I was amongst the fortunate people who attended the UAE's debut at the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennial, without a doubt a very prestigious event and a milestone for a country that has come so far not only in terms of economy, business and trade, but now in terms of culture and the arts.
From the two-decade old Sharjah Biennial to the weekly Dubai art exhibition openings and the upcoming Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, the UAE is now challenging the traditional art centres of the Middle East, including Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul and Beirut and is placing itself firmly on the global art map.
Seeing the UAE banner and Emirati volunteers working diligently left an unforgettable positive impression on all of us who traveled for the event.
It was a surreal moment, a proud moment but ultimately it was a bittersweet moment. The positive energy of the Zayed University female volunteers, working hand in hand with each other was almost overshadowed by one drawback. Unlike every other country that took part, the UAE was the only one that was officially represented in two separate pavilions across a canal from each other. The issue of conflicting identities has always been an unwanted presence in the psyches of Emirati nationals. Are we one country or seven states within a federation, or are we a bit of both?
Lately, it seems that there has been a tug going on within the country and I thought it was never as clearly manifested as it was during the Venice Biennial. On the one hand, the UAE Pavilion organised by the Ministry of Culture featured not only Emirati artists like Lamya Gargash and Ibtissam Abdul Aziz but also UAE based artists such as Tarek Al Ghoussein, a Kuwaiti of Palestinian heritage who lectures in the American University of Sharjah. I thought that featuring him was a testament of the inclusive nature that lies within the spirit of the UAE.
On the other hand, the Abu Dhabi Authority on Culture and Heritage aka ADACH had its very own Pavilion that also featured Ms Abdul Aziz and Hassan Sharif, another artist that was represented in the UAE pavilion.
The question every one was asking in private was "Why two pavilions?" Now I am asking it in public: Why two pavilions? Does the federal government know about this? And if so what is their position? This is a question that I fear cannot be answered, not in public at least. To be fair there were other "special cases" like a dedicated Venice Pavilion in addition to an Italian one, but that can be attributed to it being the host city.
Additionally, Australian artists were represented in two pavilions but the second was an individual effort not an official government initiative.
It hit me hard when I saw the European Nordic countries participate in one pavilion, and so did a country that no one hears of today: Czechoslovakia -- yes, indeed, I had to rub my eyes to believe it myself.
The truth is that had the UAE's contribution been divided in two under a single banner that makes sense by allocating video art, installation art, or photography and painting in separate pavilions it would have made sense. But not only did both pavilions feature the same art forms, they even featured the same artists. I do not mean to provide criticism of the art that was included, which varied in quality from very good to plain silly.
What really got under my skin was the fact that we are in an international arena and we must be represented as one nation.
Keep in mind that there are some instances in which a federation's components can participate individually; one example is football in Britain where England, Scotland and Wales participate separately in European championships and internationally. But it would seem mighty odd if England had a team and Britain had a team in the very same competition.
One major solace was the fact that Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the emirate's Tourism Development & Investment Company, which oversaw the ADACH pavilion visited and inaugurated the UAE pavilion first along with Dr Lamees Hamdan, Commissioner of the UAE Pavilion, a gesture that resonated in the hearts and minds of many who were present.
The best example to draw from for the future is the UAE's own experience. As one nation, under one flag, with one people, including our expatriates, we are stronger, we are better and our prospects in competing with the rest of the world are greatly enhanced.
So this is a plea to whoever is responsible for our participation in the next Venice Biennial in 2011: please make sure the official UAE pavilion is held under one banner no matter in how many locations it is held at because under one flag, we are stronger, we are better and our prospects in competing with the other pavilions are greatly enhanced.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based art collector and co-founder of Meem Gallery in Dubai
Article originally published in Khaleej Times on Saturday June 13th 2009