Finding an Arab Voice at the 56th Venice Biennale

Karen Kedmey
Jul 28, 2015 7:42PM

This year’s Venice Biennale brings the pointed works of Egyptian Khaled Hafez and Iraqi-Canadian Mahmoud Obaidi to the city’s storied showcase of international contemporary art. In “In the Eye of the Thunderstorm: Effervescent Practices from the Arab World and Asia,” Hafez and Obaidi join a group of artists from across the Middle East exploring their home countries’ cultural traditions against the encroaching influences of a globalized world.

Installation view of “Mapping Strife,” an exhibition including Hafez and Obaidi at Deborah Colton Gallery, 2014. Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery.

Brought together by curator Martina Corgnati and contemporary Middle Eastern art journal Contemporary Practices, these artists work within what Corgnati characterizes as the eye of a storm. “Art and artists are at the very center of turbulent, violent—and even catastrophic—occurrences,” she explained. “They act as observers in order to keep a proper distance, enough to develop a critical regard and a critical afterthought, a space for creativity and for debate, processing both chronicle and history, scrutinizing the present as well as the past.” From the governmental and religious turmoil that swirls around these artists, they create work that draws from their personal experiences—often to political ends.


Accordingly, both Hafez and Obaidi merge references to the history of their own countries with imagery related to politics, propaganda, violence, and popular culture. Here, Obaidi presents an iteration of his multipart installation, The Replacement, a.k.a. The Imposter Project (2014). In it, he questions the power and multifaceted applications of propaganda by plastering objects, posters, and commemorative stamps with portraits of an imaginary political candidate—a persona, and its attendant memorabilia, that seems more realistic than fictional.

Hafez features a monumental mural and video installation, Tomb Sonata in 3 Military Movements Goddess (2010), that evokes the complexity of contemporary Egypt through a mash-up of references to his country’s ancient belief systems with current political realities and popular trends. Both Hafez and Obaidi could be said to counter the oversimplified vision of the Arab world propagated by the mass media. They demonstrate that within this world exists a plurality of voices and critical opinions—not least of all those of artists.

Karen Kedmey
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019