The Venice Internship Program at the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates la Biennale di Venezia

Venice is much more than gondolas, masked balls, and debatably pungent canals. The city represents the very highest echelons of arts and culture as symbolized by la Biennale di Venezia, which is widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious exhibition for contemporary art, film, and architecture. I’ll never forget how when I was first starting out in the art world I referred to the "Biennial" and was corrected by a collector. It’s bee-en-al-ay, he said with pursed lips, shaming me all the way down to my chipped fingernails. If you're new to the art world and reading this I do hope I've saved you from a similar fate.

The UAE debuted a pavilion in 2009 at the 53rd International Arts Exhibition and then expanded its presence this year at the International Architecture Exhibition, which was entitled ‘Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory' and presented the formative findings of an ongoing initiative to archive the history of architectural and urban development in the UAE, complete with photographs, storytelling, blueprints, letters, and other artifacts.

Interns working on the job with curator Dr. Michele Bambling

Interns working on the job with curator Dr. Michele Bambling

I’m already plotting how to get myself to the upcoming International Art Exhibition over the summer, where I imagine getting lost in a labyrinth of exhibition spaces for days at a time with only an espresso, a pen, and my red Moleskine notebook (and maybe a stray cat) for company.

If you are a UAE national or long term resident with a passion for the arts it is essential that you consider the Venice Internship, a one-month long training program that could offer you the opportunity to serve as a custodian and docent of the UAE Pavilion. The application deadline is looming on 15 November.

I was delighted to get the chance to interview two interns who have recently returned to the UAE from Venice. Humaid Mansoor, a painter with one foot in the local street art scene and Noura Alserkal, a jewelry designer agreed to reflect upon their adventures:

DL: Why did you apply for the internship in the first place?

Noura Alserkal: You get to live in Venice for 1 whole month, manage the first UAE pavilion in the 14th International Architecture Exhibition and become a cultural ambassador of your own country! Who wouldn’t want to apply?

Interns installing the exhibition

Interns installing the exhibition

DL: What was your day-to-day life like during your time in Venice?

NAS: The best days would start off when I had a morning shift. Waking up at 8am, then heading off to my favorite cafe to pick up a croissant I’d eat while walking through beautiful alleyways. Some days I would pause just overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. After my shift I would explore the city, especially the museums. It was wonderful and exciting to have the freedom to go to places I enjoyed, like when I visited Palazzo Grassi, and Tre Oci or the time I took a waterbus and visited the islands. Other days, I would spend my free time writing and documenting my experience.

An example of UAE architecture on display

An example of UAE architecture on display

DL: How does Venice compare to the UAE in terms of art scenes, aesthetics, and vibe?

Humaid Mansoor: I honestly don’t believe that the comparison would be a fair one. On the one hand you have Venice, where you can observe visible signs of how the arts have progressed over centuries. On the other hand you have Dubai, where this vibrant community has emerged in the past couple of decades through small pockets coming together to form a ‘scene’. With a world-renowned biennale and history revolving around arts of all disciplines, in my eyes Venice serves as the epicenter of all that is art related. Even though Dubai is relatively new to the art world, there are clear examples of how the city and its leadership are nurturing artists and their work. In Dubai we are at the beginning of a long promising road.

A display from the exhibition at the Pavilion

A display from the exhibition at the Pavilion

DL: Who was the most interesting or unusual person you met?

NAS: One day in the UAE pavilion I met two guys from the Czech Republic, who asked a lot of questions about the UAE and Emirati culture. As we were conversing, they told us their journey to the Biennial was not an easy one and that they’d had to hitchhike to make it possible financially. I was fascinated by their determination and how they went for what they wanted even if it caused a lot of discomfort on the way.

DL: What surprised you the most about your experience?

HM: The biggest surprise for me was how much I loved the city. For the first time ever, I wasn’t itching to go back home after 2 weeks. I’m actually still in denial [that it’s over] every time I sit in my car.

DL: How do you imagine that your experience will influence your own artistic practice as an artist?

HM: I returned to the UAE bursting at the seams with ideas I wanted to experiment with. Each day in Venice was an experience on its own and to try and emulate that in the studio has now become my goal. For this reason, I suspect my next work will reflect an Italian influence.

