Renowned fair’s chairman speaks of Venice Biennale’s ‘love story’ with the Arab world

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

In a special interview with Arab News, Roberto Cicutto, who has overseen the prestigious institution since 2020, spoke of the “love story” between the Venice Biennale and Arab and Muslim countries over the years, and talked up the possibilities for further cooperation with artists in the future.

The 74-year-old Venetian, with a storied background in cinema production, met Arab News in the Ca Giustinian palace, a few steps from St. Mark’s Square.

Looking out at the unique view of the most celebrated lagoon in the world, dotted with Renaissance bell towers and cupolas, he recalled that, since the 1930s, 15 Arab and Middle Eastern countries have participated in the Venice Biennale, which was founded in 1895.

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

“In the new millennium we had the pleasure to host more prestigious presences from that part of the world,” Cicutto said. Indeed, Arab and Muslim nations have flocked to the event since the turn of the century, with Morocco participating since 2005, Lebanon since 2007, the UAE from 2009, Bahrain from 2010, Saudi Arabia from 2011, Kuwait from 2012, Yemen from 2016 and, finally, Oman joining this year.

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

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

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

The pavilion, entitled “Wetland” and curated by Wael Al-Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, presented an experiment encouraging people to think about the delicate relationship between waste and production, both on a local and global scale, proposing a construction model capable of combining craftsmanship and advanced technologies.

“Hashim Sarkis was the first Lebanese curator of the 2021 International Architecture Exhibition. An architect and dean of the MIT School of Architecture in Boston, Sarkis chose for his edition of the exhibition — scheduled for 2020 and then postponed to 2021, due to the pandemic — a title which will prove to be premonitory: ‘How will we live together?’” Cicutto said.

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

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

“More and more, art and architecture exhibitions also refer to artisan traditions which do not forget ancient traditional forms of manufacturing or construction techniques in their artistic form,” he said. “In our sustainability age, the Arab countries represent an example of the fact that everything that can be recovered from the past (can) become a worthy practice on sustainability issues.”

Cicutto says that the Venice Biennale “has already experienced great interest from some Arab countries,” and at Dubai’s Expo 2020, it held a presentation at the Italian pavilion, welcoming the participation of the UAE Minister of Culture Noura Al-Kaabi.

Now the Venice Biennale aims to “offer its facilities as a laboratory platform for all those students and researchers, who are interested in its disciplines, to experiment with the theoretical knowledge acquired in 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 oldest film festival in the world has played in attributing artistic dignity to the film industry,” Cicutto said.

In 2017, the Biennale College’s cinema section for emerging filmmakers and micro-budget films financed a project called “Martyr,” which was presented at the festival that year, directed and produced by a team from Lebanon.