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Strong showing for Arab artists at Venice Biennale

Iraqi Pavillion
Image caption The Iraqi Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale

Arab artists are captivating audiences at this year's Venice Biennale, as the Arab Spring lends added potency to works from the Middle East.

At the United Arab Emirates pavilion, Abdullah al-Saadi from Sharjah puts on a polished exhibition with images of a land in transition, wrapped up in a plea for environmental awareness.

Naked Sweet Potato is Saadi's song of praise to the local staple, which has sustained Emirati families throughout the UAE's history.

"We eat this in the winter time," said Saadi. "It is part of our culture."

A neighbouring pavilion holds a more mysterious object - a glimmering metal box balanced on its point over hundreds of carefully placed identical glistening balls.

At first it appears to be a symbol for Mecca, Islam's holiest city in Saudi Arabia. But on closer inspection, the accompanying video and audio suggest possibilities beyond the Kaaba and swirling crowds of pilgrims encircling it.

Image caption Detail of The Black Arch

This piece, The Black Arch, is by Saudi sisters Raja and Shadia Alem, who are at the forefront of a renaissance of Arab art that is making its presence felt at the 54th Venice International Biennale.

That Arab artists are the flavour of the month was demonstrated by the welcome afforded to the Iraqi pavilion, which is back at the Biennale for the first time since 1976.

Housed in a run-down building, six Iraqi artists present Wounded Water, a display that is as moving as it is poignant.

While the Iraqi artists have been invited to all the glitzy, celebrity-studded parties and their pieces are rumoured to be sought after by big name collectors, the works show restraint and maturity.

Image caption Wounded Water piece by Walid Siti

Walid Siti's blood-red river made of mirror and ribbons captured the wounds of a country still trapped in the repercussions of war.

"The river is al-Zab, a tributary of the river in Dijla," he said. "The red ribbons hint at the terrible things that have happened in Iraq."

Ali Assaf underlined the true price of oil in a video of dead and maimed birds in the wake of an oil spill. It is accompanied by a haunting childhood song teaching youngsters respect and love of marine wildlife.

Also making use of an atmospheric building, the pan-Arab exhibition, Future of a Promise, shows 30 works by artists from eight Arab countries in a former salt storage facility.

Curated by Lina Lazaar, it is the largest show in Europe of contemporary art with Arab origins.

Image caption The Future of a Promise, Suspended Together by Manal Al Dowayan from Saudi Arabia

The show's only video is Shadow Sites II, part of a larger work by Jananne al-Ani, an Iraqi based in London.

"The work comes from an English forensic anthropologist's search for butterflies," Ani explained. "She was looking for a species that only breeds on a particular wildflower. When they dug underneath they would inevitably find mass graves."

The idea is that the natural world covers over atrocities, yet there is always a clue on the surface as to what is going on underneath.

"Where the earth is disturbed by digging graves the dormant seed bank is activated and germinates producing flowers," she says.

"Chasing butterflies seems innocent enough, but it unravels horrific acts of brutality."

Image caption Glasstress Exhibition, They Were There by Marya Kazoun from Lebanon

In a separate performance show, Lebanese artist Marya Kazoun, has thousands of pieces of broken glass scattered over the floor with amorphous figures picking them up.

"After a bomb explodes, destroying a building, the area is cleared. Then the empty space becomes a parking lot," she says.

"Then land values rise and another building is constructed on the site. It is a non-stop cycle of destruction and reconstruction."

Arab Spring

With most Arab artists hedging their bets when it comes to the uprisings, the Egyptian pavilion stood out.

Critics hesitate to call it art, referring instead to a homage to the late Ahmed Basiony, shot during mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January.

A series of screens show the deceased in the midst of his last artistic performance at the Cairo opera in 2010, while footage that Basiony shot of mass protests just days before his death is projected alongside.

Image caption Dubai: What's Left of My Land by Reem Al Ghaith at the UAE pavilion

Although it is tempting to bracket contemporary Arab art as a separate category, the huge variety of work on display at the Biennale demonstrates that there is no single defining character, theme or genre to fit all Arab artists.

The one unifying element is the desire to tell their stories through art to a curious world.

The art exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale runs until 27 November 2011.

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