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For the first time in the 128-year history of the International Biennale of Arts in Venice, or Venice Biennale, Oman has presented a national pavilion, “Destined Imaginaries.” The debut show features five artists representing three decades of the country’s modern and contemporary art scene. Curated by art historian Aisha Stoby, the pavilion explores questions around the environment, history, landscape, and imagined futures of Oman through a display of four multimedia installations. The pavilion and its installations were developed in response to the 59th Venice Biennale’s overarching theme, “The Milk of Dreams,” selected by the biennale’s artistic director, Cecilia Alemani. A guiding question for the biennale is, “What would life look like without us?”
While Oman’s participation in the art world’s most renowned art exhibition takes a considerable step in bringing Omani art to international audiences, Stoby’s curatorial approach focuses on the historical presence of conceptual art in Oman, particularly the work of the local artist collective The Circle. Though the collective’s last formal exhibition was in 2007, it exists today in different iterations led by the young Omani artists. By highlighting the work of artists spanning several generations, the pavilion introduces visitors to the breadth of the Omani artists’ media and approaches, while highlighting the universality of their themes to the pavilion’s audiences. Stoby aims to highlight the younger generation of Omani artists who are leading the country’s lively contemporary art scene in line with the sultanate’s Vision 2040.
AGSIW spoke with Aisha Stoby to learn more about the artwork presented in “Destined Imaginaries” and the significance of Oman’s presence at the exhibition. Stoby shared her insights on her curatorial approach, primary aims in selecting artists for the pavilion, and ambitions for what the pavilion could contribute to the Omani art scene.
AGSIW: How did you come to curate the first-ever Oman pavilion at the Venice Biennale?
Aisha: The idea of having a pavilion in Venice was not new; it was discussed by our previous Ministry of Culture and Heritage. And this pavilion now has been spearheaded by our Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth. I was very fortunate to have been a part of these discussions from their early stages and have felt deeply honored and privileged to take on this role. Eventually we decided that this was the year that we were going to go. So, I proposed the five artists who are in the biennale.
AGSIW: What was your thought process in curating this exhibition?
Aisha: I would say that my background is very academic, and I approach any curating I do with that in mind. Curating, for me, is very much related to research. For Venice, although it’s not quite a historical exhibition, it was important to me to include a lot of background on the artists and for it to be what I hoped was an informed exhibition. Because we were participating for the first time, there were dual concerns for me: how we’d be perceived globally, but also, perhaps more importantly, how this would be perceived locally – how Venice would fit into our local arts ecosystem and what it would mean for us as a country. I thought of it in terms of the historic importance of our being present, not as a reward but as an accomplishment. The five artists are part of a very interesting conversation that is representative of the discursive nature of Omani art and the community-based focus we have. But in addition, they are each pioneering in their own right, and that deserves to be celebrated, which was also part of the desire to have them in Venice.
Because it was the middle of the pandemic, one of the first things I mentioned to the artists was: We’re unable to meet, you’re unable to exhibit, we’re unable to see art; I’d like you to reflect on what this period has meant to you and what you’ve learned from it, not in a superficial way or literally in terms of this virus. I wanted them to consider what we’ve learned about ourselves, our lives, and our mental health and what they’ve taken away from this experience. Concerns about the environment came up as well as concerns about what we’ve gained and lost and where we stand in relationship to our society. All those themes are inherent within the artworks. When I say conversations, I should clarify: They were conversations I had with the artists individually, but also as a group, so these were ideas that were stirring and were on everyone’s mind as the works were continuing to develop. The last thing that came was the title of the exhibition, which sort of drew it all together, as the concerns that were voiced within the exhibition were present from its inception.
AGSIW: What do each of the five artists at the Omani pavilion bring to the exhibition?
Aisha: The first is Anwar Sonya, who is perhaps one of the most accomplished Omani artists. He is definitely our most esteemed, established, and senior artist presented. He began practicing in the 1960s, prior to the establishment of fine arts societies and the Youth Studio, which he would later go on to found. He was a contemporary of many other pioneers in the region, who played a very similar role in coming back to their countries and founding local ateliers, but also taught students including Hassan Meer, who is another artist in our pavilion.