The Venice interns gathered outside a gorgeous example of Italian architecture

The Venice interns gathered outside a gorgeous example of Italian architecture

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler (1910)

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler (1910)

DL: If you had to choose one song to serve as your soundtrack for the internship, what would it be?

HM: A Night Like This by Caro Emerald

DL: If you had to choose one work of art to symbolically represent your time in Venice, what would it be? 

NAS: It would be Pablo Picasso’s 'Portrait of Daniel Kahnweiler' (1910) because my time in Venice was conceptual yet real. The painting reflects this same sense of independence and abstraction.

Print

Good Ideas: Applications to become a member of the next class of Venice Interns are due on 15 November. This internship offers a unique opportunity for young Emiratis and long-term residents to be part of the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates at la Biennale di Venezia during the upcoming 56th International Art Exhibition, through a month-long internship in Venice where they act as custodians and docents of the National Pavilion UAE. For more information about eligibility and the application process go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of National Pavilion United Arab Emirates la Biennale di Venezia

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Creekside Brings Emirati Heritage and Flavors to Old Dubai

There must be 20 different routes to Creekside. You can arrive by water in an abra (a traditional wooden boat), or by following the sound of the haunting call to prayer at the nearby Grand Mosque. You can stroll through the Dubai Textile Souk, past the lively vendors calling out "Mariah. Shakirah. Beyonce", to entice you to bargain for a pair of pointy-toed slippers, a hookah (water pipe) or a soft pashmina. Take a lucky wrong turn and you could end up in Indian Alley, a narrow secret passage dotted with stalls of incense and flower offerings, leading to a crowded Hindu Temple. The journey of finding Creekside is a big part of the experience.

The building is perched on the edge of the docks and originally served as a lighthouse, then a tailor’s workshop, before standing empty for a number of years and ultimately transformed into its current incarnation this past summer. Pull open the broad wooden doors and step into a serene, minimalist space—part cultural venue, part café—that compliments the endless bustle outside. Visitors sit at simple tables playing backgammon, sharing a meal, or working away on their laptops as outside fishermen, joggers, and tourists go about their daily lives. The air smells of cinnamon in promise of generous plates of food to come.

Creekside 2

Creekside 3

The ever-evolving menu is inspired by Emirati flavors but with a contemporary, Mediterranean twist and was developed by Chef Allen, a native of the Philippines with fine dining experience, including being part of the talented team that opened the 7-star restaurants at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

“We are recreating the idea of an old Arabic coffee shop but in a modern way. We are first and foremost a welcoming community space, but we do offer the food culture of the city,” says the space’s passionate manager, Noor Al Ghafari, who grew up not far from the Creek herself. Creekside is the latest brainchild of Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, twin brothers born and raised in Dubai who care deeply about maintaining elements of the Emirati culture that seem to be diminishing as the metropolis develops. The two are founders of a parent company, Cultural Engineering, which has had a significant effect on Dubai's cultural offering with various projects including The Archive at Safa Park, which connect people through activities and creative programming.

Creekside's minimalist majlis interior

Creekside's minimalist majlis interior

Beginning in the cooler months of the year, Creekside is set to launch arts workshops, guided photography walks, live acoustic music evenings, indie film screenings, and a number of other free or low-cost activities, many of which will take place on the adjoining outdoor terrace positioned right beside the water taxi station out front. Noor says there are even plans in place to acquire a private abraa, which would be used to take visitors on off the beaten track tours.

Anyone who enters is given an illustrated map that aims to increase appreciation for the area’s surrounding buildings and long-time locals as more than just touristic attractions or landmarks. Noor confides, “It bothers me when people say that this city doesn’t have a soul. I ask them, “What kind of Dubai do you know? Come along and let me show you my version.”

Major Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Major Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Together with Arva Ahmed, who operates foodie tourism company Frying Pan Adventures, she often takes her camera and climbs the steep gangplanks into the area’s iconic blue boats to speak in broken Farsi with the traders and fisherman, most of whom come from Iran. These excursions are symbolic of a larger goal to create a relevant visual archive of the region. Noor clarifies that they want to dispel the idea that learning about culture and history can only take place in a museum.

