Emirati poet and filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem made history this year by becoming the first woman to stage a solo exhibition at the UAE’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which, this year, runs until November 24.
This is Al-Ghanem’s second appearance at the Venice Biennale, but last time she was part of a group exhibition. This year, she presented “Passage” — a site-specific, split-screen video installation, that tells the story of three women dealing with the complex, emotionally charged theme of displacement.
While both sides of the screen share the same audio track, one side shows what Al-Ghanem has referred to as the ‘real’ narrative, in which the viewer encounters intimate moments and a sort of behind-the-scenes of Al-Ghanem and the popular Dubai-based Syrian actress Amal Hawijeh as they prepare to produce the video, while the other side displays the ‘fictional’ narrative, portraying surreal post-apocalyptic scenery of a woman named ‘Falak’ — played by Hawijeh — who is trying to find her way home across the vast emptiness of the sea and the desert.
Bringing this immersive and deeply emotive visual story to life, Al-Ghanem collaborated extensively with the UAE pavilion’s curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who have curated numerous exhibitions together in the Emirates, Europe, and elsewhere.
“We want the people who come to the pavilion to take something about the universal human condition of displacement, the lack of belonging, or a questioning — ‘Where do I fit within a bigger context?’” explained Bardaouil.
“Everyone that goes into this installation is very strongly moved by something that is deeply human and that connects us all,” added Fellrath.
“Layers within a layer,” is how Al-Ghanem likes to describe her 26-minute film, which was shot between the UAE and Venice.
“It is about displacement, loss, love, confusion and all these human emotions that are usually in question when you face any difficulty, any barriers, or shocking realities,” she told Arab News. “It reflects on the complexity and duality between Amal and Nujoom, between poetry and cinema, between losing and finding yourself.”
Permeating the dark space of the pavilion’s interior is Al-Ghanem’s calm and steady voice, reciting verses from her 2009 poem “The Passerby Collects the Moonlight” — written in classical Arabic — which was penned in tribute to her friends who endured the pain of displacement. At one point, she writes: “Have you gotten used to this loneliness/To the touch of silence on your shoulders/To the emptiness within your heart?”
Watching the startling imagery in this topical artwork — particularly the scenes of Falak navigating the seas in a small boat, and of her body floating on the surface of the waves — one cannot help but be reminded of the horrific images from the Syrian refugee crisis that were shown around the world in 2015. Reciting from her poignant poem, Al-Ghanem reads: “The wind told the distance/That the sea has learned to dig graves/That the gulls have learned/To eat the flesh of the drowned/And devour their dreams/As for the passersby/They started lighting candles/And reciting prayers of mercy/While angels wrote down/The names of the dead. The trees alone were weeping.”
“We cannot (close) our eyes to what is happening in the world today,” Al Ghanem told Arab News. “And what is happening to the refugees, and to the displaced, and to all those people who lost souls and lost themselves. They were struggling all the time to find a safe spot. This theme is a central part of the project because it is related to Amal as an actress and as a person. It is related to me, because I had so many friends who went through this.”
There is an indelible climatic moment in “Passage” which Hawijeh performs using an invented language that consists solely of guttural, harsh sounds. She is uttering nothing of any discernible meaning, and yet she is saying something profound, expressing through her voice anxiety, pain, and perhaps a cry for help — all of which are understood by the viewer.
“I was crying when Amal was performing, because she was speaking about her suffering, her rejection, the oppression — all those emotions that she wasn’t able to express,” Al-Ghanem said.
Al-Ghanem has been active as a writer and filmmaker since the 1980s, inspired by the works of renowned poets including Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Mahmoud Darwish, and Nizar Qabbani.
While the Emirates’ local contemporary art scene is relatively experimental and vibrant today, she says she experienced a “very tough time” at the start of her artistic career, when she and her forward-thinking peers attempted to look beyond traditional art by experimenting with free-verse poetry composition, constructionism, and post-modernism — inviting a certain amount of criticism.
Today, however, Al-Ghanem is a well-regarded filmmaker, best known for her award-winning documentaries, which focus on contemporary life in her country. “I am fascinated by people,” she said.
“Hamama” (2010) tells the story of an elderly Bedouin female healer, while 2014’s “Nearby Sky” depicted the challenges a female camel owner faced in the male-dominated environment of camel rearing — for auctions and for beauty contests. Her latest, 2017’s “Sharp Tools,” explored the life and work of Al-Ghanem’s longtime friend, the late Emirati conceptual artist Hassan Sharif, who allowed her to film during the last days of his life.
“I think in our country, there is this neglect of people on the outskirts of the city, who are very real and authentic, and just because they are conservative and want to stick to their roots, they are not ‘heritage’ — they are living and contributing to the now,” she said. “I think the beauty of the UAE is not in the buildings, the beauty is within the people.”