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

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

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.”

Afghan-Pakistani designer Osman Yousefzada unveils world’s largest canvas at UK store

Afghan-Pakistani designer Osman Yousefzada unveils world’s largest canvas at UK store
“Infinity Pattern 1” by Osman Yousefzada
Updated 29 July 2021

Afghan-Pakistani designer Osman Yousefzada unveils world’s largest canvas at UK store

Afghan-Pakistani designer Osman Yousefzada unveils world’s largest canvas at UK store

DUBAI: Afghan-Pakistani designer and artist Osman Yousefzada has unveiled a world record-breaking new artwork for the UK Selfridges store in Birmingham, the city where he grew up.

Titled “Infinity Pattern 1,” his pink and black tessellated installation that wraps around the futuristic curved facade of the department store, was co-commissioned by the city’s Ikon Gallery and Selfridges Birmingham.

The 44-year-old was selected by Ikon art gallery as the winner of its international competition.

The gigantic, public installation, which measures in at 10,000 square meters and weighs five tons, will adorn Selfridge’s storefront until the end of the year while it undergoes restoration.

The son of Afghan-Pakistani immigrants, the designer-turned-artist said his giant canvas addressed issues of race, labor, and migration which had shaped the city’s past and present.

“Infinity Pattern 1,” Yousefzada’s first piece of public art, is also a record-breaker, having been confirmed as the world’s largest canvas.

As a fashion designer his tailored pieces have been worn by the likes of American singers Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift. In addition to his celebrity loved eponymous label launched in 2008, Yousefzada is also known for his multi-disciplinary artwork that tackles the socio-political issues of the day.

He held his first solo art show titled “Being Somewhere Else” at Ikon Gallery in 2018, exploring the links between fashion and migration.

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’
Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter is one of the most acclaimed Arab actors in the world. Supplied
Updated 29 July 2021

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’

Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’
  • The BAFTA-nominated actor on the frustrations of typecasting and the joys of ‘Baghdad Central’

DUBAI: The road to success is rockier than most care to admit. Even years past that first big break, the life of an actor is often a stop-and-start existence, with work drying up when you need it most.

In 2011, Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter —now one of the most acclaimed Arab actors in the world having secured a BAFTA nomination in 2021 for his starring role in “Baghdad Central” — was experiencing one of those lulls. The big roles weren’t coming and it was affecting him more than he let on.

It had only been two years since he starred opposite George Clooney in “The Men who Stare at Goats,” and here he was, a family to take care of, wondering whether he should continue pursuing his dream or give up acting entirely.  

Waleed Zuaiter with George Clooney and Ewan McGregor in 'The Men Who Stare at Goats.' (Alamy)

It was then that he got a call from the creators of a new series called “Homeland.” 

“I remember, ‘Homeland’ came around (at a time when) we couldn't pay our rent. It's as simple as that,” Zuaiter tells Arab News. 

They wanted him to play a terrorist. It was something he really didn’t want to do. 

Earlier in his life, Zuaiter had never imagined he would be viewed as an outsider in America. Born in the US, he moved with his family to Kuwait and at the age of five, growing up in the Gulf, he had no concept of himself as ‘different’ in any way, attending an American school with a diverse array of friends and interests.

“I never grew up with real racism. (Kuwait) was a small country. My dad's best friend was Sudanese, and so I had no concept of a separation between races. I had friends from all over, and we were listening to hard rock and heavy metal like AC/DC and Iron Maiden,” says Zuaiter. 

Waleed Zuaiter in Chicago Justice (2017). Supplied

Zuaiter had a sense of himself, but the dream of becoming an actor meant to him — as it does to most actors — the ability to become anyone. It wasn’t until he got into the industry that he realized that ‘becoming anyone’ wasn’t really on the cards for Arabs — that they tended to be put into a very small box, even if it’s sometimes a box made with the best of intentions. 

