DUBAI: Emirati creatives have revealed how the country’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale has broadened their careers and changed their lives.
Multidisciplinary artist, curator and educator Sarah Alagroobi was one of the first to take part in the UAE National Pavilion’s internship program during La Biennale di Venezia in 2011. Today, she works full-time as a Senior Interpretation Specialist in the education department at the Department of Culture and Tourism-Abu Dhabi, and part-time as an adjunct professor at Zayed University teaching graphic design and art foundation.
The program, said Alagroobi erved as a major catalyst for her career. It was conceived to provide Emiratis and longtime UAE residents aged 21 and above, who are passionate about the arts, diplomacy, and architecture, with the opportunity to spend one month in Venice staffing the UAE’s art and architecture exhibitions at La Biennale di Venezia. Alagroobi is one of around 200 interns who have taken part in the program and now work in prominent positions in art and culture.
What she loved about the internship, she says, was “the freedom to be curious and the flexibility and ability to explore that curiosity.”
Alagroobi recalls how the first time she went to La Biennale di Venezia was in 2007 when she was 16 years old. “I still remember the feeling of entering the Arsenale and believing that at some point in the future I would be working there representing the UAE,” she told Arab News. “Call it divine intervention or the power of manifestation, but it definitely was a calling of sorts.”
While she considers herself first and foremost an arts practitioner, Alagroobi is also the founder of The Letters Project, an online platform that aims to foreground anonymous letters that speak to the anthropological and socio-cultural climate of the Arab region.
She has co-curated and collaborated with grassroots initiatives such as Banat Collective and Samt — both are creative communities set up in response to the lack of artist spaces and discussions regarding womanhood in the Middle East and North Africa region.
“I really took full advantage of being able to navigate the art sphere and set a solid foundation in my career path,” she said.
Since 2009 the UAE has participated with a national pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia, the most prestigious biennial exhibition of contemporary art in the world. Commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al-Nahyan Foundation in Abu Dhabi and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, its exhibitions have spanned the country’s cultural development.
This includes the display of its 20th century conceptual artists such as Mohamed Kazem and the late Hassan Sharif, to this year’s solo exhibition of three decades of work by artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, part of the UAE’s first generation of contemporary artists from the late 1980s, known for his vibrantly colored objects and figures done in his signature medium of papier-maché.
In 2013, two years after the internship program was launched, the UAE became the first Arabian Gulf nation to have a permanent pavilion at La Biennale. Saudi Arabia inaugurated its permanent pavilion next to the UAE’s location in 2019.
Emirati artist Aliyah Al-Awadhi, currently working at a soon-to-open museum as an assistant curator, also completed an internship in Venice.
“Getting the opportunity to see any kind of art overseas and away from the context you’re used to is valuable, it opens creative doors in your mind,” Al-Awadhi told Arab News.
The internship marked the first time Al-Awadhi had ever traveled to Italy which she says was a life-changing experience.
“Seeing things like the architecture, the churches and castles with people I enjoyed being around was a wonderful and pretty significant experience for me,” she says.
“Having the freedom and autonomy to explore a uniquely significant place in the world, as well as the chance to see a slew of international artists was a ‘horizons broadened’ moment for me. Traveling to different places and seeing different things has always canonically, historically been part of the artists’ journey.”
The open call for internship applications opens in September 2022.