60th Venice Art Biennale: Inside UAE-based artist Abdullah Al Saadi's studio

This year, the national pavilion of the UAE at the 60th Venice Art Biennale is being represented by the prolific Khor Fakkan-based artist, who gives Khaleej Times a special tour of his solo exhibition

By Shaikh Ayaz

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Photo: Kathleen Hoare
Photo: Kathleen Hoare

Published: Thu 9 May 2024, 5:41 PM

Abdullah Al Saadi is one of UAE's foremost conceptual artists, known for creating art that is both deeply enigmatic and intimately familiar. At heart, however, he remains a diehard wanderer. He's also a storyteller, poet, memory carrier and a self-confessed ‘nature-lover’. So, it's not surprising to find the 57-year-old veteran Emirati sporting a beige linen suit and a hat to match at the recently-opened Venice Art Biennale 2024 — all dressed, it seems, to embark on one of his signature adventurous 'journeys' and immerse himself into the creative experience. Born in scenic Khor Fakkan and still based there, Al Saadi is representing the national pavilion of the UAE at the 60th International Venice Biennale this year, curated by Adriano Pedrosa under the theme of 'Stranieri Ovunque — Foreigners Everywhere.'

‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’, as Al Saadi's solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale is titled, trains its gaze on the inseparability of art and lived experience. More crucially, it serves to highlight the role of an artist as a vessel for memories and the intertwined dilemma of what to remember and forget and what to preserve and disregard and perhaps, whether the adventures of one man can guide us towards the idea of a shared and universal humanism. Seeing Al Saadi's works, one is reminded of Milan Kundera's immortal words, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Curated by the Sharjah-based Tarek Abou El Fetouh, ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’ (on view at Arsenale in Venice, a former military shipyard complex which is one of the primary venues for the biennale, alongside the neighbouring Napoleon-era Giardini) puts UAE and its prodigious artistic production once again at the forefront of the international art scene. Thanks to Al Saadi and El Fetouh's intriguing concept, the UAE pavilion has been transformed to resemble Al Saadi's studio in Khor Fakkan, complete with over 450 artworks, documents, letters, poetry-infused remembrances and even performers who reenact the rituals that Al Saadi himself indulges in often at his warm and welcoming workspace in the rugged terrains of his homeland.

Photo: Ismail Noor
Photo: Ismail Noor

The exhibition chronicles eight different expeditions undertaken by Al Saadi over the decades. Looking at them in a holistic way like this, one feels that the artist communicates his tales through a unique perspective, often giving voice to animals and objects that accompanied him on his journeys. Each narrative contains several chapters and leads to another meandering twist, giving the biennale-hoppers an immersive, ever-evolving experience of Al Saadi’s artistic practice.

“I had a dream in 1992 to travel the world on a bicycle but I couldn't achieve it, so through ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’ I decided to showcase my journeys in the wilderness on a bicycle, or simply walking and frequently with animals as travel companions. All of this has been inspired by my deep engagement and love for the UAE's countryside, its nature, people and landscape," Al Saadi tells wknd., when we meet him at his show's press preview on a nippy April morning in Venice. Numerous pieces on display indeed feature a bicycle navigating its way through what seems like a palm-fringed oasis. The Sufi's Journey by Bicycle is a collection of pencil drawings, rendered with child-like delight by the artist. "I showed these works for the first time in a biennale in Pakistan. For me, Sufi ideas are important because they speak of the oneness of humanity," he muses.

The Sufi's Journey by Bicycle is mainly derived from Al Saadi's diaries, which he has diligently maintained throughout his life. The works also reflect his lifelong fascination with writing, particularly his admiration for Sufism and Arabic poetry. Notably, these exceptional drawings were carefully stored in discarded tin boxes he likes to collect. In The Slipper's Journey, he uses 85 small-sized stones and rocks to record road maps and pathways. Al Saadi admits that his diaries are like a "vast library of memories." Keeping a diary is a daily ritual for him and reportedly, he labels all his metal boxes meticulously and keeps them sealed.

Photo: Ismail Noor
Photo: Ismail Noor

The metal boxes help him "document, archive and organise my artworks, so that they are within easy reach whenever I need them." At one end of the ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’, curator El Fetouh has allocated space for large, richly-painted metal boxes. Visitors are encouraged to seek assistance from volunteers in unlocking them to get a glimpse into the artist's most intimate and soulful thoughts. "I wanted to show the sizeable intensity and ambition of Abdullah's vision. He is a prolific artist.