“When I came into acting, I didn't see it as, ‘I'm originally Arab, I have an Arabic name, I should only be up for Arab roles.’ But that's kind of how the industry works here. Even if you're like me, and you don't speak with an accent, and you're American. The industry thought, ‘Oh, this is a very hot topic, there's material that's coming out. Let's look for the people that can bring authenticity to it.’ There was a good intention there, but what winds up happening is you get pigeonholed. That was very frustrating for me,” says Zuaiter.

“I just wanted to make movies like Jon Favreau’s ‘Swingers.’ Those are the kinds of roles and stories that I'm interested in playing. But the TV roles I was offered were terrorists.”

Zuaiter took the role in “Homeland,” and while the experience ended up being a positive one, as Zuaiter was able to imbue the menacing role with nuance, depth and humanity, in a space that allowed him to do that, it wasn’t where he ultimately wanted to be. The producers were so impressed that they asked him to come back as another character. This time, he refused. He knew what he needed next, and it was a story that came from the Arab world rather than gazing at it from afar.

Waleed Zuaiter in Omar (2013). Supplied

So Zuaiter got in touch with an old friend, Hany Abu Assad, the acclaimed Palestinian director behind “Paradise Now,” whom he had met years earlier.

“A mutual friend said to me, ‘You should get in touch with Hany, because he's written something that's really, really great.’ I called him, and he said ‘Yes, and I actually wrote a role for you in this.’” 

Zuaiter would end up doing more than lending his acting talents. He got together his Palestinian family and friends and they made the film — 2013’s “Omar” — using their own capital. The film earned an Oscar-nomination, one of only two Palestinian feature-length films in history to have been nominated. 

“Essentially, I raised the whole budget, I brought on my brothers, and they helped bring in some other investors. Hany had that same ambition of ‘Let's get our own people to invest in us.’ And that’s what we did,” Zuaiter explains. “Around 95 percent of the investment for Omar was Palestinian private equity, with another 5 percent from Dubai. And we're very thankful for it. It was rewarding on so many levels.”

The experience would embolden Zuaiter, allowing him to enter the next phase of his career, working across genres and continents until he was finally able to land the biggest role of his career, the lead in a prestige TV drama that portrayed Iraq as Hollywood never had before — “Baghdad Central,” now streaming on Starzplay Arabia. 

Still from Baghdad Central (2020). Supplied

“What did this show give me? It gave me a voice. I learned to trust myself. I learned so much about the craft, so much about responsibility. For the first time, I had a real, genuine voice from the very first rehearsals, and I learned how to wield it. And to do that playing an Arab hero — not a terrorist — was such an honor, especially because we very rarely get to see it,” he says. 

Zuaiter was also struck by the show’s ability to not only amplify the voices of those that are so often marginalized, but to do so while also making the Iraqi characters’ American and British foils three-dimensional as well, giving the show a richness that it would not otherwise have had.  

The experience helped turn Zuaiter into the leader that he never knew he could be, both on screen and off. He has now founded a production company with his wife Joana, whom he credits with saving his career again and again, called FlipNarrative. 

Waleed and Joana Zuaiter at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2021. Getty Images

“So much of our identity as a company is the embodiment of who we are. Our mission is to amplify the voice of underrepresented and historically misrepresented voices around the world, starting with a focus on stories coming out of the Middle East,” Zuaiter says. “We’re a global mission-based company, because we realize there’s a global audience out there and we have always felt like insider-outsiders, allowing us to bridge those borders and make those connections.” 

FlipNarrative has already announced six projects from across the Arab world. But first Zuaiter’s tackling another dream, a pure actor’s dream — playing someone totally outside his own lived reality. As the villain in the upcoming second season of British crime drama “Gangs of London” he won’t be an Arab at all, he’ll be playing a Georgian. It’s an experience he’s already reveling in. 

“I just want to expand the types of roles that I play. I want a sense of play. They said, ‘Listen, if you want to play him as Palestinian, we can do that’. I said, ‘No, I played enough Palestinian gangsters. I would love to play a Georgian gangster, That's exactly why I'm an actor,’” he says. “Hopefully, there’ll be more of those roles. I just want to be free.”

