Delayed a year after the 2020 architectural event was postponed, this year's art exhibition is curated by Cecilia Alemani, while the national pavilions will display a mix of single representations and solo shows.
Here are some of the highlights from the Mena region to look forward to in Venice.
Khor Fakkan goes global
In the UAE pavilion, the Khor Fakkan artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim will represent the UAE. A historically important artist, Ibrahim was one of the “Five” who coalesced around Hassan Sharif and the Emirates Fine Arts Society in the 1990s and 2000s – and has remained active since, appearing in numerous exhibitions as well as a widely acclaimed retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018.
More importantly, his work, with its mix of outsider art, Land Art and folk motifs is both historical and non-contemporary. Time and again, it is sui generis Ibrahim, with monochrome and lurid colours – pinks and greens and yellows – and its suggestions of a landscape of fantastical animals. It is warm-hearted too: his well-known chairs series, which depicts a seated figure in varying shades of bright pinks, reds and blues, portrays Sharif, the artist who helped pave the way for contemporary art in the UAE – and who helped Ibrahim personally after the infamous incident in 1999 when Ibrahim, discouraged by public and critical opposition to his work, burnt the contents of his studio in the desert. Afterwards, he drove to Sharif’s house and stayed there for days, before regaining the courage to work.
Ibrahim’s pavilion will be curated by Maya Allison, the executive director of the NYUAD Art Gallery, with whom he has collaborated in the past. Both remain tight-lipped about what he will produce: what colours he might bring to Venice’s brilliant blue skies and grey-green canals, or what repeated forms he might emblazon across the UAE pavilion’s bricked, cavernous interior in the Arsenale.
The first Oman pavilion
Oman will appear at the Venice Biennale for the first time in the sultanate’s history, with a retrospectively minded exhibition. Curated by the art historian Aisha Stoby, the show combines three generations of Omani artists: Anwar Sonya, Hassan Meer, Budoor Al Riyami, Radhika Khimji and Raiya Al Rawahi.
Similar to the cross-generational influence exercised by Ibrahim, Stoby traces connections among the group, primarily through Sonya and Meer. Sonya is Oman’s most established early contemporary artist; he started painting in the 1970s – before similar forays into painting in the UAE – with works strongly inflected by Omani heritage and identity. He also played an important role in setting up parts of the educational infrastructure for Oman with the Youth Studio in Muscat, where subsequent generations of Omani artists met and trained, such as Al Riyami and Meer.
Meer followed in Sonya’s footsteps. After the Youth Studio, he continued his studies in the US and then returned in the 1990s to found the Circle, which runs to this day. It includes as its participants two of Stoby's younger artists for the pavilion: Khimji, an Omani artist who lives in London, and Al Rawahi, who died in 2017 aged just 30.
Omani art history is comparatively little studied, even among the Gulf countries, and Stoby is a recognised expert in the field, so the pavilion offers a chance to view the country’s contemporary art currents in person.
Muhannad Shono to represent Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's pick to represent the country – the second art presentation in its new Arsenale pavilion – is Muhannad Shono. The artist has become a central figure in the efflorescent Saudi art scene, with major commissions for the first Desert X AlUla, the inaugural Diriyah Biennale and the Bienalsur, among others.
Shono will reflect on the transformation that Saudi Arabia is undergoing, from the previous environment that stymied critical thought, to the present, with its energetic espousal of the visual arts. The Riyadh artist approaches the shift through the idea of the line, a symbol for the expressive mark that is the fundamental building block of drawing and creativity, he says.
The pavilion is curated by Reem Fadda, the director of the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, and is Fadda’s second foray at the biennale. In 2013 she curated the UAE National Pavilion’s exhibition of Mohammed Kazem.
Algerian influence in the France pavilion
The Algerian-French artist Zineb Sedira will open for France, in a pavilion curated by Yasmina Reggad, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.
Sedira’s role in representing France, one of the core national pavilions in colonial-era prime position in the Giardini, will give an exemplary opportunity to an artist who incisively questions national and cultural belonging.
Sedira's work over the past 25 years has traced how politics, colonialism and migration have created new identities in the region and reshaped existing ties and connections.
For the pavilion, she will focus on Algerian cinema of the 1960s and '70s, examining its links to Italian and French producers as well as the image of a national identity that it helped form. Bardaouil and Fellrath are likewise alumni of the UAE National Pavilion; they curated Nujoom Alghanem for the 2018 Venice Biennale.
Lebanese Pavilion brings 'chaos and beauty'
The well-known artist Ayman Baalbaki and the filmmaker Danielle Arbid will represent Lebanon in its pavilion at the Arsenale. Coming at a crucial time for the nation, the artists and the curator Nada Ghandour have expressed their desire to pay tribute to the energy and uniqueness of Beirut.
Best known for his portraits of men occluded by keffiyehs and gas masks, Baalbaki will make a large installation encompassing the capital's "chaos and beauty" – stretching himself, he says, in terms of scale and ambition, and using posters and other found material from Beirut to create the work.
Arbid will contribute a video likewise reflecting on the city, using a split-screen documentation of a walk through its streets.
Artists from the UAE at Complesso dell’Ospedaletto
The Dubai threesome of Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and Hasem Rahmanian will show the project Alluvium in the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto. Another stage in the collaboration between the collective and the OGR Torino, the three artists will respond to Venice as a site of trade, crossover between East and West, and kitsch and high art – all forms that appeal to the collective, with their ecumenical interest in all forms of culture, from poetry to YouTube clips.
For Alluvium, the three are creating a series of iron sculptures with their long-time collaborator, the Dubai blacksmith Mohammed Rahis Mollah, that mimic hand gestures. These spindly black forms hold terracotta plates made according to traditional methods from the region and painted with images taken from the news media. These records of war and injustice, augmented with the artists' fantastical, uncomfortable drawings, balance precariously on the cast-iron branches – every stage in the process marked by collaboration and resistance to the way things are normally done.
Palestine makes an appearance
The Palestine Museum US, a small operation set up by the Palestinian-American businessman Faisal Saleh, is also bringing an exhibition as an off-site project. Held at the Palazzo Mora, From Palestine With Art showcases the work of 19 Palestinian artists, such as Samia Halaby and Nabil Anani, as well as artefacts of Palestinian cultural heritage, such as embroidery, recorded music and a large map of the country.
The exhibition is a significant step up for the museum, which has never engaged internationally before. Housed in leafy central Connecticut, it has mostly engaged a local Arab community, as well as visitors from nearby Yale University and New York City.