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DUBAI: An all-female group of curators are responsible for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 60th Venice Biennale this year. Jessica Cerasi, Maya El-Khalil, and assistant curator Shadin AlBulaihed will work with artist Manal AlDowayan on her installation for the event, which begins April 20 under the theme “Stranieri Ovunque — Foreigners Everywhere.” 

AlDowayan is one of Saudi Arabia’s most significant contemporary artists. Her work spans the mediums of photography, sound, sculpture, and participatory practice to interrogate traditions, collective memories and the status and representation of women. Her as yet unannounced Venice Biennale work once again places emphasis on participatory elements — particularly the engagement of Saudi women.  

Shadin AlBulaihed. (Courtesy of the Visual Arts Commission)

Cerasi, El-Khalil and AlBulaihed bring a wealth of experience to the pavilion. Abu Dhabi-based Cerasi has worked with AlDowayan before, co-curating her participatory artwork “From Shattered Ruins, New Life Shall Bloom” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in May last year. She has worked with numerous other Gulf artists in recent years too. She also worked as the assistant curator at the Venice Biennale in 2019, and played the same role at the Sydney Biennale in 2016. Cerasi is focused on fostering appreciation for contemporary art among new audiences.  

“It has been wonderful to work with such a team of strong women alongside Maya and our assistant curator Shadin. And then to be working with Manal is an absolute dream,” Cerasi told Arab News. “We were recently in Dhahran for the first of her three participatory workshops, and it was wonderful to see how well respected she is and loved within her community there, and how excited the women were to engage through these women-only workshops. That has provided a very special insight.” 

Manal AlDowayan’s 2012 work ‘Esmi- My Name.’ (Supplied)

El-Khalil is the founding director of Athr Gallery, a contemporary art space in Jeddah, at a time when there were few local public art institutions. She showcased works from emerging talent and established international artists. Her curatorial practice still focuses on building bridges between the Gulf region and the rest of the world. 

Like Cerasi, El-Khalil also has an existing working relationship with AlDowayan. In 2013, she curated the artist’s first solo show in Saudi Arabia — “A Journey of Belonging” — at Athr Gallery, and also collaborated with AlDowayan on the workshops leading up to her seminal 2012 work “Esmi – My Name.” El-Khalil also contributed an essay to the 2023 book “Manal AlDowayan: Participatory Acts.” 

“For Manal, participatory practice is extremely important,” El-Khalil tells Arab News. “Even when the public is absent, these moments of collective making are extremely important for Manal. That feeds into that idea of the invisible or the absence. For Manal, ‘invisibility’ does not necessarily mean ‘absence.’ For her, having operated since before the changes that have taken place in the Kingdom more recently within the context of society, what is assumed to be an absence of female voices is, for Manal, extremely present in what she calls the counter-public. 

One of Manal AlDowayan’s participatory workshop for the Venice Biennale Commission in Al Khobar. (Supplied)

“This was also very apparent to Jessica and me during the participatory sessions, because the power and the energy that is there with these various groups of women coming together is so inspiring,” she continues. “There’s this amazing energy. There’s almost, like, these collective voices that are extremely important for Manal — and extremely powerful. Now, with the changes that are taking place, there’s a lot to be gained, but there’s also a feeling of perhaps being worried about what it might mean suddenly for women to be in the public if they are to lose the support that exists within these groups of women — what Manal calls the counter-public spaces of women.” 

The pavilion’s assistant curator AlBulaihed works at the Misk Art Institute. Her curatorial practice focuses on exploring local narratives through engaging with local culture, archival materials, and traditions, — a practice strongly aligned with AlDowayan’s deeply rooted engagement with communities throughout Saudi Arabia. AlBulaihed participated in Saudi Arabia’s first ever pavilion for the Venice Architectural Biennale with Misk in 2018.  

AlDowayan’s 2020 work ‘Now You See Me Now You Don’t.’ (Supplied)

“Working with Manal AlDowayan is a powerful and impactful endeavor,” AlBulaihed told Arab News. “It challenges stereotypes, empowers female artists worldwide, and contributes to the global dialogue on art and culture. It provides a platform to showcase perspectives, and contributions of female artists from Saudi Arabia on an international stage like the Venice Biennale. 

“I feel proud to be able to share Saudi Arabian artistic contributions on a global platform alongside an established artist and curators,” she continued. “Being able to represent my nation as a Saudi woman who has experienced the great investments my country has provided for my education and experiences is a privilege.” 

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