Meet Ghizlane Agzenaï, the Moroccan artist famed for her colorful ‘totems’

Meet Ghizlane Agzenaï, the Moroccan artist famed for her colorful ‘totems’
Portrait of Ghizlane Agzenaï by Lamia Lahbadi. Supplied
Updated 29 July 2021

Meet Ghizlane Agzenaï, the Moroccan artist famed for her colorful ‘totems’

Meet Ghizlane Agzenaï, the Moroccan artist famed for her colorful ‘totems’

CASABLANCA: Born in Tangier in 1988, Ghizlane Agzenaï is a visual and street artist famed for her colourful and monumental ‘totems.’ She lives and works in Casablanca but also travels the world to create her brightly coloured art. 

Her geometrically-shaped pieces draw new perspectives along abstract lines. She is a self-taught artist whose totems are inspired by an inquisitive and generous spirit and available as paintings, paper collages and puzzles. 

Agzenaï uses a unique assembly process for her totems. Spray-painted, laser-cut and carefully sanded, they are then shaped by a cabinetmaker. Her works include murals and paintings in numerous urban art festivals and exhibitions — in Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, Casablanca, Rabat, and beyond. 

Her works include murals and paintings in numerous urban art festivals and exhibitions. Supplied

In recent years, she has brightened up the Vigo Ciudad de Color wall in Spain, the US Barcelona street-art festival, the Mural Harbor in Linz, Austria, and the famed Oberkampf wall in Paris. During Rabat’s Jidar festival in 2019, one could admire her colorful geometric shapes on the walls of the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Q: How would you define yourself as an artist?

A: I am more of an urban and contemporary artist. My passion for urban art has naturally dragged me to the streets. Then, gallery work came to gradually complete my urban interventions. Today, I wander between these two. Both are extremely enriching for me.

Tell us more about your passion for colors. 

Colors have always been at the core of my work. They invigorate my art. I never stick to one color in my totems. I also like to use a wide range of colors for each artwork to create harmony and give positive energy.

The artist travels the world to create her brightly coloured totems. Supplied

Why do you call your works ‘totems’ and how are they produced?

My artworks are all called “Totem …” because the word can be defined as an object that represents a kind spirit. For me, the word totem was in perfect harmony with my vision and what I wanted to express through my art. So I use it to reinforce my message. A totem can take form through hand-drawing or a paper collage. Then I transfer one or the other to my computer to be able to pick a color palette and play with shapes. As soon as I’m satisfied with the result, I choose the totem support: wood, canvas, wall or plexiglass. 

Do the titles of your works have any great meaning for you? 

The majority of my works have titles, but they don’t necessarily give any indication as to the nature of the artwork. At first, I would use numbers. Then I started using the names of stars and planets, because I’m particularly fond of science-fiction. And sometimes I just use the name of the city where the totem was created. 

Her work has been displayed both at the 193 Gallery in Paris and the galerie 38 in Casablanca. Supplied

Your work has attracted international attention and has recently been displayed both at the 193 Gallery in Paris and the galerie 38 in Casablanca. How did your collaboration with the 193 Gallery come about?

They contacted me in early 2021 and asked me to join “Colors of Abstraction 2,” a collective exhibition. Fouzia Marouf, the curator, invited me, and I immediately found the gallery’s vision extremely interesting. What we have in common is curiosity, but also openness to the world. After some discussion, I agreed to be part of the exhibition along with Ivorian sculptor and designer Jean Servais Somian and visual artist Valentina Canseco.

Which painters and which art forms have most inspired you?

I am deeply inspired by (minimalist, abstract US painter) Frank Stella and (op-art pioneer) Victor Vasarely for their unique aesthetics, and by (contemporary Argentine-Spanish artist) Felipe Pantone for his vision and energy. (Environmental art luminary) Christo is also a great source of inspiration with his monumental and poetic installations. Last but not least, I draw inspiration from futurism, the Bauhaus movement and brutalism.

