Back in the frame

The UAE pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale will showcase the works of an influential but little-known UAE art collective, writes Arsalan Mohammad

The Director of the Sharjah Biennial, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, has spent the past few years establishing herself as a global heavyweight. She has transformed the Sharjah Biennial into a cultural powerhouse, inviting a crack team of elite artists to contribute every two years. She is an ambassador for the UAE’s art scene, an intellectual force for the promotion of new ideas, new forms of creativity and expression.

This year, Sheikha Hoor is directing the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Venice is probably the biggest art jamboree on the global calendar. A presence here indicates that you are an important force on the global art stage. The UAE’s pavilion, which debuted in Venice’s Arsenale back in 2009, has evolved over three iterations of the biennale to become a very credible noise indeed.

Al-Qasimi appears to be pushing for a deeper understanding of the UAE’s art scene via this fascinating insight into the UAE’s nascent art world of the 1980s

In 2013, New York-based curator Reem Fadda curated Directions 2005/2013, a solo presentation by Emirati conceptual artist Mohammed Kazem. Kazem’s installation was a technical marvel, a 360-degree film panorama of a moving seascape fixed with navigational coordinates. It was an impressive feat of technology, scale and science, articulating something gentle and touching, the artist’s sense of nostalgia, childhood and identity as the son of the rapidly growing city of Dubai.

For 2015, Kazem is back with 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Qasimi’s planned pavilion commemorating the hitherto unsung figures who were making art in the UAE during the transformational 1980s. The focus is on the Emirates Fine Arts Society, a crucible of creativity established in 1980 to corral a diverse scattering of figures across the country, many of whom had studied abroad and returned to the relatively young contemporary art scene of the Emirates. As this band of like-minded pioneers began to work in concert, pooling ideas and inspiration, a new generation of artists emerged.

Ahmed Al Ansari
Ahmed Al Ansari, recognised as a pioneer of fine art movement in the UAE, lives and works in Sharjah

Al-Qasimi, who took over the directorship of the Sharjah Biennial in 2003, has assembled a list of names gleaned through extensive research into that scene. Al-Qasimi appears to be pushing for a deeper understanding of the UAE’s art scene via this fascinating insight into the UAE’s nascent art world of the 1980s.

Long before Western-style contemporary art came to the region, this was the quietly flourishing cultural identity of the nation. Some would argue the proliferation of activity in recent years has relegated the groundbreaking progress made by these creatives into obscurity. By highlighting their work and lives at the world’s biggest art gathering, Al-Qasimi will demonstrate a hidden depth and dynamism to the city’s cultural past and provide a meaningful context for what is happening now.

The 56th Venice Biennale takes place from 9 May to 22 November 2015