Prominent UAE artist unveils his first solo exhibition in Venice

A peek into the captivating world of Abdullah Al Saadi

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 14 Mar 2024, 5:48 PM

As the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale approaches, the anticipation mounts for the debut of Abdullah Al Saadi’s solo exhibition, ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia.’ Representing the UAE, Al Saadi’s showcase promises to be a captivating exploration of contemporary art, steeped in the rich history and cultural tapestry of the country.

Curated by the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation performance department Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the exhibit marks the UAE Pavilion’s eighth participation at Venice. Al Saadi, a prominent figure in the UAE contemporary art scene since the 1980s, emerged alongside pioneering conceptual artists like Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem. His diverse body of work includes painting, sculpture, performance, and photography, reflecting an archivist mindset. At the Biennale, visitors will see eight of Al Saadi’s pieces alongside hidden artworks revealed by performers. His art, characterised by conceptual realism, offers a unique blend of anthropological, historical, and environmental perspectives.

Nature, the artist’s family history, heritage, travel, and stories of humanity have been featured prominently in Abdullah Al Saadi’s extensive work. In the past 40 years, he has evolved even as his recursive body of work keeps referring back to itself.

Nature is his greatest teacher. Born in the rugged landscape of Madha in 1967 in a traditional family, he lives and works in the majestic mountain area of Khorfakkan, which provides him endless inspiration. Al Saadi made bicycle trips across the Emirates and overseas, documenting the experiences in catalogue-like collections of paintings, drawings, personal diaries, and objects.

There is something pure and profound about how Al Saadi approaches things—whether it’s a drawing or a diary or where those two things come together. His activity is as primordial as a rock, and he undertakes it with the quiet intensity of a sacred ritual.

His diary writings contain all the references to his works: friends, family, feelings, places, and thoughts. They are his inner and outer microcosms.

These days, the maestro is busy preparing for the Venice show but he found a moment to connect with Khaleej Times readers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Maestro Abdullah Al Saadi, please tell us about your forthcoming Venice exhibition, ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’. Which works will you showcase?

The exhibition focuses on artworks I made on my journeys in the wilderness. It features eight works: two new works specially commissioned for the exhibition and six existing ones. I always use diverse mediums, and for this exhibition, the works include drawings, paintings, painted rocks, scrolls, and others.

I have been chronicling my journeys for many years now. I felt it was time to present them to the public as a larger body of cumulative work. Presenting my work in this way in Venice is an opportunity for me to consider how these works relate to one another and to think about what connects them aesthetically and intellectually.

Why did you choose the title ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’? Memory and amnesia are oxymorons.

Creating art does not always have to be a documentation of your contexts. Instead, it can be created through reinterpretations of your surroundings and of how one can produce a recollection of a memory, of a landscape, a space, or a history. These chronicles are, by nature, meant for a future time. In a way, I am conveying that the present is already historical. Through my art, I manifest some things and exclude others, hence ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’.

What does it mean to you to represent the UAE at the Venice Art Biennale?

I have worked almost daily for 40 years in various mediums, making drawings, paintings, sculptures, keeping diaries, and creating alphabets. I need to present my work in Venice, not only for myself but also for the contemporary art scene in the UAE. I was part of the founding group of artists that engaged with contemporary art in the Emirates. My practice is solitary in that I embark on journeys through nature for days on end. The opportunity to represent my country and share this lifelong work with my international peers is a great honour.

Can you elaborate on the relationship between your creativity and the practices of classical Arab poets?

Once I feel immersed in nature, I start to draw, paint, or write during my journeys. Classical Arab poets described this immersion as the process leading up to the composition of their poems.

You blur the boundaries between art media—drawing, painting, writing, photography, and sculpture. Does your art aim to tap into human emotion and connection?

I wish my work to be a sensory, intellectual, and aesthetic experience for the audiences. Every audience member perceives the work differently, depending on their own history, ideas and sensibilities.

You write diaries on canvases, inside boxes, and on notebooks. Did drawing and writing always go together in your art?

Yes. I have been writing diaries in different formats for forty years. My diaries are an ongoing project that started forty years ago. There is no progression from one medium to another; they are different works in their own right. I do them in parallel, and sometimes they intersect.

As a young artist, you spent one and a half years in Japan. How did Japanese aesthetics, including Zen, influence your art?

I experienced aspects of nature that I cannot see here in the UAE, like snow and earthquakes. Of course, I had the chance to see and learn about Japanese art, and this is when I started to draw on larger and longer scrolls.

Your studio is peppered with mementos from your childhood. How does your family history enter your work?

My work is informed by the UAE’s landscape, my family history, and my heritage as I explore relationships between individuals and their natural and social environments. I am fascinated with how one may relate to changing environments and one’s connection with one’s personal and cultural history.

Your series, My Mother’s Letters 1998-2013, is fascinating and moving. Your mum left objects in your studio as a message that she was there with you. How did you get that idea for the series?

My mother did not know how to read or to use modern communication tools. She would use stones, pieces of wood, or plants to signal to me that she had visited my studio when I wasn’t there. That was her form of communication. I would collect and study these items, and it was like a language form. There was ambiguity and mystery in her messages. My mother knew about it.

Why do you collect cans and animal skulls?

I have always been collecting objects that I can use in my artwork, and I choose them based on what I need for specific projects. I collect metal boxes I use in my artwork for the Journey series, diaries, and other projects. I also collect items that can be repurposed into my artwork, such as sweet tins and sardine cans.

Can you explain your relationship with time in your art?

My art is the result of interactions with places, people, ideas, and aesthetics that I encounter every day where I live and on my journeys. I find myself driven to document these experiences visually or in written diaries and contemplations, seeking to transfigure the ordinary with the passage of time. The Venice exhibition proposes a new way of looking at these journeys, reinterpreting the landscapes and the way I enjoy integrating myself into nature.

(‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia’ opens to the public at the Venice Biennale on April 20.)

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