How Oman’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale blends contemporary art with tradition

Oman’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is showcasing five artists at the cutting-edge of the sultanate’s contemporary art scene. Their works are distinct in medium and subject matter, but there is a commonality in the way the artists reflect on Oman’s history and traditions.

The Omani exhibition, as a whole, draws from a “history of being a refuge to wanderers seeking shelter and belonging", says the pavilion’s curator Alia Al Farsi, who is also one of the exhibiting artists.

Titled Malath-Haven, the group exhibition aims to reflect on the biennial’s curatorial theme: Foreigners Everywhere. It to looks to emphasise “Oman’s traditional values of inclusivity and hospitality", Al Farsi says.

“The English translation of malath is ‘safe space'. Thus, Malath-Haven takes the idea of a port where travellers can rest, find comfort and peace after their journey, and feel a sense of belonging.”

how oman’s national pavilion at the venice biennale blends contemporary art with tradition

Water, by Ali Al Jabri. Photo: National Pavilion of the Sultanate of Oman

The theme’s aquatic undertone is manifest in the first work in the exhibition. Yet, it is not immediately clear how. In Water, Ali Al Jabri presents a range of sculptures made from wood and marble – materials that have become idiosyncratic in the artist’s oeuvre. Stacked and swirled around an opening, the pieces aim to draw viewers to peer into the works – much like looking down a well, where hey may find either water or a dreaded dry emptiness. Each of the sculptures also has a distinct scent incorporated within, emanating from the artist’s careful selection of timber.

"Al Jabri’s use of tree woods and local marble reflect’s Oman’s natural landscape and echoes traditional craftsmanship,” Al Farsi says.

The curator's own installation comes next.

how oman’s national pavilion at the venice biennale blends contemporary art with tradition

Alia's Alleys, by Alia Al Farsi. Photo: National Pavilion of the Sultanate of Oman

In Alia’s Alleys, Al Farsi aims to offer visitors an allusion to the vibrant colours and culture of Oman. Al Farsi depicts this vibrancy through a landscape of mirrors, painted floors and collaged textiles. "My piece aimed to create a city where everyone feels a sense of belonging and home, fostering a space of inclusivity and abundant opportunities,” she says.

Sarah Al Oalqi’s Breaking Bread, meanwhile, examines traditions of Omani women, giving new twists to traditional clothing and touching on family recipes. It is, as Al Farsi says, a “celebration of women and food".

In one example, this two-fold tribute manifests in a sprawling niqab fashioned out of spoons. The work takes an everyday utensil and uses it as a symbolic component of cultural identity. With hundreds of spoons used in a striking arrangement, the work also bears a closer look, as the exhibition’s literature suggests it serves “as a metaphor for the collective strength and resilience".

how oman’s national pavilion at the venice biennale blends contemporary art with tradition

Madad, by Essa Al Mufarji. Photo: National Pavilion of the Sultanate of Oman

Essa Al Mufarji, known for his clay-based works, presents Madad. The enormous work depicts age-old poems in Al Mufarji’s unique calligraphic style. Madad is breathtaking in form and execution, and as viewers get closer to the horizontally suspended pillar, they can hear the whistle of air passing through its central opening.

In The Fate of Outsiders, the migrant experience and the biennale’s overarching theme is encapsulated with a somewhat unlikely character: a sea turtle. Adham Al Farsi’s installation comprises two screens that show contrasting fates of a sea turtle as it embarks on its odyssey, traversing high seas and ocean basins along its migratory journey. One of the screens shows a tranquil fate for the sea turtle, reaching a coastal setting reminiscent of Oman. On the other screen, the sea turtle takes another route, and is met with tragedy. The piece evokes the hopes and fears of anyone who ventures to a foreign land to start life anew.

Al Farsi says the National Pavilion team selected the participating artists for “their significant contributions to their communities and for their roles in re-energising Oman’s contemporary art scene".

The team, she adds, wanted artists to address various pillars of Omani culture, from its language, food and architecture, to its attire and arts. "We wanted each of these aspects to be reflected in the pavilion," she says. "They reflect the notion of Oman as a hub of globalisation. From day one, we have made a point to ensure that Oman should be seen as an ancient land with diverse cultures.”

Al Farsi says she hopes Malath-Haven will instil visitors with a curiosity that will encourage them to travel to the sultanate and discover its vibrancy in person. The exhibition is only a glimpse of what Oman and its art scene has to offer.

“Many may attend the pavilion with preconceived notions about Oman, but I hope that our work can challenge these preconceptions and it encourages them to recontextualise their thoughts,” she says. “I also hope that the presence of Oman at the Venice Biennale will help increase the visibility of our artists and open up new opportunities and collaborations for them.

“Participating in this event allows our artists to collaborate with their peers worldwide, and encourages creativity and exchanges of dialogue. Through this exposure, Omani artists are able to secure their reputation in the global art world and enhance our cultural tourism sector.”

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