Saudi Arabia returns to prestigious Venice Biennale after 8-year absence

Al-Ghamdi's “After Illusion” installation will be displayed in the Saudi pavilion. (Supplied)
Updated 11 May 2019

Saudi Arabia returns to prestigious Venice Biennale after 8-year absence

  • The event has previously displayed the works of Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Marina Abramović
  • Saudi Arabia debuted their architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz in last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale

VENICE: Saudi Arabia is taking part in one of the world’s most prestigious art exhibitions after an eight-year absence.

The Kingdom has made its comeback for the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale that brings together thousands of artists, collectors, critics, curators, journalists, and art enthusiasts from around the globe.

The artist Zahrah Al-Ghamdi. (Supplied) 

Over the years the event has showcased the works of some of the biggest names in art including painters Pablo Picasso and Helen Frankenthaler, sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and conceptual artists Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei.

Often referred to as the “Olympics of the art world,” the exhibition dates back to 1895, and Saudi Arabia first took part in 2011 when Makkah-born sisters and contemporary artists Shadia and Raja Alem collaborated to present “The Black Arch,” a dazzling steel installation based on personal narrative and “the duality between Makkah and Venice.”


The Kingdom enjoyed another debut last year at the Venice Architecture Biennale, when architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz explored the topic of vast, empty spatiality on Saudi land and its effect on the nation’s modern society through their project “Spaces In Between.”

Under the title of “May You Live in Interesting Times,” this year’s biennale is curated by Ralph Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, whose edition reflects the ever-changing current state of world affairs.

“In an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” said Rugoff.

Hosting a total of 90 national pavilions at this year’s event, four other Arabic-speaking countries will be joining Saudi Arabia, namely Egypt, Iraq, Syria and the UAE. In addition, the biennale has expanded its programming by welcoming new participants Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan.

The Venice Biennale opens to the public on May 11 and runs until November 24. Saudi Arabia’s pavilion (located in the Arsenale exhibition venue) will be fronted by Jeddah-based land artist and professor Dr. Zahrah Al-Ghamdi’s “After Illusion” installation, which has been curated by Saudi lecturer and artist Eiman Elgibreen.


Born in the Hijaz city of Al-Baha in 1977, Al-Ghamdi works with natural materials such as sand, clay, and leather to “reflect the memory of past traditional architecture of southwest Saudi Arabia and to explore this memory with emphasis on poetics,” the artist said.

Al-Ghamdi’s debut at the biennale came after her selection by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a government initiative established in 2017 to encourage the arts in the Kingdom. 

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from the world of this event – it was like a dream,” Al-Ghamdi told Arab News.

“In recent years, I worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So, when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream.


“I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing myself but my country and all its artists,” she added.

The other Arab pavilions include a trio of artists – Ahmed Chiha, Ahmed Abel Karim and Islam Abdullah – who are showcasing works inspired by the ancient Egyptian deity Khnum, a figure representing the source of the Nile.

Participating since 2007, Syria’s pavilion is titled “Syrian Civilization Is Still Alive,” and has displays of paintings and photographs by nine Syrian and foreign artists, reflecting on the themes of surrealism and abstraction.

Commissioned by the Ruya Foundation, Iraq’s pavilion presents “Fatherland,” revealing expressive and combative works by the Baghdad-born painter and war artist Serwan Baran.

Meanwhile, poet and filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem has made history by becoming the first woman to have a solo presentation at the Emirati pavilion. Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the pavilion will take the viewer through Al-Ghanem’s site-specific video installation, entitled “Passage.”

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

Updated 22 May 2019

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

  • The director says Cannes is more than just a movie festival
  • Attendees wear color-coded badges, which specify their title and occupation

Film director Hadi Ghandour takes us behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Festival with his revealing diary entries.

Day 1

I am on a train from Paris to Cannes. A middle-aged woman maneuvers her way around my legs and sits beside me. She is on her phone, making sure to loudly telegraph to the entire train that she is attending the festival. “I hope Xavier Dolan doesn’t disappoint me like last time! And can you believe that Alain Delon is being honored? What a travesty!” We are all supposed to be impressed. My festival experience begins before I get there, it is a preview of things to come. I am forced to endure her pontification for the next five hours.

The train arrives on an overcast afternoon. The first thing I do is pick up my badge. Without it you are considered a third-class citizen. I inch past the security blocks that barricade the Croisette like a fortress and make my way to the Grand Palais.

