VENICE - When I visited the Venice Biennale as recently as 2007, the Middle East did not seem to be in the periphery of any curator’s vision. American, European and Far Eastern artists ruled, and the occasional work by Shirin Neshat or Shirazeh Houshiary made people sit up in surprise. What a long way we have come!


PHOTO: MARCO SECCHI/GETTY IMAGES.

At the 2013 edition of the Biennale, there are no fewer than eight dedicated Pavilions to work from the Middle East, with the explosive news that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will in fact be awarded a permanent space in Venice. Commissioner of the Pavilion Dr. Lamees Hamdan, herself a long-standing art patron and collector, and Reem Fadda should be congratulated for this landmark achievement after only two previous appearances in Venice.

This year’s youngest ever artistic director of the 110-year old Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni, is emphasizing the energy and excitement surrounding art from the MENASA region due to a combination of strong funding and socio-political reasons. Of the 160 artists featured in the curator’s exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” several are Middle Eastern, but Gioni was keen to see the regional artists showcased in dedicated Pavilions as it proves more enriching for both artist and viewer.

A newcomer to the Biennale, Bahrain will (under the commissionership of the extraordinary Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Culture Minister of Bahrain) exhibit three artists: Marian Haji, Waheeda Malullah and Camille Zakharia (originally from Lebanon). Iraq, fresh from its acclaim at the last Biennale, makes another appearance, while Kuwait—another first-timer—brings two artists: Sami Mohammed and Tarek Al-Ghoussein. Lebanon showcases a truly Lebanese artist, Akram Zaatari, and the UAE highlights the work of Mohamed Kazem as almost an ode to his mentor Hassan Sharif. Turkey and the Turkic cultures will see strong representation through the exhibition of Ali Kazman’s work, while Dina Nasser-Khadivi should make a splash with the well-publicised “Love Me, Love Me Not” exhibit of contemporary art from Azerbaijan and its neighbouring countries – an exhibition to which our Sotheby’s specialist Suad Garayeva has made a contribution. Last but not least is “Rhizoma” – organzied by Edge of Arabia – and no doubt yet another exciting exhibition.

As I am about to board the plane to Venice, I have to confess that my enthusiasm will keep me well afloat the predicted deluges!