HIPA winners explore the human condition in photography competition

HIPA winners explore the human condition in photography competition
‘Final Destination’ by Sameer Al-Doumy (France). Supplied
Updated 29 July 2021

HIPA winners explore the human condition in photography competition

HIPA winners explore the human condition in photography competition
  • Selected highlights from the prize’s tenth edition, held under the theme ‘Humanity’

DUBAI: The winners of the tenth season of the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum International Photography Awards (HIPA) were announced this week. The theme of this year’s awards was ‘’Humanity.” American photographer, and co-founder and director of the VII Academy, Gary Knight — one of this year’s judges, said in a press release: “Humanity is the most important thing a lens can capture … photography is a unique tool that gives us the ability to talk about others and show the conditions they are in and the feelings they are going through. It is clear that this year's winners have interpreted humanity in powerful and diverse ways.”

HIPA Secretary General Ali bin Thalith said: “This season we were humbled by the awe-inspiring and emotionally charged photographs we received that not only dug deep, but also unearthed, through photography, the essence of what it means to be human. In these photographs we felt a myriad of emotions ranging from absolute despair to pure kindness and joy.”

Aside from vying for the $120,000 Grand Prize, photographers could also enter the ‘General’ category (open to both black-and-white and color images); the ‘Portfolio’ category and the ‘Architectural Photography’ category. Here, we present a selection of highlights from the winning entries.

Grand prize winner


Ary Bassous (Brazil)

‘Duty’ by Ary Bassous (Brazil). Supplied

Bassous picked up the main award for this striking, harrowing portrait of Dr. Juliana Ribeiro having just removed her personal protective equipment in order to have her lunch after an eight-hour shift in the COVID-19 emergency room at the University Hospital Clementino Fraga Velho in Rio de Janeiro. Bassous’ image seems to sum up the emotions of the past 18 months while also paying tribute to the extraordinary efforts of frontline healthcare workers around the world.

“Clear signs of prolonged and repeated use of this type of equipment appear on her face. Her features reflect great effort and extreme fatigue due to the human commitment to her moral duty. What grabs you is the hint of sadness in her face as she feels the pain for humanity, as deaths in Brazil exceeded half a million people due to the pandemic,” the caption for the image reads. In its press release, HIPA commented: “The marks on her face share the painful human stories that (have) consumed the entire world.”

Third prize winner: Humanity

‘Blast Scars’

Marc Abou Jaoude (Lebanon)

‘Blast Scars’ by Marc Abou Jaoude (Lebanon). Supplied

Abou Jaoude’s image was taken on August 6, 2020 — two days after the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut that left at least 220 dead, 6,500 injured and 300,000 displaced from their homes. Here, an injured truck driver stands in same location he was in when the explosion happened. “Despite the massive destruction and the large number of dead and wounded, this driver was lucky enough to live and witness another day,” the caption says.

First prize winner: General (color)

‘Final Destination’

Sameer Al-Doumy (France)

‘Final Destination’ by Sameer Al-Doumy (France). Supplied

The Syrian photographer picked up first place in the ‘General (color)’ category for his beautifully timed shot of migrants caught in the “turbulent waters between Sangat and Cap Blanc-Nez (Cape Blanc-Nez), in the English Channel off the coast of northern France, as they try to cross the maritime border between France and the United Kingdom on August 27, 2020.”

Second prize winner: Architecture

‘Playful Moon’

Amri Arfianto (Indonesia)

‘Playful Moon’ by Amri Arfianto (Indonesia). Supplied

Dubai’s skyline proved a source of creative inspiration in the ‘Architectural Photography’ category, with Indian photographer Rahul Bansal winning fifth prize for an image of the ‘Eye of Dubai.’ Arfianto chose an even more iconic site for his winning image, which shows, HIPA says: “A creative fragmentation of the Burj Khalifa, in which the moon appears as if it is trying to hide behind the most famous tower in the world.”

