Nujoom Alghanem will represent the UAE at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The award-winning poet and filmmaker has been invited by the curators of the National Pavilion UAE, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, to create a major site-specific video installation for the Pavilion.
Previous UAE National Pavilions have had a themed exhibition with a group of artists; it looks like Bardaouil and Fellrath are breaking with tradition here in committing to a single artist.
Alghanem is a major figure on the contemporary cultural scene; Bardaouil and Fellrath describe her as “a driving force behind some of the most innovative literary positions and bold cinematic practices of the UAE and the Gulf” and say they expect that the site-specific commission will “confront the international arts community with a truly unique, multidisciplinary artistic position”.
They also highlighted her practice: “her evocative work is as profoundly concerned with expanding the formal components of her practice, mainly poetry and film, as it is with capturing the complexity of the human condition through telling remarkable stories about exceptional characters”.
Nujoom Alghanem added some meat to that: “the forms and subjects of my practice have been shaped by my personal experience within the context of a rapidly-transforming society.
“The individual approach in which I have had to resolve the tension between tradition and modernity, has deeply impacted the content of my work as an artist, and is embedded in my writing and filmmaking. As a woman, I have found it fulfilling to focus on extraordinary female stories from our society or the Arab world that are worth being highlighted.”
Alghanem is well established in both her preferred genres – with eight critically acclaimed volumes of poetry to date, she is highly regarded for her contributions to contemporary Arabic poetry; and as a filmmaker, she has directed a number of features and documentaries that particularly extend the discourse around gender issues and societal norms.
Her films include Nearby Sky, the 2014 documentary about the first female Emirati to run camels in Camel Beauty Pageants and auctions; Sounds of the Sea (2015), a poetic portrait of a forgotten fishing community on the Umm Al Quwain Creek; and Honey, Rain and Dust (2016), an equally look at honey-finding traditions in the northern mountains of the UAE.
Her most recent work is one of her best, Sharp Tools (2017). It’s an affectionate portrait of Hassan Sharif – one of the founders of the conceptual art movement in the UAE and the most unique, influential, and controversial artist of the region. She’s discreetly present in the film, encouraging the artist to talk about his work and share his thoughts about art.
That’s probably not too far from real life – Alghanem’s early career in the Sharjah and Dubai literary scene at the turn of the century overlapped regularly with the equally active art world that was brewing up there, and she became close to the influential group of artists that included Hassan Sharif. Sharp Tools is in part a record of that creative friendship.
As it happens, Hassan Sharif was among the artists selected for the first UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and his work appeared in several exhibitions there since. Alghanem has also shown work at the Biennale – she also presented a piece there as part of Hammad Nasar’s Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play exhibition in 2017, along with works by Sara Al Haddad, Mohamed Yousif, Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie.
The 58th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale will take place from 11 May to 24 November under the overarching title of May You Live in Interesting Times, and the UAE Pavilion will be one of 80 or so national pavilions. 2019 will mark the UAE’s sixth participation at the Biennale.