The chairman of the renowned fair speaks of the “love story” of the Venice Biennale with the Arab world

VENICE: The Venice Biennale strives to offer its facilities and expertise as a laboratory platform for art students and researchers from the Arab world who wish to experiment with art and architecture, says its chairman.

In a special interview with Arab News, Roberto Cicutto, who has headed the prestigious institution since 2020, spoke about the “love story” between the Venice Biennale and Arab and Muslim countries over the years, and addressed the possibilities for further collaborations with artists in the Future.

The 74-year-old Venetian, with many years of film production experience, met Arab News at the Ca Giustinian Palace, just a few steps from St. Mark’s Square.

Facing the unique view of the world’s most famous lagoon, dotted with Renaissance bell towers and domes, he recalled that since the 1930s, 15 Arab and Middle Eastern countries have participated in the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895.

Arab participation began in 1938 when Egypt participated in the Art Biennale. Iran and Turkey joined in 1956, then Tunisia in 1958; Iraq 1976, Syria 1964 and Cyprus 1968.

“In the new millennium we have had the pleasure of hosting more prestigious presences from this part of the world,” said Cicutto. In fact, Arab and Muslim nations have been flocking to the event since the turn of the century, with Morocco attending since 2005, Lebanon since 2007, UAE since 2009, Bahrain since 2010, Saudi Arabia since 2011, Kuwait since 2012, Yemen since 2016 and more, eventually joins Oman this year.

Cicutto recalled that at the 1995 Art Biennale, Egypt won the Golden Lion for national participation, the exhibition’s highest award (based on the city’s historical symbol). Bahrain’s Pavilion, curated by Noura Al-Sayeh and Fuad Al-Ansari, won the 2010 Architecture Biennale Golden Lion.

“Bahrain’s exhibition offered an analysis of the country’s relationship with the rapidly changing coastline. Transitional architecture forms were presented as vehicles capable of claiming the sea as a public space,” Cicutto recalled

In 2021, the Golden Lion for the best national participation in the Architecture Biennale again went to an Arab nation: the UAE.

Entitled “Wetland” and curated by Wael Al-Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the pavilion presented an experiment that provoked people to think about the delicate relationship between waste and production on both a local and global scale and proposed a construction model that can combine craftsmanship and advanced technologies.

“Hashim Sarkis was the first Lebanese curator of the 2021 International Architecture Exhibition. As an architect and dean of the MIT School of Architecture in Boston, Sarkis chose a title for his edition of the exhibition – planned for 2020 and then postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic – which turned out to be Foreshadowing: ‘How will we live together?'” Cicutto said.

Among the artists who have participated over the years, Cicutto remembers in particular those invited by the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor to the 2015 Art Biennale: the Lebanese Mounira Al-Solh, the Jordanian Ala Younisthe, the Syrian collective Abounaddara, the Egyptian women Massinissa Selmani and Inji Efflatoun and Tunisians Nidhal Chamekh.

He also mentioned Kader Attia, an Egyptian living in France, from the 2003 edition, and from the 2017 edition, Hassan Khan, an Egyptian, and Maha Malluh from Saudi Arabia.

“Art and architecture exhibitions are increasingly also referring to craft traditions, which in their artistic expression do not forget old traditional production forms or construction techniques,” he said. “In our age of sustainability, the Arab countries are exemplary for the fact that everything that can be caught up on from the past becomes (can) become a dignified practice in sustainability issues.”

Cicutto says the Venice Biennale “has already received great interest from some Arab countries,” and at Expo 2020 in Dubai, she gave a presentation in the Italian Pavilion and welcomed the participation of UAE Culture Minister Noura Al-Kaabi.

Now the Venice Biennale wants to “offer its facilities as a laboratory platform for all those students and researchers interested in their disciplines to experiment with the theoretical knowledge acquired at universities and training centers”.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Italy and Saudi Arabia – as well as the same anniversary of the founding of the Venice Biennale Film Festival.

“For us, this is an important anniversary because it allows us to recognize the role that the world’s oldest film festival has played in bringing artistic dignity to the film industry,” said Cicutto.

In 2017, the Cinema Section of the Biennale College for Emerging Filmmakers and Microbudget Films funded a project called “Martyr” which was presented at the festival that year and was directed and produced by a team from Lebanon.

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