The eight journeys presented in the exhibition include 456 art pieces. We showed some of them in vitrines in a museum display format and the rest stayed hidden in the big metal chests that the artist uses in his studio. We created a space that was similar to the artist’s studio atmosphere and in some ways, wanted to re-stage the rituals of opening these metal chests to show scrolls, stones and old used sweet tins by the presence of actors for the whole duration of the exhibition," explains El Fetouh, who besides being an independent curator also serves as the director of performance at the Sharjah Art Foundation. In his drawings and paintings, El Fetouh adds, "Abdullah does not include all spatial components of the landscape during his journeys. He chooses, in a complex artistic, sensorial and intellectual process, sites to be manifested and others to disappear. For example, in his recent works commissioned for this current exhibition, he created a metal case with levers that allow only a partial view of the landscape. When the canvas is rolled, sites appear and others disappear, a movement that reflects his travel into the nature of the surrounding region of his city Khor Fakkan but it also draws attention to the movements between sites of memory and sites to forget."

Al Saadi's studio is nestled in the mountainous village of Khor Fakkan called Madha. "The space is sacred for him and is an essential part of his practice — the metal chests with codes, numbers, dates, and other information are part of his artistic process. They are not simply crates to keep the work. That's why I felt it was essential to transfer this atmosphere into the exhibition with the ritual of opening these chests and showing the audience the art pieces as the artist himself does in his studio for his visitors," says the curator.

Photo: Kathleen Hoare
Photo: Kathleen Hoare

Al Saadi recalls that he first started collecting tin boxes while studying in Japan. "I used to gather cans, bottles and other objects as a way of remembering all the things that I consumed. Later on, it became a habit," he laughs. Two of the more standout works in Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia are called The Purl and Silk Journey (which are diaries depicted on long vertical scrolls and were influenced by his readings of the Silk Road) and A Journey in the Footsteps of Camar Cande. In 2011, Al Saadi wandered off into nature accompanied by a donkey, traversing through remote places such as Nahwa, Shis, Taybah and Masafi, among several others. This journey became the basis of A Journey in the Footsteps of Camar Cande. Animals form the cornerstone of Al Saadi's art. As El Fetouh points out, "We have two journeys of Camar Cande in the exhibition. The donkey was named Camar Cande (Camar means moon and Cande means sugar, as it was a white donkey). Companions like Camar Cande have a significant impact on Abdullah's thinking. He follows in the footsteps of gentle animals like donkeys and dogs, who seem to possess profound wisdom and intuitive knowledge of the landscape. Abdullah sees the world differently through the presence of animals."

Being in nature fuels the artist's creativity. Born on a farm in Madha, he attributes his deep appreciation for nature to his mother. (In one of his more popular series My Mother's Letters (1998-2000), he paid homage to his mother. It's a much older work and not on display in Venice. It was believed to be inspired by objects that his unlettered mother would leave behind for him daily at his studio as a reminder that she had visited him in his absence). "Abdullah exhibits a different understanding of nature as the classical Arab poet understood — as vast terrain of beings," argues El Fetouh. "He travels alone with the company of a book, an animal or a means of transportation. He only starts to paint, draw or write once he feels totally immersed in nature and the surrounding environment.

Supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and commissioned by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’ is a perfect global exposure to an artist of Al Saadi's reputation. However, he's no stranger to the Venice Biennale, as he has shown there before. El Fetouh says that Abdullah Al Saadi was a natural choice for the Venice showcase, as he is considered a key figure in the UAE art scene. "Abdullah is one of the pioneering conceptual artists who, in the 1980s, bolstered the contemporary art scene in the UAE and influenced a generation of artists in the whole region," remarks the curator. "Together with Hassan Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohamed Kazem, and others, he started conceptual art practices, challenged the norms, and paved the way for younger generations of artists and curators not only in the UAE but in many other countries in the region. Abdullah wrote his own biography in our exhibition book, telling all the stories of this period with images and lists of shows they did."

Photo: Ismail Noor
Photo: Ismail Noor

El Fetouh acknowledges that art originating from the UAE is garnering a lot of attention in the Western world today. The robust reception to the UAE pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale is further evidence of the Gulf's rising soft power. As someone shaping the Middle-Eastern art world himself, El Fetouh is equally proud of the flourishing art scene back home.

"UAE has become an important centre of knowledge in the region, with many artists, curators, exhibitions, and initiatives. Major museums are being built in Abu Dhabi. We have leading art fairs such as Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, in addition, to the Sharjah Biennial and blockbuster exhibitions at Sharjah Art Foundation. Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai, with all its initiatives, organisations and foundations is a vibrant space. And then, there were all the new public art programming that I was privileged to start in Expo Dubai 2020. Many others have followed since," he explains. "It is a good moment for art in the region," he concludes, with a smile.

The 60th Venice Art Biennale opened on April 20 and will run until November 24, 2024.


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