Artist And Curator Alia Al Farsi Discusses Oman’s Entry At The Venice Biennale 2024

Emma Hodgson   |   28-05-2024

In an increasingly hyperconnected world, the 2024 Venice Biennale has turned its focus to how, at one time or another, we will all experience life within a culture different from the one we were born into and in turn, meet people from differing backgrounds and life experiences.

The result is the impressive overarching festival for its 60th edition, which is titled Foreigners Everywhere.” For Omans Pavilion at the Biennale, organisers have looked to Alia Al Farsi, a leading figure in Omans contemporary art sector, to curate the exhibition, for the country. Alongside owning and running Omans largest private gallery, Al Faarsi has participated in numerous exhibitions, both at local and international levels. Notably, she was a keynote speaker at the UAE Embassy in 2023, where she contributed to a virtual panel discussion on the Fine Arts scene in Oman and the UAE. Her work has been showcased in prestigious exhibitions worldwide, such as the KunstRai exhibition in Amsterdam in 2022. Al Farsi held a solo exhibition at the 15 Gallery in Riyadh in 2021, demonstrating her artistic prowess. Her international presence extends to the London Global Art Fair “Art 15” in 2015 and the London Arabia Art and Fashion Week in 2017, along with many other art gatherings. For her entry into the 60th Venice Biennale, she has presented a collection of five prominent Omani artists, including her own work, under the theme Malath-Haven,” drawing upon Omans historic position as a country welcoming and opening to people from other cultures. This month we sat down with Al Farsi to learn more about her experience within the Omani art scene and her thoughts about this years Biennale. 

      

What was your inspiration for Malath-Haven”?

In Arabic, Malathmeans safe space,or a port where travellers could find comfort, peace, and a sense of home. Drawing from Omans centuries-long values – inclusivity and hospitality – the exhibition demonstrates the talent of local Omani artists, whose work reflects the country as a refuge to those seeking shelter and belonging.

How did you incorporate it within the wider Foreigners Everywhere” theme for Venice this year?

To relate to the Biennales theme of Foreigners Everywhere”, we wanted to showcase the impact of multiculturalism on the country, using the historical influence of foreigners as a guide, my team and I came up with a selection of pillars that encompassed the theme: language, food, architecture, attire, and arts. With our art, we aimed for these pillars to be represented in the exhibition.

Tell us a bit about the artists you have chosen to include at the Pavilion.

When I was selecting the artists for this years Biennale, I was inspired by Omans wealth of talent and in particular how certain artists blend traditions and heritage with contemporary creativity. In their work, the artists [chosen] really showcase their cultural background and artistic identity. Their work fosters cross-cultural understanding and celebrates the breadth of artistic mediums and narratives in Oman. They use innovative techniques, materials, and concepts influenced by our culture to help them stand out in the global art scene and contribute to the conversations of contemporary issues

What was the selection process for including the artists in the Biennale? 

I have had the privilege of working with a supportive and dedicated team throughout my experience curating the Biennale exhibition. In selecting artists for the exhibition, we put their capability of embodying the Foreigners Everywhere” theme first. During the consideration process, we assessed how a variety of local Omani artists were able to reflect on the pillars specific to this exhibition. The pillars – language, food, architecture, attire, and arts – were essential in curating the exploration of our societys interconnectedness and diversity, so we took the artistsabilities to sufficiently represent them into account. 

What are some of the highlights from the works being shown at the Pavillion?

The artists reflect the art scene in Oman by mixing traditional concepts with contemporary expressions. In my work, Alias Alleys”,  I wanted to transform my timeless cityscapes into an immersive journey, enveloping visitors in garments that symbolise the rich cultural tapestry of Oman and building a city where no one feels like a foreigner, creating an inclusive place with a multitude of possibilities that define the country today, portraying Oman as a cherished home for all.

Water” by Dr Ali Al Jabri combines tree woods with local marble, demonstrating the fruits of Omans natural landscape and symbolising the journey of an immigrant in search of belonging. In Dr Al Jabris sculptures, each well is adorned with unique colours, symbolising diversity, while their bases remain uniform, representing our common origins as humans. As the sculptures ascend, they illustrate how societies and experiences shape us differently over time.

Sarah Al Olaqi took the concept of cherished family recipes to demonstrate the importance of food as solace and identity in Breaking Bread”. The installation aims to evoke a sense of appreciation for the rich traditions of Omani women, preserving family recipes and quietly shaping the narrative of their lineage and their clothing, specifically the niqab. The use of spoons in the installation represents the transformation of ordinary utensils into a symbolic representation of cultural identity.

Meanwhile, Essa Al-Mufarjis work Madad” unveils the subtle yet profound ways in which languages and terminologies are shaped by external influences. His installation is a testament to this nuanced understanding, presenting viewers with Arabic calligraphy inspired by poetry crafted over a millennium ago, exploring themes of immigration and foreignness with timeless elegance.

Last but not least, Adham Al Farsis video art The Fate of Outsiders” tells the tale of turtles as a metaphor for foreigners in life. Each screen shows the potential fates of these outsiders, one serene, the other depicting their unfortunate demise due to choosing the wrong path. Ultimately, these works all embody the globalisation of Oman, depicting its multiculturalism.

How have you chosen to lay out the works in the Pavillion? 

I chose to lay out the works based on the concept of taking the visitor on an immersive journey through the diverse elements of interconnectedness in Omani society. I arranged the artworks so the journey starts with Dr Al Jabris work, which leads visitors through a sensory exploration of the scents he incorporates into his sculptures. Next, visitors proceed to Alias Alley” to experience the vibrant colours and cultures at the heart of Oman. From there, they move to Al Olaqi ‘s exhibit, which celebrates women and food. Then, visitors explore Al-Mufarjis work, which offers an auditory journey through the sound of wind passing through his artwork, carrying Arabic poems and phrases engraved on the pieces. Finally, the journey concludes with Al Farsi’s visually immersive experience, following the tale of turtles and their connection to Oman as their homeland.

As it celebrates its 60th anniversary, what significance do you think the Venice Biennale hold in the wider artistic and cultural community?

The significance of the Venice Biennale in the artistic and cultural community is immense, as it is a place where artists can engage in meaningful dialogues with international creators, inspiring creativity, collaboration, and cultural dialogue. It secures an artists status in the global arts scene and allows them to share their own perspectives on global issues. It has been an honour and a privilege to curate the second edition of the Sultanate of Oman Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Being an Arab and Omani artist and curator, my aim is to encourage exchange, experimentation, and discussion that can help deepen our personal and national culture. I hope to demonstrate the richness and antiquity of our culture to a wider audience, while simultaneously challenging the stereotypes that can often be associated with it.

The Venice Biennale runs until Sunday 24th of November 2024. labiennale.org/en