Fourth prize winner: Portfolio


Yousef Al-Habshi Al-Hashmi (UAE)

‘Pareidolia’ by Yousef Al-Habshi Al-Hashmi (UAE). Supplied

Al-Hashmi was awarded for his collection of shots of microscopic organisms. “Pareidolia is the tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns,” HIPA’s caption reads. “(This) collection attempts to find faces with unique characteristics under the microscope and within a tiny area that barely can be seen.”

Second prize winner: General (color)


Fatima Zahra Cherkaoui (Morocco)

‘Camille’ by Fatima Zahra Cherkaoui (Morocco). Supplied

Cherkaoui’s use of black backgrounds on her portraits make them look like an old-master’s painting, as she herself noted on her Instagram post of this picture of an 11-year-old girl. “Looks like she's out of an old painting, she's just beautiful,” Cherkaoui wrote. HIPA’s caption for her winning entry praised the range of emotions the photographer had captured in her subject’s eyes.

First prize winner: Humanity

‘Hugs to Survive’

Mads Nissen (Denmark)

‘Hugs to Survive’ by Mads Nissen (Denmark). Supplied

As you might expect, the COVID-19 pandemic was a dominant theme in this year’s HIPA entries. In Nissen’s winning image, 85-year-old Rosa Luzia Lonardi is hugged by nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza. “In March 2020, nursing homes across Brazil closed their doors to all visitors, preventing millions from visiting elderly relatives, as authorities instructed to reduce physical contact to a minimum. But in Viva Beam, a simple innovation called the 'hug curtain' was allowed, (through which) people could see and hug their loved ones without risking their lives,” the caption explains. This was “the first hug Rosa had received in five months.”

British Museum, TEFAF team up to restore glass artifacts damaged in Beirut explosion

 British Museum, TEFAF team up to restore glass artifacts damaged in Beirut explosion
Completing "puzzle-work" of a smashed glass beaker at the Archaeological Museum, AUB. Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum
Updated 28 July 2021

British Museum, TEFAF team up to restore glass artifacts damaged in Beirut explosion

 British Museum, TEFAF team up to restore glass artifacts damaged in Beirut explosion

DUBAI: It has been almost one year since two explosions rocked the port of Beirut, killing more than 200, injuring over 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands without a home. The incident, which occurred on Aug. 4, 2020, caused significant damage to buildings in Lebanon’s capital, including the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut (AMAUB), situated two miles away from Beirut’s port where the blasts occurred. During the explosions, many of the artworks on display were damaged.

Now, almost a year after the devastating event, the British Museum and The European Fine Art Foundation have announced that they will partner to help restore some ancient artifacts that were damaged by the blast.

The museum and the fair will restore eight glass vessels dating to Roman and early Islamic times.

The case of glass vessels displayed at the Archaeological Museum (AUB) before the explosion. Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum

During the explosion, the glass objects that were on display at the AMAUB shattered into hundreds of tiny shards. They will now be painstakingly pieced back together at the British Museum’s conservation labs in London.

Most vessels were shattered beyond repair with only 15 being identified as salvageable.  Of these, only eight are safe to travel to the British Museum to be conserved.

The restored glass works will go on view at the British Museum in a temporary exhibition before returning to Beirut.

Claire Cuyaubère, a conservator from the French Institut National du Patrimoine helped to collect and categorize the shards of ancient glass from the mixed debris, which included glass from the display case and surrounding windows, after the blast.

Conservator Claire Cuyaubère assisting with "puzzle-work" of shard from a glass dish at the Archaeological Museum, AUB. Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum

She returned to Beirut in July 2021 to identify and match broken shards from each vessel, and identify those suitable for shipment to London. The puzzle-work was supported by the Friends of the Middle East Department at the British Museum.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said in a statement: “Like the rest of the world, we looked on in horror at the devastating scenes in Beirut in August last year. We immediately offered the assistance of the British Museum to colleagues in the city. As we mark one year since the tragedy, we’re pleased to be able to provide the expertise and resources of the British Museum to restore these important ancient objects so they can be enjoyed in Lebanon for many more years to come.”