You are one of the main initiators of the UAE’s presence at this year’s Venice Biennale. Why were you so strongly behind the UAE being represented?
I am familiar with the local artists here in the UAE, whether they have a galley or not. I went to Venice in 2007 and saw the pavilions and what all the artists were doing. The one question that was answered then and there in 2007 was: are our artists in the UAE as good as the rest of them? The answer that I came up with was, in a lot of the cases, our artists are even better. So, that led me to think, if we have the talent, why aren’t we in Venice?
And what was the process in confirming the UAE’s presence this year at the Venice Biennale?
Most pavilions are managed through a nation’s cultural or state ministry. It is not an Abu Dhabi initiative. It is not a Dubai initiative. It had to be a UAE initiative. So I went to see His Excellency Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais, the UAE Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development and asked him if the Biennale might be something of interest for the UAE? He said, yes, come back with a plan. We did.
We approached Abu Dhabi first – since it is the capital city and because of all the things happening there. They asked if the rest of the UAE was on board. I said, we’re getting there. They said, if we can get the rest of the UAE on board, then Abu Dhabi is on board. So the Emirates Foundation came through. It’s unbelievable how the cultural hierarchy understood Venice as a platform for the UAE.
The second thing I wanted to make sure of was that we, as an office, were independent from the ministry, our sponsors, and the cultural authorities. Venice is a contemporary art platform – it is by definition where boundaries are pushed. I was afraid that, if we had too much involvement from governmental institutions, cultural institutions, and sponsors, then the integrity of the art would suffer.
As soon as I got the okay from the minister, even before the institutional funding came in or even before we approached them, we went to Venice and met with the president. I had an official letter from the minister expressing that we would like to take part. The Venice Biennale accepted. I went to the president, not just to say hi and introduce ourselves; we went there to scout a location.
He took us to the heart of the Arsenale and said, would you like this? I said yes. The location’s capture rate is high, as the majority of the people who come to the Arsenale in Venice will actually walk through the UAE pavilion. That’s very important. You spend a lot of money. You are bringing your artists. You are investing a lot of effort. And for only a half or third of the people to see it is beside the point.
Why the theme: “It’s not you; it’s me “?
It was the curator Tirdad Zolghadr’s idea. And I really liked it. Again, that’s why I like to be independent. Some of our sponsors thought it was a bit too harsh. I said, this is contemporary. If you don’t do edgy, if you don’t do what you want to do, you might as well not do it. So what if it’s truthful, it’s not you, it’s me. I like the two edges of it. It is meant to say ‘look, it’s the UAE’s turn now’. It’s the UAE’s turn to showcase its homegrown artists at an international level; it’s the UAE’s turn to make a statement through contemporary art. I think as a people, we are very humble. But if we have an idea and we want to do it, and we have the means to do it, why not and we want to showcase our home grown talent?
It’s entrepreneurial, I guess.
Yes, it tells people “I know you think that five museums are too much for 2015, but we don’t care what you think. Who should tell us what our timeline should be? In thirty-seven years, we have become a nation. And you expect us to wait fifteen years because you think that’s a more suitable timeline?”
What kind of impact will the pavilion have on the art scene and for the country’s national identity?
I think the Venice Biennale speaks very much to the UAE artists themselves…who are very underrepresented in commercial galleries, in international auctions, in everything. When I speak about a Middle Eastern collection, I’m glad everything else is happening with Christie’s, with Sotheby’s, with all these museums and commercial galleries. When I am speaking as a UAE citizen and as the Venice Biennale commissioner, I can see a huge lack and underrepresentation of UAE artists in all of these. We have two or three UAE artists who have ever sold at auction.
Hopefully the pavilion will not only speak to an international audience, but also to the commercial galleries back home, that there are some talented individuals that you guys are not representing.
Another thing is, in terms of the museums coming to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it’s important, because there is a severe lack of museums within the whole Middle East. That means that, as an artist, as an art student, you cannot fulfill your educational needs and backgrounds. How will you fully understand what you are doing and its significance?
A lot of times I see that artists in the Middle East are at a time lag, in terms of what they are doing – even the materials they are using, of about ten to twenty years. This lag is not because of their lack of talent. It’s the lack of knowing that something has already been done.
It’s not just about importing talent; it’s more about having conduits of cultural education for those that do not have the means to travel. I have the means, but I cannot go to every single museum, every single show. I think we have to see it that way instead of – well, they bought brand names like Louvre and Guggenheim. The Louvre and the Guggenheim are conduits for bringing in a better level of cultural shows. If we had something homegrown, it would be nice. There is a place for it. But we would not have access to the best.
… because the impact for future generations is tremendous.
Exactly, and even this generation. They don’t even know what is going on sometimes…and not just UAE artists. I’m talking about Iranian artists, Qatari artists, Saudi Arabian artists. It’s much easier and cheaper for them to travel to the UAE to see these shows than to spend seven hours on a plane going to London.
One question that has been raised is whether the UAE is ready to accept criticism? Are we ready to face criticism coming from the rest of the world, especially when the UAE has been so criticized in the international press?
I don’t think that anything could be worse than the three years of criticism that we’ve gone through. So, to say that the UAE is not ready to be criticized is unfair.
In regard to the Biennale project, I’m more than ready for people to like it or dislike it. Just like when I go to other pavilions, I like some, I dislike others. Everyone has and is entitled to their opinion.
You have said that taking artists abroad will help them. Does this strategy need to be combined with a strategy to promote more UAE artists?
I don’t think that you can force galleries to take on artists just because they are from the UAE. They would be criticized for babysitting artists without talent.
I do believe that there are several initiatives that can happen. One of them is taking those with talent and making sure that you provide them with scholarships for abroad. I think that Lamya Gargash [featured at the UAE pavilion] became a better artist after spending time abroad and at Central St. Martins. What we have here does not compare to the level of the best art schools abroad. The Emirates Foundation is already addressing this. So, that is already happening, but it has to be more institutionalized. But to force galleries…no, I don’t think so. But this will open their eyes.
How do you see the economic crisis affecting institutional support for cultural projects?
I don’t see it as black for cultural development as maybe for other areas like real estate and the stock market. I do think that what will happen is that only the most important cultural developments will take place. That’s not a bad thing. We were on a fast pace anyway, and now we are just going on a normal pace because of the recession. Many artists may not get the support that they need, but then again, not all of these artists are good enough, in my opinion, to have gotten this support. So now the people, institutions, grant givers, donors, sponsors will be more selective. That does mean that a lot of the so-so artists, so-so artistic ventures, so-so commercial galleries will actually fade, and only the strong will survive.