Omani artists ponder past, future, environment and identity at first Venice pavilion
The Sultanate of Oman’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, ‘Destined Imaginaries’, offers a snapshot of the country’s vibrant creative landscape and bold cultural ambitions
Among the national debuts at the Venice Biennale 2022, the pavilion of the Sultanate of Oman stands out for its diversity of artistic talent. Its exhibition, titled ‘Destined Imaginaries’, brings together five Omani artists across three generations: Anwar Sonya, Hassan Meer, Budoor Al Riyami, Radhika Khimji and Raiya Al Rawahi, whose work here presents abstract habitats of future relics largely inspired by their experiences of the Covid pandemic, and offers a snapshot of the country’s vibrant creative landscape.
The pavilion’s curator, art historian Aisha Stoby, encouraged the participating artists to reflect on the past two years, ‘not in literal terms, but rather universally’, and to respond to a question raised by the Biennale’s artistic director Cecilia Alemani: ‘What would life look like without us?’ The result is a quartet of installations that have a broad outlook and resonance, while acknowledging their roots in the country’s landscape, tradition and folklore.
The oldest of the participating artists, the septuagenarian Anwar Sonya is revered as the father of Omani art, and is best known for richly coloured paintings that convey the evolution of rural life in his country. It comes as a slight surprise that his contribution to ‘Destined Imaginaries’ is not a painting, but rather a filmed performance, based on a previously unrealised proposal by conceptual artist Raiya Al Rawahi, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2017, aged only 30.
Titled Speed of Art, Sonya’s and Al Rawahi’s collaborative piece meditates on the relationship between art and technology, imagining a future in which artists are being put out of their jobs by artificial intelligence. The film plays inside what appears to be an abandoned aeroplane fuselage, with Sonya reciting an impassioned soliloquy about the importance of artistic creation in response to prompts from Al Rawahi. The artwork ‘is not meant to be optimistic’, explains Stoby, ‘but Anwar gave a powerful, wonderful performance that introduced this element of hope, and introduced this idea of personal voices that changed my perspective on the theme overall’.
Adjacent, another leading figure on the Omani art scene, Hassan Meer, presents the latest instalment of his ongoing project Reflection from Memories, which explores Omani life between the 1960s and 1970s. This was an era of modernisation and social change, accelerated by the discovery of oil in the sultanate.
A lot of Omani diaspora moved back, among them Meer’s grandfather, whose suitcases, letters, family photographs and other personal effects are on view.
Accompanying these are two films by Meer, which the artist explains were inspired by ‘the soul of my grandfather’s old house’.
Stoby believes that for many international viewers, ‘it will seem a bit exotic because there’s national dress, and all these objects which they may not recognise. But at the same time, this reflects a period of modernism for all of the Global South, so I hope there will also be a universality in terms of nostalgia and memories.’
While Meer’s artwork is rooted in a rapidly modernising Muscat, and particularly the commercial centre of Muttrah, fellow artist Budoor Al Riyami draws her inspiration from Oman’s unique mountainous landscapes. Her installation, titled Breathe (pictured top of this article), is inspired by an igneous rock called peridotite, commonly found in Oman, which ‘inhales’ carbon dioxide – water passing over the rock triggers a mineralisation process, which in turn decarbonises the air.
Al Riyami has created sculptures that emulate the appearance of peridotite (a concession to the limited weight-bearing capacity of the ceiling beams at the Arsenale), which hover over small pools of water that display video clips of human hands manipulating the material. Says Stoby, ‘the idea is to ask how it is that we try and shape our environments when our environments are perfectly capable of shaping themselves’.
Concluding the exhibition is a site-specific work by Radhika Khimji, incorporating textiles, sculptures and walls, all based on the Al Hoota Caves, a two-million-year-old cave system in Dakhiliyah, Oman. Famously, it is home to a rare species of fish that has adapted to the lack of natural light and thus lost its ability to see. Khimji imagines these fish emerging from the caves and contemplating their agency: ‘It’s about how we respond to our environments, and whether our environments define us,’ Stoby describes. ‘A lot of Radhika’s work comes back to national identity, and so it was important to have her voice to show the diversity of Oman, which is such a multicultural society.’
Appropriately, the pavilion design is the work of an Omani architect, Haitham Busafi, a co-founder of Oman’s National Center of Architects. Busafi has kept the spotlight on the artists, while deftly dividing the space and controlling light conditions, so viewers can give each installation the time and attention it deserves. Stoby points out that the exhibition structures hint at the influence of Zaha Hadid, who had been Busafi’s teacher at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna: ‘This style lends itself well to the idea of destiny, and a sort of timelessness that exists outside our present moment. It has a pseudo- futuristic aesthetic, which works out nicely with our themes.’
Beyond showcasing the talent and creativity of its five artists, ‘Destined Imaginaries’ is a demonstration of soft power, and a symbol of Oman’s eagerness to engage with the world’s key cultural players. A statement from His Excellency Sayyid Saaed bin Sultan Al Busaidi, the pavilion’s commissioner, and undersecretary for the ministry of culture, sports and youth in Oman, emphasises the pavilion’s goals ‘to position Oman on the international cultural map, to raise awareness of the sultanate’s cultural identity at a global level, and to show our commitment to supporting Oman’s cultural development into the future’.
Crucially, there are already plans to take ‘Destined Imaginaries’ on tour in various parts of Oman after the Venice Biennale, so the people of the sultanate can witness the fruits of this cultural investment. ‘We really hope our largest impact will be locally, to introduce this calibre into our art scene and offer this unprecedented level of exposure to our artists,’ says Stoby.
Stoby further reveals that the sultanate already has plans to be in future Biennales, including the Architecture Biennale in 2023, which have emerged as a result of the planning of this pavilion. This inaugural pavilion is a clear declaration of cultural intent and prowess, and a promise that there is much more to come. §