What makes this place so distinctive and often daunting is the sheer amount of stuff going on. It is not only a film festival, but a massive market, an annual industry meet-up, a sprawling seminar, a paparazzi hunting ground, an awards ceremony, and an everlasting party.

Cafes, restaurants and hotel lobbies turn into networking hubs and industry meeting grounds. TV screens that usually broadcast football matches or music videos air live feeds of press conferences and red carpets. Beachfront apartments are transformed into movie company offices, with their logos hanging from the balconies and the harbor morphs into international pavilions for global cinema.

I often find that the most interesting films play at the Director’s Fortnight. It is late in the evening. My friend has snatched up a couple of priority invitations to Robert Eggers’ latest picture “The Lighthouse.”

Envious eyes watch us zip through the interminable line that wraps around the JW Marriott.

I sink into my chair but, within moments, a sense of dread washes over me when I hear the shrill voice from earlier today. It’s the woman from the train. The festival may be larger than life, but it is still a very small place.

“The Lighthouse” is hypnotic, terrifying and has remarkable performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It is guaranteed to give me nightmares later.

Willem Dafoe stars in The Lighthouse. (AFP)

Day 2

I am having a breakfast meeting by the shore. A seagull swoops in and boldly pilfers a piece of bread from the basket. Even the seagulls here are fierce and determined.

 A 50-something gentleman interrupts our conversation and humbly introduces himself as a filmmaker from Saskatchewan who has been in the business for years.

He slides over a heap of DVDs. Films he has written, directed, produced, edited, shot, acted in and composed. He points at one of them, which is enveloped in a half-ripped cover. “This one here is my masterpiece,” he tells me.

Everyone has something to pitch. The whole town is like a never-ending speed date. Shifty eyes dart around mid-conversation. First, they land on your color-coded badge to decipher your title and worth, then swiftly onto the next person.

Ideas float around with the heft of low-hanging clouds over people’s heads. You can almost see them. The movies in competition may be front and center, but the energy is already directed at the future.

I swing by the Marche Du Film, the festival’s film market. Located in the Palais basement, it is a maze of industry booths where deals are negotiated and struck. It is not only the least glamorous part of the festival, but the least glamorous place you could ever visit.

The market begins to suffocate me so I decide to watch a movie, “Lilian” by Andreas Horvath. Waiting in line at this festival is a rite. You must always add an hour and a half to a movie’s running time to gauge your overall time investment.

The sun is setting and the sea is iridescent. A nighttime chill begins to emerge. One of my favorite things to do at the festival is to watch a film on the beach. There is something wonderfully primal and peaceful about it. A bunch of strangers gathered on a sandy shore beneath the moonlight, watching and listening to a story unfold.  A documentary is playing, “Haut Les Filles” by Francois Armanet. Everyone has sunk into their chairs and are wrapped up in blankets to protect them from the gusts of wind. They look so peaceful and vulnerable, a poignant end to the vicissitudes of their day.

A woman checks her phone in the Marche Du Film. (AFP)

Day 3

It is 7:30 a.m. and I make my way to a film screening — “Frankie” by Ira Sachs. On my way there I spot a group of people, one of them is in a wrinkled tuxedo that has lost its respectability. Last night hasn't yet ended for them. 

The film dips me in and out of a light and pleasant sleep, but I somehow suspect this could be its intended effect.

I walk out of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The glare assaults my eyes and brings me back to the real world, which suddenly looks more mundane.

I begin to exit the Grand Palais when I am approached by a festival attendant. She randomly offers me a seat at the press conference for “Young Ahmed,” the latest movie by the Dardennes brothers. Perhaps she liked my countenance, but most likely she needed to fill a few empty seats. 

Things are in overdrive today. It’s the Tarantino film premier and everyone seems to be seeking access to the screening. I overhear a woman pleading for that golden ticket. “My son is diabetic!” she says. What in the world does that have to do with getting a movie ticket?

After lunch, I glance at my watch and realize I’m about to miss my train. I run to the station and just barely make it. 

Three days in Cannes feel like a week. It is a cycle that ebbs and flows between the mad rush of the movie business and the peace and refuge of movie watching. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s all about the movies, so who can really complain?

Quentin Tarantino premiered ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ in Cannes. (AFP)