Your Ghosts Are Mine: Qatar's Venice Biennale show celebrates 40 years of Arab film

A new exhibition looks at art that tells a different story to the mainstream

Abdallah Al-Khatib's Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege (2021) was co-financed by the Doha Film Institute and will be on display at the Venice Biennale. Photo: DFI
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Qatar Museums are staging a show at the Venice Biennale shedding light on the last ten years of practice in film and video.

The exhibition, Your Ghosts Are Mine: Expanded Cinemas, Amplified Voices, comprises excerpts from more than 40 films and videos by Arab and African artists and filmmakers. The works are drawn from the collections of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Contemporary Art, the Doha Film Institute and the forthcoming Art Mill Museum (scheduled to open in 2030). An accompanying screening programme presents the entire works throughout the course of the biennial.

“The show presents a narrative where you see the different use of images and different dialogues,” says Zeina Arida, the director of Mathaf. “It’s a way of discovering voices that are usually not on the forefront, whether of the art scene or cinema. These are not mainstream filmmakers but their use of cinema and film is very important, as is their way of expressing who they are and where they come from.”

Curated by Matthieu Orlean, an expert in film and video practice based in Paris, the show blurs the often artificial boundaries between long and short-form filmmaking. Ali Cherri, for example, will show his piece The Dam (2022), which follows a Darfuri seasonal worker who builds a monumental mud-brick work during the night. The feature-length film is just one of the avenues through which the Lebanese artist has treated Sudan’s Merowe Dam. His three-screen video installation based on the dam, Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), usually appears in art venues and made its debut in the main exhibition of the last Venice Biennale, though does not feature in the Your Ghosts show.

Renowned Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul similarly crosses over between art and film contexts. His feature Memoria (2021), which stars Tilda Swinton and was co-financed by DFI, will be screened in Venice. Other artists include Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, Hassan Khan and Sophia Al Maria – whose well-known Black Friday (2016) is in the collection of Mathaf and in the show.

The exhibition groups the works into key categories – such as Exile, Fires and Ruins – allows the films' content to set the show’s agenda.

“The works come from the past seven to ten years – so the exhibition also tells the story of the recent political turmoil in the region,” adds Arida. “It’s quite contemporary in its portrayal of a region through the story of its people.”

Filmmaker Abdallah Al-Khatib’s Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege (2021) sheds light on Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus. Deliberately cut off from the world after the Syrian revolution because Bashar al-Assad saw it as a site for rebels, the camp is where Al-Khatib grew up.

The show highlights some of the achievements of the DFI, which has become a major player in the funding and production not only of Arab cinema since it was inaugurated in 2010, but also of African work. It co-financed Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed Timbuktu (2014), for example, about familial and political conflicts in Mali, which went on to win the Cesar – known as the French Oscar – for best film and director and was nominated for best film at Cannes.

This is the first time that Mathaf and the DFI have partnered, though the former's director Arida says that these collaborations are the kind of work she is intent on pursuing in her relatively new post.

“I started only two years ago and since then I've been thinking about working with all the potential local collaborators,” says Arida, who has also set up collaborations with Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts' Doha campus and the Design Doha Biennale. “In our context, in our regions and cities where you don't have such a developed country and infrastructure, it's so important to share the infrastructure and make platforms available for your community at large.”

Mathaf is also sending a number of loans to the Biennale’s international exhibition, curated by Adriano Pedroso, which has a focus on modernism from the Global South. One of Arida’s key goals as director has been to display more from Mathaf’s impressive collection.

“There are still so many works from the collection that have never been exhibited,” says Arida. “That’s why we were so happy to support loans of works for the Biennale’s historical exhibition. Adriano’s focus is the global modern, and this is the first time it will be shown in the Venice Biennale to this extent.”

Qatar does not have its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale – which is rather surprising given the length of sustained cultural investment in the country. Qatar Museums, which is run by Sheikha Al Mayassa Al Thani, has also expressed support for the forthcoming Museum of West African Art, and are in early discussions about future collaborations in areas such as artist residencies and exchanges.

Your Ghosts Are Mine: Expanded Cinemas, Amplified Voices is at the Palazzo Franchetti from April 19 to November 24.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 2:20 PM