Dubai’s architectural starlets light up Venice

Vision talks to the talented National Pavilion UAE interns managing the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia in Venice

Venice, its snaking canal snugly encasing mysterious beauties such as the gilded cathedral of Saint Mark's Basilica, gothic Doge's Palace and the iconic 1600's church Santa Maria della Salute, is an unmistakable architectural wonderland.  

They say no man is an island, but the fact that the National Pavilion UAE has sent 28 interns armed with sketchbooks, charcoals and paintbrushes to the city in the Northern region of Veneto that is built on 100 small islands in the Adriatic Sea, enhances the stereotypical portrait of the artist as a solitary, creative figure.

Pavilion interns
The National Pavilion UAE internship programme aims to create a legacy of artists

The only glitch with this romanticised image is the highly collaborative nature of the specialised internship that these young Emiratis and long-term residents of the UAE have embarked upon: to live and work in Venice as exhibition managers at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, considered by many to be the most prominent of exhibitions for contemporary art, architecture and film.

The National Pavilion was established to endorse the UAE’s contemporary practices on an international platform and provide a foundation to support the nation’s diverse and developing cultural scene. Its internship programme aims to create a legacy of skilled art practitioners in the UAE equipped to take the national contemporary art and cultural scene boldly into the future.

Vision talks to past and present interns about what they have learned taking part in the prestigious event.

Nasser

I keep all these notes, drawings, and observations in a sketchbook that I carry around. In a sense the city became my muse

Nasser Al Zayani, 2014 intern

Nasser Al Zayani interned in 2014, at the UAE’s first exhibition for the Architecture Exhibition at the Biennale

Where does your love of arts and architecture stem from?

I have always been asked this question, and for a long time I didn’t know exactly what the answer was and would tell people “I just always liked buildings” or “I’ve been drawing since I was a child”. But recently I have come to realise that, more than anything, I always appreciated how things come together and observing certain places, people, art, and architecture. I like to look and listen.

Is there a particular piece of art that is special to you?

My interests have always changed. Observational drawing is the basis of most of my work, but recently I have been exploring sculpture, video, and mixed media – even performance. I really admire artists, designers and architects who can do many things, especially those who blur the line between an artist and a designer. For the past two weeks I have been obsessed with South African artist William Kentridge, and I am actually going to go see a mural he recently completed in Rome this summer. He is someone whose work has, like me, always been drawing-based yet it has developed into performances, animations, murals, videos, and sculpture.

What was driving you to apply for the Venice Internship program? 

More than anything, I would say it was the opportunity to travel. Of course, the experience of meeting local artists and architects and learning about their research is extremely important; however, in my experience travelling, meeting new people, learning about a new culture, and living in a city so very different from where you live is the most inspiring thing an artist or designer can do.

UAE installation
Young Emiratis work in Venice for one month as exhibition managers

What are your dreams and plans for the future?

I am really looking forward to getting a Masters of Fine Arts and pursuing my art career full time within the next five  years. Hopefully I will also have the opportunity to give back to the art community by teaching aspiring artists as well by sharing my own experiences.

What would you design in Dubai if you had the opportunity?

I believe that Dubai does not need new buildings. There are plenty of older ones that can be reused, repurposed, and be transformed to whatever is needed. I wish there was a greater density to the city to promote walking, cycling, and being outdoors.

What are the key lessons you learned in Venice?

Getting to know an artwork in such depth is not commonly available to many artists, unless you spend an extensive amount of time researching it on your own. Learning about the exhibition and then relaying that message to visitors really helped you appreciate it and see other exhibitions from a different perspective.

What did you see in Venice that captured your imagination?

The city. It is something else. After a couple of weeks you can get used to traversing the busy alleys and bridges, but when you stop and focus on what is around you it is truly captivating. I make it a point to learn as much as I can from the place I am in. I keep all these notes, drawings, and observations in a sketchbook that I carry around. Whenever I go back and look through its pages I am transported back to that time, and I can remember details that I had forgotten and memories that have slipped my mind. In a sense the city became my muse.

I became fascinated with portraiture, and its ability to convey identity.

Saif Mhaisen , 2016 intern

Saif Mhaisen is an intern for this year's exhibition. 

Where does your love of arts and architecture stem from?​

In an age of three-dimensional modelling, a high demand for digital office work, and a thriving, automated business of making buildings, I was more interested in emotive charcoal drawings that addressed a human scale, and pen drawings that expressed a haptic, human engagement of their author. After coming across an elective titled "Introduction to Painting", I saw my interests materialise further than I could have imagined. Having found my passion, I changed my focus to painting, and have since been interested in portraying the individuality of others, as well as my own.

Is there a particular piece of art that is special to you?

While studying architecture, I developed an interest in the work of Peter Zumthor, Tadao Ando, Alvar Aalto, and Eero Saarinen, to name a few. I was very interested in the clarity of geometry, the human-scaled tactility of material engagement, and the idea of a larger, personal theoretical framework carrying through the narratives of various projects. The work of these architects influenced the way I think about working in a studio environment, as well as the way I think about architecture and design.

My interest in the history of painting started with the stark, theatrical contrast of the Baroque era. It continued through the Western development of portraiture with the likes of Chuck Close and Lucian Freud. I became fascinated with portraiture, and its ability to convey identity. I found an interest in a subject's identity by viewing a finished painting, and a great sense of an artist's identity by examining his orter process be it systematic and technical, or one based on direct and personal human observation.

Cello
Natural sculptor Mohammed Bulhiah is one of many talented artists at the exhibition

What was driving you to apply for the Venice Internship program? ​

My application to the internship program was driven by my being an artist with a background in architecture. I am a focused, hard-working individual, committed to my interests in art, architecture, and design. I have a curiosity about the current state of my points of interest, and a strong desire to expand my knowledge about them through hands-on experience. I have been looking forward to visiting Italy for the past decade of my life, and to finally visit the country while also achieving the aforementioned intended outcomes will be a life-changing moment in my career.

What are your dreams and plans for the future?

My plans include attaining a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) in Painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. I intend to involve contextual and spatial thinking in the coming stage of my career, and the two-year MFA program is best suited for this. I plan on following that with a return to the UAE, in order to further my investment in my artistic career and the ever-growing artistic community of which I have been a part for several years. I am interested in a career that involves both teaching and a personal studio practice, and I believe the UAE to be an excellent place for this career to unfold.

What would you design in Dubai if you had the opportunity?

I would design my own house and studio, if I could.