There is perhaps no weightier form of representation in the art world than being at the Venice Biennale. The biennial contemporary art and architecture events in Italy have been taking place for more than 120 years, expanding in scale as non-European countries with fast-growing economies have increasingly taken part.
The UAE has joined that list; the Emirates showed in Venice for the first time in 2009. In 2013, the National Pavilion signed an agreement with the Biennale di Venezia organisation to be involved in both its art and architecture events until 2032.
It was around this time that Laila Binbrek took over the reins as co-ordinating director of the National Pavilion, in the same year that the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation became its commissioner. Trained as an artist, Binbrek studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada, focusing on drawing and sculpture. The Yemeni-Canadian was active in the local art scene for years, managing the now-closed Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, before working as director of The Third Line gallery in Dubai in 2007. "There was an explosion of contemporary art happening in the UAE," she recalls. "The gallery in those days was very much about community involvement … it was exciting to be part of the arts at the time."
She recounts The Third Line’s numerous initiatives and accomplishments in its early days – hosting artist talks, functioning as a platform for local artistic and cultural endeavours, including Cinema Akil and Sole DXB, and participation in international art fairs. “It felt like we were part of this nation-building,” she says. “Everyone was here to make things happen. Every time we went to an art fair, we were ambassadors for the UAE and the region.”
When the UAE’s National Pavilion was established in 2009, it followed the tide of government initiatives to help boost the country’s nascent cultural scene.
Three years before, in 2006, plans for the not-yet completed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi were unveiled. In 2007, the French government approved the establishment of Louvre Abu Dhabi and the blueprint for the Zayed National Museum was announced.
“The aim of the UAE was to bring all the culture here, but we also have things we want to say, and where do you go for that? You go to the Venice Biennale,” Binbrek says. “By participating there, you are entering the larger global dialogue.”
Stepping into her role in 2013, Binbrek was given an ambitious task. The UAE now had a long-term space and was required to stage both art and architecture exhibitions every year.
“The mandate was to tell the untold story of the UAE. This is our guiding light when we work,” she says. “We don’t want to be big and splashy. We want to focus on research … We want to find more nuanced ways to alleviate stereotypes about the UAE; who we are and what we have to say.”
This job of image-building not only takes time, but also introspection. When working with artists and curators, Binbrek says the pavilion searches for topics “that would otherwise remain semi-obscure”, relegated to academia or smaller pockets of the community. “By participating in the biennale, the country itself and the community here begins to understand its own voice,” she says.
Who gets to decide on which voices are broadcast on the international stage? The formation of the selection committee, as well as the nomination process for the artists, are among what Binbrek considers as her accomplishments since heading the pavilion.
The committee is comprised of long-term members with “high-level positions in government and cultural institutions”, as well as curators from previous pavilions, and guests who run the gamut of artists, academics and architects.
She has also been responsible for implementing new methodologies of working for the team. “There was no continuity,” she recalls. “My goal was to build that structure so that whoever takes over the pavilion can follow it.”
Under Binbrek's direction, the National Pavilion also brought in non-Emirati artists, Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie, for its 2017 art exhibition. "These might seem like small things to outsiders, but we know locally there was a shift. So now when we talk about art from the UAE, it's not just an Emirati artist, but any artist who has committed to the UAE as home," she says.
The aim of the pavilion “goes beyond thinking, ‘do I have a passport or not?’,’ she says. “It’s more about ‘I have committed to this country. I live here. I work here, and what I do can be reflected in the pavilion.’” The UAE’s architecture pavilion, on the other hand, has featured curators and contributors from the country’s diverse community.
The coming presentation, in May, will feature architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto's Wetland, which looks at how salt compounds in the UAE's salt flats, or sabkhas, can be used as renewable building materials.
The exhibition was meant to open this year, before the pandemic caused organisers to postpone the event to 2021, and the art show to 2022. "It was a very difficult moment," Binbrek says. "2020 was supposed to be our 10th exhibition, which is quite a marker … The exhibition in Venice is the end of the journey, but there is so much that goes into that. The pandemic has postponed everything, but it has also allowed us to extend that journey a little longer and allowed curators to extend their research," she says. Al Awar and Teramoto have since reopened their lab space in Alserkal Avenue to showcase their plans for the pavilion.
In 2022, the National Pavilion will show the work of Emirati artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim for the art exhibition. The pandemic may still be wreaking havoc on air travel and tourism then, but Binbrek hopes that the “untold story of the UAE” – the one she has been cultivating for years – will still be told. “We will find other ways to articulate the story. There is always a way.”