Venice Biennale 2017: in conversation with two UAE Pavilion artists

‘A politician is the quintessential artist,’ says Vikram Divecha, one of five UAE exhibitors at the world-renowned Venice Biennale. Vision explores the personal, political and philosophical nature of the work of Divecha and fellow artist Sara Al Haddad in an exclusive Q&A

Beirut-born, Mumbai-raised artist Vikram Divecha, who has collaborated with the likes of municipal gardeners and rock-blasting engineers, and the Dubai-based artist Sara Al Haddad, whose chosen medium is crochet, are among five diverse artists chosen to represent the UAE at the world’s most prestigious art event, the Venice Biennale. 

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play, the exhibition at the National Pavilion UAE during this year’s Venice Biennale, will run from May 13 until November 26. Vision delves into the emotion and execution behind Al Haddad and Divecha’s artistry, exploring the national and global impact of their work.

Sara Al Haddad, fine artist
The crocheted work of exhibiting artist Sara Al Haddad

Sara Al Haddad

Tell us about your experience as a Biennale intern a few years ago – what did you learn and how did it help your career?

Looking back, I realise it’s all about perseverance. When I first interviewed for the National Pavilion of UAE in 2011, I was told to apply again; I was an intern in 2013. Regardless of my interest in art from a young age, choosing art as a full-time career has been about commitment and not forgetting the times things did not work out.

What challenges have you experienced as an emerging arts professional in the UAE, and how did you overcome them?

One of the persisting challenges is lack of artist studio spaces, but I find ways to make things work for myself. I enjoy the quietness and privacy that comes when working alone.

Take us through what you will be exhibiting at the Biennale and how the theme of playfulness comes into your work?

[I will be exhibiting] three crocheted works, two are new commissions and one is a variation of an existing work, arranged differently. I don't think the act of playfulness is particularly new to my work; I think the ability for the forms of the work to change is playful in nature. 

Your work embodies internal struggles. Do you know which emotions you will project before creating a piece, or are you surprised by what comes to the surface from your subconscious?

It starts with a general idea, and as I start working the feelings fluctuate. As the process continues, both the work and the emotion(s) bounce off one another. It is easier for me to speak about my work once it’s complete, where then I am able to reflect on the feelings: how and where it started from and why it resolved in its physical form. 

At this stage of my career, I look at each work as homage commemorating a time and place.

How does translating your feelings to art give you more inner strength?

I started by making works to release built up emotion; not only has it helped me better understand my own feelings; it is a process of learning how to love myself.

Why is it so important to work with textures and materials such as crochet and embroidery rather than digital technology?

I like the tactility of textures—knots and uneven loops—things that might often be looked at as a mistake. I don’t think of my feelings as calculated moves, they are fluid and go through their own stages of change. I find outcomes of digital technology as intentional deliberations, a process that does not align with the fluctuation of my feelings.

What collective message does this year’s group of artists project about the UAE?

Personally, I believe it reflects the current local art scene in the UAE, particularly Dubai. It reflects the more established, upcoming, emerging and current artists and places them in one space. Hopefully this will offer a retrospective of the when and where, the was and is of the art scene in the UAE, for the biennale’s visitors.

Vikram Divecha, fine artist and filmmaker
Vikram Divecha will be exhibiting both a film and an installation at the Biennale

Vikram Divecha

Take us through what you will be exhibiting at the Biennale and how the theme of playfulness comes into your work?

I will be exhibiting two works. The first is a site-specific installation I had created for the Sikka art Fair at the Al Fahidi historic neighbourhood. Degenerative Disarrangement (2013) involved pavement bricks with yellow lines that were uprooted from a bus stand in Dubai and rearranged in a courtyard. The patterns got scrambled as I put a time constraint on the mason installing them. Forgotten for almost five years, these bricks, amounting to 4 tonnes, were recently uninstalled from the courtyard and shipped to Venice for the exhibit – in the process they hopefully will accrue value, after circulating in the international circuit. The second work, Bathing Boulders (2017) is a silent video where large boulders with holes are being washed. Filmed during maintenance of an earlier large-scale installation Boulder Plot (2014), this is a meditative piece on the ritual of cleansing.

My practice sees me constantly negotiate with the city, its institutions and municipal offices to introduce interventions and glitches. The city as a site for improvisation is how I would think about my work, which finds place in Hammad Nasar’s curatorial theme for the pavilion.

How and where is this playfulness nurtured in Dubai’s art scene?

More than the art scene I am interested in how Dubai and the UAE are home to so many informal economies. You can’t exactly pin them as unregulated sectors, but they can be quite porous and open if you want them to be. I would argue that in a similar vein the new generation of artists have been given leeway to experiment as the art sector booms - there are gaps wide enough to be called a playing field. It’s up to the artists to spot them and turn them around.

What collective message does this year’s group of artists project about the UAE?

I am thinking about overlaps and intersections seen on Venn diagrams. Exchange, encounter and cross-cultural influence are part of the UAE landscape. As a long term resident of the UAE, I feel it is about time this disposition is given a nod on an international platform.

How have Beirut and Mumbai influenced and shaped your artistic style?

Immensely. Both are difficult cities. Both are aging and exhausted and concentrated and demand vigour. The questions of survival, value, commerce and abrasive texture in my practice stem from my upbringing in these cities. My impetus to go out of the studio and confront a city’s operations, its bureaucratic structures, its maintenance communities, and its myriad details, is very much triggered by my upbringing. The materiality of a metropolis is something I was always been working through, while growing up. Possibly now, I navigate it with an aesthetic impulse.

Why is art the best medium to investigate and disrupt social constructs? Why not politics or writing?

Before I answer that, a politician is the quintessential artist for me. They can disrupt, sway, scheme and construct like no other. They hold centre stage, are the sculptural effigy and their body is the most implicated public artwork. We have seen this time and again, and dare I say, not so recently. It is difficult for an artwork to accrue all of this in the public consciousness or even within an art world audience, as much as someone elected or in the running. Maybe this is not an answer to your above question but there is a lot of politics in art, but there are not enough politicians. One of my struggles is how much do the disruptions I attempt as an artist actually matter?

What challenges have you experienced as an emerging arts professional in the UAE, and how did you overcome them?

I have been interested in working with municipal bodies and urban operations. I have failed and overcome these hurdles with the same medium - conversations. Overtime I have found intersections and formal relationships between the local institutions that commission me and municipal bodies, which allow me access to work within urban operations.