Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes
Updated 25 May 2018

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes
  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.

 




The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)


Winston Churchill, Angelina Jolie and an $11.5 million painting of Morocco: Exploring the fascinating story behind this week’s biggest art news

Winston Churchill, Angelina Jolie and an $11.5 million painting of Morocco: Exploring the fascinating story behind this week’s biggest art news
Updated 04 March 2021

Winston Churchill, Angelina Jolie and an $11.5 million painting of Morocco: Exploring the fascinating story behind this week’s biggest art news

Winston Churchill, Angelina Jolie and an $11.5 million painting of Morocco: Exploring the fascinating story behind this week’s biggest art news

DUBAI: “Happy are the painters, for they are never alone.”

While many of us could mistake this famous quote for a comment by countless artists, you may be surprised to learn it was said by none other than  Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose passion for painting recently made headlines around the world.

Earlier this week, a painting of Marrakesh by the famed World War Two politician, who died in 1965 at the age of 90, smashed expectations and sold for a staggering $11.5 million at auction in London.

“The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque,” which was owned by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, was painted by Churchill during a wartime visit in 1943.

“The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” was painted by Churchill during a World War II visit in 1943. (AFP)

And while securing the allies victory against Nazi Germany may have been all-consuming, Churchill found snippets of time to pursue his passion for art after realizing his love for painting at 40 years old.

He was first introduced to painting during a family holiday in 1915 after his sudden fall from grace over his role in the disastrous Dardanelles naval campaign against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Churchill, who served as the First Lord of the Admiralty during the campaign, hoped that this new skill would distract him from the ongoing strife engulfing Europe. 

For the artist-cum-politician, who completed an impressive 500 artworks, painting was a hobby; he did to unwind and gifted most of his works to friends. 

And while Churchill painted a varied array of landscapes, from quaint English country scenes to the immense cliffs near Marseilles in France, his depictions of Morocco feature among his most exotic paintings.

A museum employee poses next to a painting by Winston Churchill entitled “Gate at Marrakech, man on donkey” at Leighton House Museum in west London. (AFP)

His passion for the translucent light of Marrakesh, far from the political storms and drab skies of London, dates back to the 1930s when most of Morocco was a French protectorate.

Churchill’s first painting of Morocco was completed in 1935. Titled “Scene in Marrakesh,” it is set to be auctioned by Christie’s later this year.

The work was painted while on a stay at Mamounia, where he marveled at the “truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives,” in a letter to his wife Clementine.

He went on to make six visits to the North African country over the course of 23 years.

Christies auction house staff pose with a painting by Winston Churchill entitled “A view of Marrakesh” in London. (AFP)

“Here in these spacious palm groves rising from the desert the traveler can be sure of perennial sunshine... and can contemplate with ceaseless satisfaction the stately and snow-clad panorama of the Atlas Mountains,” he wrote in 1936 in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.

He would set up his easel on the balconies of the grandiose La Mamounia hotel or the city’s Villa Taylor, beloved by the European jet setters of the 1970s.

It was from the villa, after a historic January 1943 conference in Casablanca with wartime leader US president Franklin Roosevelt and France’s Charles de Gaulle, that he painted what came to be regarded as his finest work, of the minaret behind the ramparts of the Old City, with mountains behind and tiny colorful figures in the forefront.

A Sotheby’s auction house employee poses with a rare painting entitled “Churchill’s Marrakech” by Winston Churchill, at the auction house in London. (AFP)

“You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakesh,” he is reputed to have told Roosevelt. “I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”

After the US delegation had left, Churchill stayed on an extra day and painted the view of the Koutoubia Mosque framed by mountains — he then sent it to Roosevelt for his birthday.

What makes “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” so special is the fact that it was the only artwork he completed during World War II. 

However, it should be noted that Morocco was not the only Arab country Churchill painted. In 1921, he painted the Pyramids at Giza when he visited Egypt as Secretary of State for the Colonies for the Cairo Conference.

What makes this week’s whopping sale even more interesting, however, is the star power lent by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, who owned the piece before putting it up for auction.

The artwork had several owners before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt bought it in 2011.

