Inside Oman's first Venice Biennale pavilion: where time is out of joint

Past, present and future cross over one another in the group show featuring five artists

Budoor Al Riyami creates facsimiles of peridotite rocks, which are said to inhale carbon dioxide, in her installation 'Breathe' (2022) for Oman's National Pavilion. Photo: David Levene
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“I wanted this to be a reward for all they’ve done,” says curator Aisha Stoby, of the five artists she selected to represent Oman for its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

“They’ve each been pioneering artists. They’ve not just had their practices, but they’ve been directors of art galleries, they ran mentorship programmes, they taught. They took on the role of being an artist and pushed it forward.”

The Omani art historian’s list begins with Anwar Sonya, the elder statesman of the country's contemporary art scene. Sonya taught leading artist Hassan Meer, who founded the art space The Circle, which anchored the Muscat art scene from the 1990s until it closed in 2008. Meer is a contemporary of Budoor Al Riyami, who was also a part of The Circle and who shows at Venice. Also showing are Radhika Khimji and the late Raiya Al Rawahi, both of whom also participated in The Circle exhibitions.

It’s a chain of connections that emphasises the peer-led nature of the Omani art scene as well as gives a glimpse into some of its major themes: anxieties over the onset of modernity, the importance of the landscape, and a formal experimentation in technologies.

“I showed works that have a history, because I want to show that there are longer histories to the art movement in Oman,” says Stoby, who holds a doctorate on the development of contemporary art in the Arabian Gulf, from the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London.

“And I wanted to explore the breadth of work, even in a small space, without overwhelming the viewer.”

The cumulative effect of the three generations, however, is not of historicity but rather of time itself being out of joint. This is partially because of the brief given by the Venice Biennale — the pavilion responds to chief curator Cecilia Alemani’s question: “What would life look without us?”

But the work also uses the impassiveness of the Omani landscape and the sense of change among Omanis to create a group show — all new commissions — in which past, present and future cross over one another. Lit in moody, dark light, progression itself appears vulnerable, shot through with mythologies, unintended consequences and vain hopes for survival.

The oldest project in the show dates to 2009, when Meer began documenting his grandfather’s house in Muttrah, Muscat as an example of Oman from the 1950s and '60s. Reflection from Memories comprises personal objects such as old books, mandoos chests, a sewing machine and the suitcases his grandparents used to repatriate to Oman.

When he started making the work, such items were commonly available, but now the house itself is falling apart and its objects are obsolete, making the installation not only a portrait of change but proof of change itself.

In the centre of the pavilion hangs Al Riyami’s Breathe (2022), large facsimiles of peridotite, a type of rock found in Oman’s craggy mountains, which she installs with oil-like puddles below them.

Peridotite was formed between two-and-a-half and four billion years ago, but its relevance lies in the future: because it “inhales” carbon dioxide, it is suggested as a potential carbon-capture solution. Over the past few years, a flurry of environmental start-ups investigating the material have established themselves in Muscat.

In the Arsenale space at the Venice Biennale, Al Riyami’s foam and plaster rocks hang like improbable balloons in the air, as if they are artificial lungs ready to crash down to the earth. Videos projected on to the resin puddles imitate the sound of breathing, while a QR code directs viewers to poems and verses from the Quran about the landscape.

Khimji likewise refers to the ecological crisis, with her show-stopping installation Under, Inner, Under (2022). Its photographs show Garra barreimiae, a species of fish that is native to three caves in Oman. Though born with eyes, they progressively become blind over the course of their lives owing to the lack of light. The eyes recede and white scales grow over the depressions, eventually covering them completely.

“In some readings of Hindu mythology, fish were the first to have eyes,” Khimji explains. “And the first avatar of [the deity] Krishna on earth was as a fish. Now to think about these fish going blind, it feels like we're going backwards.”

She printed the photographs on enormous sheets of cloth, stretched to the length of her London studio. Khimji then painstakingly added small lozenge-shaped dabs of brightly coloured paint, in geometric and biomorphic designs. The lozenge, she explains, refers to the shape of the jewels on the necklace that her family, part of the Gujarati community who have lived in Oman for generations, places on their devotional figurines of Krishna every morning.

“It’s a ritual to activate the dolls,” she explains.

The addition of the paint to the photographs works similarly, transforming the documentary image of a curious natural phenomenon into a performance of care for the fish, with their retrogressive adaptation, or even a gesture of care for the battered landscape itself.

“This is hopefully what we do too when we walk into a room,” she says. Khimji gives each photograph a physical heft, so that visitors had to either walk around it or crouch down to peer at it closely, and therefore make themselves part of the work. “It’s like the question of whether the falling tree makes noise if no one hears it. The work needs to be activated by the viewers — like a light switch to turn it on.”

A posthumous partnership

The most emotive bridging of time is the posthumous collaboration, Speed of Art, between Sonya and Al Rawahi.

Al Rawahi died of cancer at the age of only 30 in 2017. Stoby had spoken to her about an idea she had for a solo show, of a future when androids had taken over from the creative imagination of humans, leaving no room for artists. For Stoby, the Venice Biennale pavilion became her chance to fulfil Al Rawahi’s idea.

She first approached Al Rawahi’s family to get their consent, promising they would be present at every meeting. The Speed of Art installation was produced with the help of Al Rawahi’s husband and sister, and Stoby asked Sonya to perform in the videos as the artist who decries the dictatorship of the robots.

“I did not expect him to become so involved in it,” Stoby says. “He’s a very mild-mannered man, but he is able to act it with such aggression.”

The video of Sonya plays on an oval-shaped screen — like that of a plane window — within the reconstruction of a section of fuselage in the exhibition space, glaringly open on both sides, which presented a portal in Al Rawahi’s initial concept. Produced after the death of Al Rawahi, it suggests a bittersweet future: Sonya, again advocating from a minority position for the importance of artists, just as when he began painting in Oman in the 1960s.

Speed of Art is also significant from an art-historical perspective. Taken with Meer’s installation of a slide show and videos in the suitcases of Reflection from Memories, it demonstrates the formal experimentation of The Circle’s artists.

“The Circle is an important and interesting movement, and one of the elements was how it revolutionised new media practices within the region, in particular the way that video and media were shown,” says Stoby.

It is tempting to compare The Circle with The Flying House, the Dubai artists-run space of the same period — and indeed, a number of the artists associated with The Flying House, such as Mohammed Kazem, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Hassan Sharif, showed with The Circle artists. In a nice synergy, Ibrahim is also showing around the corner at Venice in the UAE's pavilion.

But Stoby underlines that The Circle was working with very different concerns than The Flying House and the latter’s more Fluxus roots. Those who want to know more about these parallels, and the Oman art scene in general, will not have long to wait to explore them.

In September, Stoby curates a show for the NYU Abu Dhabi on Khaleeji modernist art, exploring the many art scenes across the GCC and expanding still further the narrative of Gulf art history.

Updated: October 12, 2022, 10:09 AM