Creekside's entrance

Creekside's entrance

Sipping on an ice-cold glass of lemonade with mint, Noor explains, “This place is meant to bridge the gap between the heritage of Dubai and the contemporary context and serve as a platform for bringing people back to where it all started.” Black and white photographs by the British explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger line the walls, carefully curated to depict the Creek in the 1940’s and 50’s, when it was the heart of a modest, young city known mainly for pearl-diving and trading. A far cry from today’s high rise apartment buildings and sprawling villas, in the era of Thesiger’s visits, most people still lived in simple arish homes constructed of palm fronds, soon followed by innovations like adobe mud brick and the barjeel, wind towers that keep homes cool in summer and can still be found in nearby Al Fahidi Historic District.

From the beginning and into the present, every home was equipped with a majlis, a predominantly male gathering space with pillows or other communal seating arranged in a circle to encourage discussion and political decision-making. With its low bench that circles the space, Creekside is a retake on the majlis concept, and when the tables are removed and an event is in full swing, the arrangement encourages interaction and conversation among friends and strangers of all backgrounds.

While conceiving the menu, Chef Allen took long walks through the nearby souk and was inspired by local spices such as saffron and cardamom, consulting with many local friends about their favorite family recipes, before ultimately composing a selection of offerings that makes Emirati flavors accessible to a wider audience: “I worked in UAE hotels for quite some time, and during Ramadan I always saw a big tray of ouzi (a characteristic Gulf dish of braised lamb with pine nuts and raisins typically served on a mountain of saffron rice) every evening. I thought about a burrito, which has rice, meat, and sauce, and realized that these could be the typical ouzi ingredients but reinvented as a wrap.”

A version of this article first appeared in Open Skies magazine

A version of this article first appeared in Open Skies magazine

Chef Allen hopes that, “even though this is a café, people will be surprised by the menu and the cuisine.” The café serves an affordable all day breakfast (including a dangerously good sandwich of corn beef-hash patties served on an English muffin with local eggs), starters including a refreshing beet carpaccio, and numerous mains is open for three meals daily. The star of the show is arguably the ouzi burrito, the sort of comforting dish you find yourself craving days after your first taste.

The beet carpaccio I am so smitten with

The beet carpaccio I am so smitten with

Good Ideas: I emphatically suggest that you plan a visit to Creekside! I'm especially excited about the arts workshops, live music, heritage talks, and photo walks. For more information about the venue, menu, or program of activities and events go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Creekside. Gratitude is due to Open Skies Magazine for printing this article in the September, 2014 issue.

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Mariam Suhail's 'Accidental Excavations'

If you have to really work to understand a work of art, does that mean it is not inherently strong? In this over stimulated age it’s easy to dismiss work that requires real digging to appreciate. I’ll admit that when I first heard about Mariam Suhail’s Accidental Excavations I was at a loss to understand the message behind the show. Rather than smile and nod along as though I got it, I requested interview, knowing that I might ask some particularly stupid questions at Grey Noise, a gallery that is known for conceptual shows.

Many people are intimidated by conceptual art because they assume there must be a prescriptive meaning to what they are viewing, and if they don’t pick it up easily they are simply not clever enough or not educated enough to understand. As a result, conceptual art can often come across as exclusive.

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

The individual pieces that comprise Accidental Excavations are loosely threaded together by a link to everyday objects and scenes that have resulted in surprising discoveries or unintended results. The photographs, installations, and works on paper are meant to interconnect but also stand on their own. Interestingly enough, many of them were conceived in the artist’s compact home studio using various devices such as a scanner with a mind of its own, a computer, and a light table. Diagrams of outdated systems, an insect mummified between the pages of a used textbook, and a pile of bricks left to rot for 8 years, all figure prominently into the show.

In her measured, deep voice, Mariam offered that in her opinion there is not one prescribed meaning to the art. “These images and the reference points are so common. Everyone sees these in this day and age. For example, the concept of a photograph loading onto the computer display screen, or the instructional drawings that all of us were given to learn about the human body.” Though the works are engaging with universal objects, they will have different significance in each viewer’s mind, and those various references are all correct.