I’d like to think of Hassan Meer as having taken the baton because he plays so many different roles within our local arts infrastructure: He is a gallery director, a curator, an artist, of course – a painter and installation artist with a very diverse practice – and he runs annual mentorship programs. In addition to that, he is also the founder of the group The Circle, which joins all of the artists in this exhibition. The Circle is a collective that began in Muscat in the late 1990s doing work that I consider to be very innovative and entirely unique in its content and its form.
Budoor Al Riyami was part of The Circle as well, and she’s an artist who is concerned with a range of different scopes, including poetry. Her husband is a very famous poet in Oman, and her father was an artist in the same generation as Anwar Sonya, so she comes from a very artistic background. Her work is influenced by both those figures in her life, like her calligraphy, which is influenced by poetry, her painting, photography, montage, and work with textiles. We chose to show an installation work of hers, but it’s also very material, so it references the other elements of her practice. For me, she’s an artist who’s been very important, very innovative, and a central figure in the conceptual movement that developed out of Oman.
The fourth artist is Radhika Khimji, who is known for having a very diverse and poignant practice but also a very quiet and intuitive practice. Radhika is also a very interesting landscape artist who has very perceptive ideas of identity and where we fit within our environments. The context of where we come from and how that can shape us is almost always present in the work that she does. In the case of our pavilion, she created both environments and species.
The final artist is Raiya Al Rawahi. I was very keen to show someone from the current generation. She passed away two years ago, but she had a very prolific and developed practice, particularly for an artist of such a young age. It was a difficult decision, of course, to present work of an artist who’s no longer with us, and I was very lucky to have the support of her family in developing the work, in particular her husband, Jamal Abid, and cousin, Marwa Al Rawahi. Every single one of us in the pavilion knew her, so there were constant conversations about her practice, and there was very much a group protectiveness of her and a feeling of really wanting her to be there, and I hope we did her justice. The work that we eventually showed was a collaboration with Anwar Sonya.
AGSIW: What facets of Omani art did you hope the exhibition and artists would capture?
Aisha: In terms of the content of the works of art themselves, that really developed out of conversations about the biennale. I didn’t necessarily impose a theme or a medium onto the artists. They were all either new commissions or extended commissions, so further developments of works that were previously made. In that sense, I had an idea of what the exhibition might look like, but I didn’t dictate what the artworks would be or how the content would emerge.
I was hoping to show the innovative nature of Omani installation art, some of the things that make it unique. For example, a central element of The Circle, and its younger counterparts, is playing with media in ways that are unusual. One way in which this is done is showing videos as objects, which was done in several of the artworks.
AGSIW: Could you give us examples of the artwork shown in the Oman Pavilion?
Aisha: Part of Anwar Sonya and Raiya Al Rawahi’s work is a short video piece that is in an abstract airplane fuselage and is part of a proposed exhibition, “Resonance of the Unknown,” that she wasn’t able to execute. This work was called “Speed of Art.” The entire installation is dated 2017, the year she passed away, to 2022, which is the year we executed it. Similarly, in Hassan Meer’s work, we have these video images that are shown in found objects from his grandfather’s house, alongside what he refers to as moving photographs, which are in the background. The point I’m making is about the sculptural element of these videos and the discursive element of these installations. Hassan’s piece began in 2009 and is an ongoing project from one of the last Circle exhibitions, which took place during that time, so it also alludes to The Circle period. So, we see different ways in which Omanis are continuing too; it’s a nod to the past to be innovative in their new media practices.
AGSIW: What about Radhika’s installation – what drew you to her work?
Aisha: The idea of working with the blind fish is something that Radhika had wanted to do for a very long time but wasn’t sure where or how to do it. It wasn’t part of the brief for the pavilion that each of the works had to take some inspiration from the Omani landscape, but they all did, and it definitely felt in some ways like bringing a piece of Oman into Venice. When you stand at the entrance of the pavilion, Hassan’s work is in front of you, then you have Budoor’s work on your right, and Radhika’s work on the other end, and it feels a bit like you have the mountains coming around you on different sides.
