The artists exploring nationhood in a globalised world

Joining Vision in London for Shubbak Festival, Hammad Nasar, curator of the National Pavilion UAE, explores the role of nationality in a country with over 85 per cent foreign nationals 

“Art has a wonderful capacity to be many things at once,” said Hammad Nasar during the opening weekend of London's largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture. “It can be everything from political urgency to philosophical inquiry.”

During times of uncertainty, artists have a unique platform to explore some of the most pressing questions of our time, and engage the masses in personal and political discussion, he said at Shubbak Festival’s Survival of the Artist conference, hosted at the British Museum in collaboration with The Mosaic Rooms.

Hammad Nasar
Hammad Nasar, curator of the National Pavilion UAE, spoke at Shubbak Festival earlier this month

As a curator for the UAE’s national pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale, Nasar is well-versed in exploring and selecting the works of dynamic, nuanced artists tackling difficult subjects. Venice Biennale exhibitor Vikram Divecha even told Vision that “the politician is the quintessential artist”, such is his or her ability to “disrupt, sway, scheme and construct like no other.”

For Nasar, the 57th Venice Biennale, taking place until 26 November, comes at a particularly significant moment in history. With a rapid surge in globalisation in recent years and an increasingly complex state of international politics, a series of pressing questions have emerged, he says.

Shubbak, bringing Arabic artists, music and events together in front of a Western audience, proved a meaningful backdrop to discuss the complexities of both protecting and elevating local culture to a global audience in Nasar’s own work.

Ultimately, he says, geographical barriers were not given credence in creating the UAE Pavilion and its theme of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play’, which attempts to explore the subjective idea of nationhood.

“We too often think of ‘home’ or ‘nation’ as being defined by passports and ethnicity, but ‘home’ and ‘nation’ are both cultural constructs. Home is the food we eat, the stories we share, the songs we sing and the games we play,” he says.

“For the UAE, with such a high percentage of the population not being citizens, [the theme] creates an interesting challenge on how to negotiate the terms of such belonging.”

To explore this central idea, Nasar chose to work with “artists who call the UAE home, whatever their passports.” By exhibiting works from the likes of Beirut-born, Mumbai-raised Vikram Divecha alongside those of Emirati-raised artists like Nujoom Alghanem, Nasar aims to present “a closer and more accurate picture of the diverse and lively art scene in the UAE,” a depiction that he feels is far more accurate than any “flag-waving type of national representation.”

The exhibitions themselves also explore these ideas. One of Divecha’s installations, for example, saw tiles transported from Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi neighbourhood to Venice for the Biennale, and through its installation, explored the bureaucracies and personalities of the two cities – a distinctly contemporary exploration of complex modern-day spaces.

As modern as much of the work is in its examination of nationhood, however, Nasar notes that all artists are also “in critical dialogue with the past,” often exploring and revisiting the UAE’s rich heritage. Nasar says: “Nujoom Alghanem’s work as a poet, and the influence of literature in general, is one such example; Dr. Mohamed Yousif’s dual roles in visual arts and theatre is another.”

Vikram Divecha National Pavilion UAE art
Vikram Divecha's work at the National Pavilion UAE explores the politics of space

It is this very balance between contemporary, flexible explorations of nationhood, shaped by the UAE’s multiculturalism, and a rich artistic heritage, that make the UAE a global cultural centre.

“Between Abu Dhabi’s museums in the making; the thriving gallery sector in Dubai, centred in Alserkal Avenue and internationalised through Art Dubai; and important institutions… the UAE is already a major art hub,” says Nasar.

“This will only grow as more foundations, non-profits, commercial ventures and educational institutions grow around this core of anchor institutions and initiatives, for example the expanding arts programme of the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, or the ambitious plans of Art Jameel.”

This thriving sector is only set to expand, says the curator, as the UAE may join the ranks of New York, Paris, and London in becoming a critical art space.

Unique to the Emirates, however, is its position between East and West, its “energy and vitality” that invites visitors and professionals from all over the world to spend time there. As Nasar puts it: “[The UAE] serves as a place of possibilities for artists from the wider region: from Egypt to Pakistan to India to Iran to Saudi Arabia.”