Jolie’s former husband Brad Pitt is known to be an art collector and during their 2014-16 marriage the pair bought some notable works, including pieces by Banksy and Neo Rauch.

The London-based auction house Christie’s told CNN that the Maleficent actress, 45, listed the artwork as property of the “Jolie Family Collection,” while US Weekly reported that it was a gift from Pitt to Jolie prior to their enagement.

The couple separated in 2016 and have spent years enmeshed in divorce proceedings, amid speculation about the division of their extensive art collection. They were declared divorced in 2019 after their lawyers asked for a bifurcated judgment, meaning that two married people can be declared single while other issues, including finances and child custody, remain.

While Churchill’s painting of Marrakesh may no longer adorn Jolie’s walls, the sun-drenched piece will no doubt be appreciated elsewhere — at $11.5 million, we certainly hope so.


Louis Vuitton brings rare diamonds to Dubai

Louis Vuitton brings rare diamonds to Dubai
Updated 04 March 2021

Louis Vuitton brings rare diamonds to Dubai

Louis Vuitton brings rare diamonds to Dubai

DUBAI: French luxury brand Louis Vuitton is bringing two rare diamonds for the first time in the region by showcasing them at the Dubai Mall in the UAE.

The fashion house’s display, which runs until March 8, will display the “Sewelo,” the 1,758-carat rough diamond considered the second-largest ever discovered.

Discovered in April 2019 at the Karowe mine in Botswana, the baseball-sized gem got its name after a competition among Botswana citizens, with “Sewelo” which means “rare find” in Setswana, the winning entry.

“Sewelo” means “rare find” in Setswana. (AFP)

The second stone is the “Sethunya,” which is estimated to be over a billion years old.

The 549-carat gemstone is distinguished by its purity, high color and high luster.

Visitors will also find on show pieces from the Riders of the Knights collection, which is a homage to medieval heroines.


New Balance signs US-Kuwaiti influencer Ascia Al-Faraj as brand ambassador

New Balance signs US-Kuwaiti influencer Ascia Al-Faraj as brand ambassador
Updated 04 March 2021

New Balance signs US-Kuwaiti influencer Ascia Al-Faraj as brand ambassador

New Balance signs US-Kuwaiti influencer Ascia Al-Faraj as brand ambassador

DUBAI: Global athletic label New Balance has signed American-Kuwaiti fashion influencer Ascia Al-Faraj as the brand’s newest regional ambassador.

Al-Faraj is the first female representative from the region to sign for the brand, according to a released statement, and would debut as the face of the New Balance NB collective campaign titled “Energise a Generation” that is set to launch on Thursday across the Middle East.

Caption

The collection is made up of two signature styles with contrasting colors. The hero shoes, which the entrepreneur championed for the campaign, feature a bold, vibrant mix of pink, purple, teal and yellow – aptly matching her colorful persona.

The other style sports a simple monochrome look.

The blogger, who boasts over 2.6 million followers on Instagram, took to the platform to express her excitement. “Proud to announce that I am the first Middle Eastern female brand ambassador of @NewBalance. A whole brand ambassador you guys. A whole face of the brand,” she wrote to her fans.

As soon as the mother-of-two shared the news on social media, her fellow influencers including British-Egyptian influencer Dina Torkia, Lebanese blogger Karen Wazen expressed their support by commenting on her post.

To celebrate the launch of the NB Collective, Al-Faraj will moderate a live digital panel discussion with two female guest speakers that will be streamed on her Instagram page.

Coinciding with International Women’s Day, the session will discuss ‘Energising Women’ in the region, tying it back to the campaign’s original messaging and premise.

Stuart Henwood, the general for New Balance Middle East and Egypt said in the statement: “Ascia embodies the fearlessly independent nature of New Balance. The synergies with Ascia vision and core values is why this partnership with Ascia is a game changer for us at a time of exciting evolution within the region.”

Al-Faraj owns two diverse businesses: Desert Baby, a brand that sells baby and toddler products, and Seoul Kool, a Korean beauty brand.

She is also an advocate for equality and passionately uses her platform to promote female empowerment especially for Arab women.