Here are some pieces that particularly intrigued me:

Interruptions 1 and 2 mimic the experience of waiting for a photograph to slowly load onto a computer display screen:

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

Interruptions 1, 2014, C-type prints, diasec

A table containing five identically bound books proved particularly tempting. Each title represented a different series of instructions, diagrams, or a narrow study.
Speaking to her use of the book as an artistic medium, Mariam said, “I really like the fact that you can split the whole work into frames. It’s a format that we are comfortable with, whether we are avid readers or not. There’s almost a knowing as you start about how a book opens and is used, so getting into the work is a simple, automatic process.”

Installation view of 5 Books at Grey Noise

Installation view of 5 Books at Grey Noise

Accidental Excavation was constructed from a medical model of the human digestive system formed of squishy foam scanned, flipped around and digitally enhanced, which makes for a work on paper that while from far away is reminiscent of a Matisse paper cut-out, can be understood as a scientific diagram from close-range.

Accidental Excavation, 2014, inkjet print on Hahnemühle paper,

Accidental Excavation, 2014, inkjet print on Hahnemühle paper,

A photograph of a mysterious object concealed in wrinkled, floral wrapping paper leaned against the gallery wall in the corner. This was the image that had drawn me into the show in the first place, and I approached the corner with the deliberate steps of a pilgrim tiptoeing towards a shrouded monument. I never did figure out why the vase had been wrapped in the paper, but I'm certain that the answer didn't matter in terms of appreciating the work.

Vase Of Flowers, 2014, inkjet print on Hahnemühle paper

Vase Of Flowers, 2014, inkjet print on Hahnemühle paper

Good Ideas: Accidental Excavations appears at Grey Noise in collaboration with GALLERYSKYE Bangalore.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist, Grey Noise, and GALLERYSKYE

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Gypsy Madonnas: Alexander Barkovsky's Uzbek Lithographs in Dubai

The artist Alexander Barkovsky stepped into Alif Gallery wearing skinny jeans and a traditional embroidered Uzbek hat, sat down on a swivel chair and spoke with me about the two years he spent living with the nomadic Mughat people of Tashkent, ultimately earning enough trust to photograph women with their children in poses that echo Raphael and Leonardo’s quintessential Madonnas. The compact gallery space was festooned with a laundry line displaying typical Uzbek pants in bold prints, and the images themselves—lithographs stylized with bursts of saturated color—are nestled in frames built from the bright dowry chests that Mughat girls fill with embroidery and other household items before marriage.

Alexander spoke to me through the translation of Alif’s Founder, Natalya Andakulova, and the rhythm of posing a question, listening to Alexander melodically respond in Russian as we locked eyes, then recording Natalya’s detailed translation, echoed the artist’s entrenched, painstaking process of printing, which took place in his chilly Tashkent studio with the use of an 19th century Soviet press and a smooth, acutely sensitive river stone.

The Lithography process

The Lithography process

A closeup of the lithography stone and a contemporary work being produced using a time worn technique

A closeup of the lithography stone and a contemporary work being produced using a time worn technique

He cites two key influences on his practice: Sergey Prakudin-Gorksii (1863-1944), the father of Russian color photography, and the French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Melies (1861-1938), who originally bought a camera to use in his theatrical shows and then, after it jammed, accidentally discovered the technique of causing objects or people to distort or fade on film.

It’s controversial to present this work in Central Asia, a place in which the Gypsy (a derogatory yet common term), Roma, or Mughat situation is considered sensitive, with many documented cases of discrimination, as well as the belief that the community is unhygienic and embedded in petty crime. It’s still more controversial that the artist represented real Mughat woman as martyrs in his works, explaining, “In general, the men sit at home and the women walk the streets begging for money, even right after giving birth. From her first moments of consciousness, a child understands this way of life and the role of her mother.” He chose to recall Russian icons and Renaissance works honoring the Virgin Mary as a way to recognize the women’s goodness and elevate their sense of self and the way they are regarded by society.

Alexander Barkovsky in his Tashkent studio

Alexander Barkovsky in his Tashkent studio

Despite these noble objectives the artist said, “Half the women denied my requests to shoot them as they hold the belief that the soul will be transferred to any image captured on film, and it is very challenging to change their minds about this as it’s a story that has been passed down by grandmothers in the community.”

