Al Sheikh, Nidal Touma, Alyazia Al Qubaisi, Mariam Al Mazroui, Khawla Darwish, Sara Al Haddad, Hajera Al Hammadi and Tala Worrell.
Ÿ You can follow their journey on Twitter @Ven_Intern_UAE and @UAE_Pavilion_VB; and The Blog, uaepavilion.wordpress.com