Review: Billie Eillish’s ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ offers an intimate portrait of a rising star

Review: Billie Eillish’s ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ offers an intimate portrait of a rising star
Updated 04 March 2021

Review: Billie Eillish’s ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ offers an intimate portrait of a rising star

Review: Billie Eillish’s ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ offers an intimate portrait of a rising star

LONDON: Riveting Apple TV+ documentary follows Billie Eilish and her family during the singer’s meteoric rise to fame

It’s hard to remember a time when Billie Eilish wasn’t one of the biggest names in modern music, but Apple TV’s “The World’s a Little Blurry” documentary takes audiences back to 2018, when the teenage singer-songwriter was in the middle of recording her debut album. Still in the throes of the meteoric rise that followed her SoundCloud debut song “Ocean Eyes”, the young musician took the unusual step of allowing documentarian RJ Cutler to follow her around with a camera – from sold out shows and exhausted interviews, to tetchy conversations with her boyfriend and her driving test.

Apple TV’s “The World’s a Little Blurry” documentary takes audiences back to 2018. (Spplied)

Of course, it’s all sanctioned, so Eilish and her family are (presumably) very aware of who and what is being recorded. But in a way, such awareness actually serves to make “The World’s a Little Blurry” feel more authentic. To her credit, Eilish allows Cutler to capture her when she’s at her very best, embracing fans and beaming during her performances – as well as at her very worst, snapping at her family or storming out of a meet-and-greet. As do her family. Billie’s brother Finneas’ role in her Grammy Award-winning, critically acclaimed record is now common knowledge, and he allows the cameras to see every aspect of their creative process, arguments and all. Her parents, Maggie and Patrick, commit to the project too, allowing audiences in on their attempts to counsel their daughter in the face of such stratospheric success.

Perhaps it’s this honesty that makes “The World’s a Little Blurry” so engaging. Aside from showcasing her prodigious talent, the film also succeeds in portraying Eilish as a very human, very vulnerable young woman – one whose world-weary cynicism sometimes belies her relative youth. Not only does the movie lift the lid on a pair of incredibly talented musicians, it offers a glimpse inside the fame machine – past the glitz and the glamour, to the true heart of how isolating celebrity culture can be. When Justin Bieber and Katy Perry appear in the movie, they advise Eilish to enjoy her success – because both lament how fast the time has flown by. This remarkable film suggests that Eilish has the talent to be a fixture of the music industry for years to come, as well as the smarts to ensure she survives it.


‘It’s a film about the silence’ — Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses discusses ‘Curfew’

‘It’s a film about the silence’ — Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses discusses ‘Curfew’
Updated 04 March 2021

‘It’s a film about the silence’ — Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses discusses ‘Curfew’

‘It’s a film about the silence’ — Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses discusses ‘Curfew’
  • The Egyptian filmmaker has a history of addressing difficult subjects. In his new feature, he tackles one of his most difficult yet

DUBAI: There’s an ethos that many families around the world follow: The family’s reputation is paramount. Even the worst of events — especially the worst — must be kept secret, because the wound of public shame is greater than any wound that a horror such as abuse can inflict.

But who does that culture of secrecy protect? “Curfew,” a new film by Egyptian director Amir Ramses, is an exploration of one such secret, a taboo too difficult for most to even speak about — child abuse. 

Debuting at the Cairo International Film Festival at the end of 2020 and now streaming on OSN, it’s a film about a mother released from prison years after being locked up for killing her husband. Now free, she tries to reconnect with her daughter, the victim of crimes that she has yet to face even in her own mind. 

Ilham Shaheen plays the mother, Fatin, and Amina Khalil, plays her daughter Layla. (Supplied)

“For me, it's a film about the silence. It's a film about how something like this could happen, and everyone would prefer to be silent, to accept it, because it's a big scandal if people know about it. And yet, that’s what lets it happen,” Ramses tells Arab News. 

Ramses had noticed how, even as no one talked about it in polite company, stories of abuse would pop up in the media at a rate of about once a week — stories so disturbing that they haunted him. What fascinated him, too, was that they usually only came to light when something else unspeakable happened in their wake, such as a murder to cover up the crime. The price of silence was painfully clear. 

