How the Middle East is represented at Venice Biennale 2024

How the Middle East is represented at Venice Biennale 2024



The 129-year-old festival welcomes Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Few art festivals have a global reach. That’s just one of the many reasons that the Biennale Arte 2024 in Venice, Italy is special. Now, in its 129th year, the event takes place from 20 April to 24 November. In recent years, that reach has expanded to the Middle East and welcomed artists from Saudi Arabia to the UAE. 

La Biennale di Venezia is a cultural institution, which dates back to 1895. The festivals include the Biennale Musica, Venice Biennale of Architecture, Venice Dance Biennale and Venice Film Festival. And, of course, the prestigious Biennale Arte 2024, which is commonly referred to as the Venice Biennale. 

Every two years, Biennale Arte welcomes artists from around the world. Previous artists have included Hans Ulrich Obrist, Pablo Picasso and Peggy Guggenheim. The Arsenale and Giardini are home to national pavilions, which are managed by a country’s Ministry of Culture. It’s like the Olympics of art, and an artist is put forward to represent a country. 

In the 1970s, the festival introduced themes, which were a source of inspiration for artists. For 2024, the theme is Stranieri Ovaunque: Foreigners Everywhere. The name refers to a group in Turin, which fought racism and xenophobia in the 2000s. 

Biennale Arte’s curator Adriano Pedrosa explained: “The expression stranieri ovunque has several meanings. First of all, wherever you go and wherever you are, you will always encounter foreigners – they and we are everywhere. Secondly, no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner”. 

Biennale Arte’s President Roberto Cicutto added: “No curator, in choosing the theme of their exhibition, seeks directly to capitalise on the hot issues of the moment, but all of them are influenced by them. The real presence of the National Pavilions, that this year reached 90 participating countries and 30 Collateral Events, make La Biennale a unique meeting ground between the arts and the changes in society.” 

The 90 countries include Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Egypt, Great Britain, Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Uzbekistan. 

Venice Biennale

Biennale Arte and the UAE 

The UAE was the first country in the Middle East to participate at the Biennale Arte. In 2009, the first exhibition explored the country’s developments. Over the years, the exhibitions have ranged from Nujoom Alghanem’s installations on displacement, to Kenichi Teramoto and Wael Al Awar’s take on sustainable cement. And in 2021, the UAE was awarded the Golden Lion for the Best Participation at La Biennale Architettura – the Oscars of the art world.

Emirati artist Abdullah Al Saadi will represent the UAE at Biennale Arte 2024 with Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia. In the 1980s, he started his career and works across drawing, painting, performance and sculptures. He is famous for his landscapes of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Abdullah Al Saadi
Abdullah Al Saadi

Abdullah shared: “I am honoured to represent my country. Since I was a student, four decades ago, art has been an integral part of my daily life. My art is the result of interactions with places, people, ideas, and aesthetics that I encounter every day where I live and in my journeys. I find myself driven to document these experiences visually or in written diaries and contemplations, seeking to transfigure the ordinary with the passage of time.”

Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia will be curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh. He added: “Abdullah’s visual language remains recognisable through his passionate longing for immersion in nature; he constructs a unique relationship with landscapes, which goes beyond the familiar. I am delighted to be working with him”.

Venice Biennale
Tarek Abou El Fetouh

Biennale Arte and Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia first participated in Biennale Arte in 2011 and is now putting on its fourth exhibition. Manal Al Dowayan will represent the Kingdom with the work, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song. She works across photography, sound, and sculpture and is unafraid to look at the role of women in society. Plus, the curators for her exhibition are all women – Jessica Cerasi, Maya El Khalil and Shadin AlBulaihed – which is a rarity not only in the Middle East but the international art world.

Manal AlDowayan with Iwona Blazwick, 2024. Images courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.jpg
Manal AlDowayan

Manal explained: “My practice revolves around ideas of visibility and invisibility and the politics which surrounds these kinds of states. I work with participatory artworks within community and society, and so it develops around these themes. It is a huge challenge but an exciting adventure. One of the places that today my practice has brought me to is Venice. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s a place where artists have gathered for over a hundred years to present what they see in their own countries.” 

Tickets to Biennale Art 2024 are available now. 

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