Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 11:51 UK

UAE rivalry strikes false Biennale chord

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Venice

Abu Dhabi exhibit
The Abu Dhabi exhibit showcases architectural ambitions in the emirate

Riding high on recent publicity surrounding its plans for architecturally daring mega-cities for the arts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is participating for the first time in the Venice Biennale .

In fact, there is not just one Emirati pitch in the prestigious arts festival's most coveted area - the Arsenale - but two; a national pavilion in the name of the Emirates and a platform for the country's capital, Abu Dhabi.

But if the pavilion is national by name, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a showcase for the UAE's most high-profile emirate, Dubai.

The national pavilion is all about one family from Dubai
Mohammed Kazem
UAE artist

The exhibition is entitled It's Not You, It's Me, which curator Tirdad Zolghadr explained is a playful suggestion that the Biennale was no longer just about European and American art.

But some critics have interpreted it as a not-so-subtle message from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and the other five emirates.

According to Anna Somers Cocks, founder editor of the Art Newspaper, having two pavilions could cause confusion in the minds of visitors.

"It would be good if they didn't have two rival set-ups but put their forces together", she said.

"Westerners are very bad at geography, so they are asking is Abu Dhabi part of the Emirates or is it a different country? Is it part of Africa? A co-ordinated approach would be better."

But since the national pavilion's featured artist, Lamya Gargash hails from Dubai, and the pavilion is sponsored by a member of her extended family, others have argued that Abu Dhabi had every reason to set up on its own.

Art not trade

A stone's throw from It's Not You, It's Me pavilion the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) platform gives a better and more clear idea of Abu Dhabi's ambitious architectural plans.

"It's true that having two pavilions might give a negative impression," says Abdulla al-Ameri director of the arts and culture department of Adach.

Ebtisam Abdul Aziz (Photo: Richard Duebel)
Ebtisam Abdul Aziz says she felt her work was included as an afterthought

"But it does give us more space to explain what we are about."

For many visitors hoping to acquaint themselves with the art of the region, the contents of the national pavilion are largely disappointing.

According to artist Mohammed Kazem a number of UAE artists boycotted.

"Hassan Sharif and other Emirati artists including myself refused to participate in the national pavilion," he says. "It is all about one family from Dubai."

Because of the importance of Hassan Sherif, the doyen of UAE art, the Emirates pavilion borrowed one of his works from Qatar so as to be able to show something from a major contributor to the UAE arts scene.

Meanwhile, across a narrow strip of water, Adach's huge space divides into two floors giving plenty of scope for self-promotion.

The ground floor entrance shows massive posters of planned future construction and is laid out in such a way as to offer visitors the chance to "buy into" the Emirate.

Anna Somers Cocks explains that both pavilions fail to come to grips with the nature of the Biennale.

"They've misunderstood," she says. "They've used the Venice Biennale to present their emirates in a way that you might do at a trade fair. They are not so much about art itself".

As for that art, Abdallah al-Saadi from Sharjah sketches 60-metre-long friezes showing scenes around his native Khorfakan and illustrating the destruction of the natural habitat since the discovery of oil.

Ebtisam Abdul Aziz's arithmetical pieces show an interest in the perennial quest for Emirati identity, as the region becomes ever more Western and local inhabitants become mere statistics identified by a series of numbers.

Work from Edge of Arabia by Ahmed Al Mater
Saudi Arabia's exhibition showcases contemporary art that retains a Gulf feel

But Abdul Aziz, also from Sharjah, says she felt that she was sidelined by the attention given to the featured artist. "It looks as if I was an afterthought."

The featured artist, Lamya Gargash, presents a photographic series of one-star hotels in Dubai, but it has not been well received by the critics.

"It's rather touching that going to photograph in a one-star hotel should be considered sociologically daring," Anna Somers Cocks says.

Cautiously optimistic

Away from the inter-tribal rivalries at the Arsenale, Saudi Arabia has its Edge of Arabia show in at the Palazzo Contarini Dal Zaffo Polignac near the Accademia bridge on the edge of the Grand Canal.

The exhibition showcases contemporary Saudi Arabian art that still retains a Gulf feel.

Ahmed Mater Aseeri's Magnetism shows a Kaaba-shaped magnet with thousands of tiny iron filings clustered around it and held in place by an unseen magnetic force.

"We are moving forward cautiously," explains Hamza Saleh Serafi, a gallery owner from Jeddah. "Culture takes time to develop and we have a very rich culture."

Hamza explained that there was no rush to build. "We may have a few exciting projects to announce later on, but we are taking it slowly and developing the artists now."

Abdulnasser Gharem, an artist from Khamis Mushait, makes videos and mixed media pieces about people's relationship with concrete.

"Concrete represents safety and protection" he says. "We put our faith in it and it just lets us down."

He couldn't have spoken a truer word. The way to create a well rooted arts scene in the Emirates may well depend less on pouring concrete and more on developing the artists.

Correction July 13 2009: This article was changed to include the official explanation of the name of the UAE's exhibition.

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