“It's not treated as a crime on its own, oftentimes. I think the way the film connects the dots on the crime might be irritating for a society that doesn't want to hear about it, or that just wants to pretend that everything's OK, that it doesn't happen that much. They would rather pretend it doesn't exist,” says Ramses.

The film debuted at the Cairo International Film Festival at the end of 2020 and now streaming on OSN. (Getty)

He deliberately set the story during the 2013 curfews of a Cairo in turmoil, making the situation as claustrophobic as possible — there is nowhere to escape from the secrets that a family has kept for the sake of honor and reputation. 

But the film focuses not so much on the crime itself as it does on whether or not the characters, — anchored by committed performances from its leads Ilham Shaheen, who plays the mother, Fatin, and Amina Khalil, who plays her daughter Layla — can find a way to face the truth, and whether good can prevail between characters pulled apart by the horrors of the past. 

“The effect of the crime on the humans living it is the most important part,” Ramses says. “I mean, the film is based on the abuse case. But it's really a film about Layla and Fatin. It's about two people learning to love, tolerate, trust and forgive each other. It's about the ability of a daughter to forgive her mother and love again.”

Ramses has spent much of his career tackling subject matter that others shy away from. In 2012, he directed “Jews of Egypt,” a documentary that reverberated around the world, sparking controversy and debate both in Egypt and far from its borders. 

Ramses has spent much of his career tackling subject matter that others shy away from. (Supplied)

While he might be comfortable being seen as a provocateur, he has long felt uncomfortable being seen as anything close to a moralist. Ramses doesn’t want to make films that are intended to instigate social change. He wants to make art. It’s a balance that was difficult to maintain in a film as loaded as “Curfew.”

“I used to be afraid of that aspect of features, actually. Films becoming a social tool is something that always scared me,” he says. “It diminishes the role of art, in my opinion. I always thought that if your film serves only as a social tool, it's a direct, boring propaganda film, in a way. But when you make a film as you wish, and it still has that aspect, I think it's fulfilling.” 

That is part of the reason that Ramses made “Jews of Egypt” as a documentary, as he believes  they can operate as a message first and foremost. 

“I was too afraid to make ‘Jews of Egypt’ into a narrative film. I thought the film did need to have a social impact, so I couldn’t escape it. The social impact of this film (was in) bringing tolerance back towards Egyptian Jews. I thought, ‘OK. If I make a narrative about it, it will create an impact. But it would be a very silly movie, with a lot of long, direct speeches.’ That's why I decided to make it into a documentary.”

Ramses has long been focused on films as an artform. (Supplied)

Even after its release, Ramses is still grappling with the role “Curfew” should play in Egypt and beyond. He is fascinated to see how people react to the film on a social level while maintaining that, first and foremost, it was not made with that intention.

He is not shouting from the rooftops about it, but an hour into our conversation he admits that the film has already changed at least one life — that of someone who attended an early screening.

“In one of the test screenings, I had someone who had (experienced) a similar incident. After the movie they got into that mood and went home to have a family discussion about it. Again, that's not the role of the film. That's not what films are made for. But that's also intriguing to know that it can do that sometimes,” says Ramses. 

Even after its release, Ramses is still grappling with the role “Curfew” should play in Egypt and beyond. (Supplied)

Ramses has long been focused on films as an artform, first falling in love with the medium at the age of 10 watching the films of legendary Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who made a young Ramses aware that films could not only be the blockbuster popcorn fare he’d enjoyed growing up, such as “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars,” but could be something more, a deeper exploration of the human condition.

It’s a journey that led to him not only becoming a filmmaker, but also one of Egypt’s premiere film connoisseurs. Ramses has served as the artistic director of the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt since its inception in 2017, a continuation of the job he was doing out of his home since he was a teenager, showing people in Egypt movies from Europe and Asia, alongside the under-appreciated greats of Egypt itself (of which there are many he still feels don’t get enough respect). 

With “Curfew,” Ramses has made a film that he hopes Egyptian cinephiles screen for their friends someday the same way that he did for his. His dream, ultimately, is to instill in future generations the same passion that has driven him his entire life. 

“I've always been trying to make films that would survive, that wouldn't be just about the time of the release,” he says. “I hope it continues.”