The women who viewed the final work did not approve of it. They are influenced by Bollywood’s glamorous notions of beauty and considered these images to be distorted, regardless of the fact that Sotheby’s thought otherwise, selling Gypsy Madonna #6 at a 2013 auction in London titled At The Crossroads: Contemporary Art from The Caucasus and Central Asia.

Barkovsky's 'Gypsy Madonna #6'

Barkovsky's 'Gypsy Madonna #6'

Good Ideas: Alif Gallery is a relative newcomer, focuses on Central Asian art, and serves as further proof that Dubai’s steadily growing art scene is coming to act as a hub for galleries and artists from around the world. The gallery is located in DAMAC Towers and the show runs through 22 October, 2014. For more information go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Alexander Barkovsky and Alif Gallery

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Bernhard Buhmann's Pretenders: The Masks of Social Media

I sat in the middle of Carbon 12’s gallery space speaking quietly with the Austrian artist Bernhard Buhmann, but we were hardly alone. 10 gregarious characters surrounded us, and although they were painted in oils and acrylics on one-dimensional canvas, I felt that they could jump onto the concrete floor, shake themselves out, and join in our conversation at any moment.

Maybe it was their mismatched stockings or the way that they seemed able to almost dance off the canvas towards us, but I felt that there was something childlike and simple about these personalities as if they are trying too hard to be liked. ‘The Pretenders,’ the title of the artist’s second solo show at the gallery, is a commentary on our social-media obsessed times and the addiction that many of us have to advertising only a glossy, edited version of ourselves and the most exciting aspects of our everyday lives to the outside world. The paintings explore how it is easily possible to lose oneself in the vicious circle of keeping up appearances. The sheer 2-metre height of each canvas leaves the artist and the characters with no place to hide insecurities or flaws.

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Here’s an excerpt from the quasi-philosophical conversation I enjoyed with the sociologist turned full-time artist:

DL: Given people’s obsessions with selfies, appearances, and fashion here in Dubai, I find it very intriguing that you chose to present ‘The Pretenders’ here. Was that deliberate?

BB: There are 17 paintings in this series, 10 of which are here, all of which were completed in the past 5-6 months for this gallery space. I chose the 2 meters-high canvases to make the characters life-sized so you could feel their presence. In Dubai of course you see shiny and bright, big, impressive things, so of course this show particularly fits here, but you can see selfies in Europe too, where everyone has the need to change their roles very quickly, seeking attention with the desire to be known.

DL: Do you personally take selfies?

BB: No way, but I do have 17 of them displayed here! I don’t believe that social media is bad and this show is not about criticizing people who use it. It’s more about raising consciousness of how social media is utilized and examining what is missing when someone is immersed in the lifestyle of relying upon social media. In today’s world it may be necessary for survival purposes to constantly reinvent yourself, to be able to make yourself new at a moment’s notice—social media and these paintings reflect that environment.

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DL: Do each of these characters represent a particular aspect of society or do you hope for the meaning to be more open-ended?

BB: It’s open-ended. There is no single message or one particular way to view the show. The best art must open an entry point for you to find yourself. The best way an artwork can function is to pose something that touches you. Your strong reaction to that does not even have to be intellectual. It can be pure emotion. Even a color—a certain shade of bright red, for example—can ignite emotion.

DL: Is there an element of fear at play here?

BB: Yes, of course. They want to be bright and joyful, but you can see that underneath their masks they are grotesque. They try to hide their imperfections, and nearly all their skin is covered. Whenever they want to shirk responsibility, they can simply change their masks.

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DL: Human beings rarely show all sides of themselves--we are made up of complex facets. Perhaps we prefer the fantasy of who someone appears to be, to the reality of who they really are beneath their thick mask.

DL: Describe your studio in Vienna.

BB: It’s the stereotype of an artist’s studio. It’s a big space in an 18th century factory. I keep a guitar there and play it badly while I’m waiting for layers of paint to dry or puzzling over where to go next with a painting. I keep regular hours from 9 or 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening and then close the door.

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Good Ideas: ‘The Pretenders’ runs at Carbon 12 on Alserkal Avenue through 28 October. For details go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12 Dubai.

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