So, in this piece by Radhika, there are photographs that she took of the caves, and you see eyes peering through the cave systems. There’s another element which is, for me, something really special and was quite complicated to do, although it feels really seamless in this space. Arsenale, the area where our pavilion is located, is a space I think people always fight with because it really has its own character. But we integrated, within the space, these tile elements. They’re the same tiles that we have in Muscat on the pavement and are supposed to create a parallel for us as viewers to what Radhika sees when she walks down the street in Muscat. This is her vantage.
The idea was for the viewer to also go up this curved wall and to question these fish, which are blind as a result of their environment. They’re actually born with sight, but because they exist within the cave systems, a film comes over their eyes. It’s unknown whether, if you were to take those fish out of those caves, they would regain their eyesight. So, this tile wall that comes up is meant to have us face these fish. It poses the question, are we a result of our environment as well? Do our environments define us? Is it the other way around? Is the lethargic element of the fish something that’s been imposed on them, or is that something inevitable that comes from the space in which they exist? For me, those tile elements are essential to the work, and one can find all sorts of other questions and parallels inherent within that to other areas of life. So, the work is about the fish and the Al Hoota Caves in Dakhiliyah, which are very specific to Oman, but at the same time, the universality of it and these questions are, for me, very strong and powerful in this piece.
AGSIW: What were you hoping visitors would take away from the experience of visiting the Oman Pavilion?
Aisha: I was hoping they’d come away with the breadth, uniqueness, and range of different media that were shown within the space. We could have shown just one or two artists. Venice in some way lends itself more easily to such a presentation because there’s such a saturation of work and within one space, executing one or two ideas can be a very effective way to execute a presentation. Producing a group show was a challenge, and I am very proud of all of the artists for having lived up to this task of creating works that stood on their own and that were powerful on their own but also worked really beautifully within the context of the exhibition as a whole. It was wonderful to be able to put that together. There was a very distinct feeling within the space, one that was quite dramatic, which is something I felt typified the concerns of The Circle collective from the 90s to the mid-2000s – I won’t necessarily say contemporary Omani art, but playing with new media, playing with our expectations of what art looks like. All of those elements were not part of the brief but were present in the space.
AGSIW: What was the initial international response to the Oman Pavilion?
Aisha: We were really happy with the conversations we had and with the attention we were given. I have had different terms ascribed to it. Someone described it as a wonderland, someone described it as a playground, and someone described it as a land of relics that were dropped into a space. I think that all of those assessments are exactly how I hoped people would envision it: this idea of these works that are really quite momentous – they’re large-scale commissions with a lot of depth – but that speak to each other in different ways. My hope was that the viewer would be able to enjoy them and explore each piece one after the other.
As a researcher for the region, I’ve always felt that the Gulf has suffered from marginalization. I felt that the Middle East is often overlooked, and the Gulf is often overlooked within the Middle East. Even more so than that, I was really happy that Oman was given some attention, because these are artists who have been so prolific and have long-standing careers and really deserve to have the attention that they have gotten from Venice, including from the international art world. We’re also bringing the exhibition back to Oman after its closing and will be showing it at spaces throughout the country.
AGSIW: Looking forward, how do you hope this exhibition will impact Omani artists and the local art scene?
Aisha: I have very ambitious hopes for what this exhibition will do. I hope that it will make people very excited. I hope it will ignite something in our local ecosystem. And I hope that we’ll continue to go back to Venice – and I know that our commissioner, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth, has already expressed an interest in this. In terms of artists, I had a huge range I could’ve chosen from and who are keen to go.
I believe we made our local artists proud – I’m really proud of all of them. But I hope that within Oman there is a real feeling of, you know, “I want to be an artist, and this is something I could do one day. There’s a ladder that I can climb, and this is what it looks like.”
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