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
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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”


Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

Twenty-five years later, director Jon Favreau has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. (Supplied)
Updated 18 July 2019
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Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

  • Jon Favreau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner discuss Disney’s latest blockbuster remake.
  • ‘We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being,’ says Favreau.

DUBAI: There are few movies as resonant as Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King.” From its beautiful animation and memorable songs by Hans Zimmer and Elton John to its devastating emotional punch, the film has become a touchstone for an entire generation, one of the few films that unite nearly every person who has seen it across the world.

Now, 25 years later, director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. Sitting in London, the first thing Favreau asks Arab News is whether we were part of the “Lion King” generation, and we were, mentioning to Favreau just how expansive the film still feels to us.

 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Director and Producer Jon Favreau and Donald Glover attend the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood. (AFP)

“That’s part of the challenge here! We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being. We would watch it next to one another and there’s certain sequences that hold up incredibly well that we tried to follow shot-for-shot like (the opening sequence) ‘Circle of Life,’ but there’s other areas where we had the opportunity to update it and make it feel a bit more grounded in reality,” Favreau tells Arab News.

Remaking it for a new generation seems obvious, but — to borrow from another Disney classic — it was a Herculean task for Favreau and the huge animation team that supported him. This version remains fully animated, but uses cutting-edge technology to make the entire film photo-realistic. The characters, story, and songs remain, but the film looks more like a David Attenborough nature documentary than an animated movie.

It wasn’t just the technology that proved challenging, either. Making sure that audiences still connect with these beloved characters without the expressiveness of classic Disney animation was something that gave Favreau pause.

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“I worked on ‘Jungle Book,’ so I had some experience in this area,” he says. “Pretty early on, we got to try some different things and when you go to human, you think it would make you feel more but it really feels kind of bizarre, at least to me. I was limited if we were to go photo-real. If you go stylized like Pixar it’s great, you can do whatever you want. If we go ‘Madagascar’ you can make them stick their tongues out. The minute you start hitting photorealism, you hit the uncanny valley when you push the performances beyond what the real animal could do. Part of what makes it look so real is we limited what we allowed the animators to do.”

To be sure that audiences would connect with the characters, Favreau relied a lot on the voices that supported them, bringing in an all-star cast including Beyoncé as Nala, Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa.

“If you look at a character like Pumbaa, to me he’s the most fun example, because when people saw pictures of Pumbaa they were like, ‘Oh my god! That’s horrifying! That thing looks like a monster!’ But when you watch the movie and you hear Seth Rogen’s voice coming out of it and the way the animators animated his body and what the character represents and feels, you have a tremendous connection to it. It’s a testament to the power of using techniques that we borrowed from documentaries or other films, where we limit ourselves to not anthropomorphize the characters,” says Favreau.

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Eichner and Rogen both tried to remain true to the characters, but also stay true to themselves. “My idea from the beginning was that Jon cast us for a reason,” says Eichner. “He could have cast pretty much any actors. Anyone would have killed to do these roles and be in this movie. It wasn’t the right time to try a new persona. It would have been very strange had I all of a sudden had a deep resonant baritone. I figured he wants Seth to sound like Seth and me to sound like me — or at least what our public comic personas sound-like — and hopefully they’ll complement each other, which they did. Our goal was not to try a new character but to be as funny as possible together.”

As funny as Rogen and Eichner are in the film, it is still aimed firmly at kids — something Rogen hadn’t really considered prior.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen at the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood . (AFP)

“It wasn’t something that even occurred to me until we were making the movie and I was performing the bully scene,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is for kids!’ I have never done anything that was ever trying to instill any wisdom into kids in any way shape or form.”

The film’s wisdom, like the original, is far-reaching, exploring truths not only of family and loss, but of the corrupting nature of ambition and power, which Ejiofor explored in his role as Scar.

“Often, when people are obsessed with power and status, they aren’t really worried about what they do with it, they’re just concerned about getting it. It’s not something that’s connected to any kind of nurturing aspect for a community or anybody else. It becomes about the nature of obsession — obsession with power and status, and maybe status more than power, even though they are related,” says Ejiofor. “That’s one of the things that’s engaging and fun about the film and its themes.”