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Maya El Khalil on Co-Curating the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 60th Venice Biennale

Maya El Khalil is an independent curator and cultural advisor based in Oxford, UK. She collaborates with international institutions on progressive socially engaged projects, developing multidisciplinary exhibitions with a focus on addressing the environmental and climate emergency.

Maya El Khalil

Maya El Khalil

As founding director of ATHR Gallery in Jeddah from 2009–2016, she pioneered exhibition approaches and cultural exchange in the absence of local public art institutions. For the last decade, she has continued to work locally, regionally, and internationally with artists, collectors and institutions to develop the identity and ideas that have defined an art scene, building bridges between the Arab gulf and the world.

This month, El Khalil is co-curating the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 60th Venice Biennale, and speaks to Vogue Arabia about the experience.

What is the theme of this year’s Saudi Pavilion?
Shifting Sands: A Battle Song by Manal AlDowayan tunes into the energy of Saudi women during a period of great transformation. The work is a collaboration between groups of women, the landscape of the desert, and history. Within the space, there are different structures and media, each of which brings forth an element of life in Saudi today – from the landscape with sonic and geological features of the desert to the mediatised perspectives on the lives of women, with headlines silkscreened on the skin of the large fabric sculptures. The structures are ‘desert roses’, a delicate crystal form found in the sands near the Manal hometown of Dhahran. Here, it serves as a metaphor of the complexity of Saudi women. Surrounded by an enveloping soundscape of women’s voices blended with the singing dunes of the Empty Quarter desert, the multimedia installation gives a powerful response to the media clippings printed on the sculptures’ surfaces. Following the structure of Alardah and Aldahha, battle ceremonies traditionally performed by men, the sonic transforms them. Melding women’s voices with the sound of humming dunes is an embodied rallying for solidarity, a collective expression that challenges misconceptions about their lives.

Photo: Courtesy of the Saudi Pavilion

What is the experience of working on the Saudi Pavilion for the Biennale like?
Working with Manal is an opportunity to present narratives that intertwine the personal, cultural, and universal, profoundly resonating with Saudi Arabia’s cultural ethos and staging an encounter with the transformative journey of women in the region. The pavilion this year has been a process of collaboration, participation, and exchange – between the artist and the curators, between us all and the women of Saudi Arabia, and, for everyone involved, a collaboration between the present, traditions and the land. Manal is renowned for her expansive participatory practice, which she has done since her earliest projects. Once more, the work expands the idea of “participation,” integrating women, landscape, tradition, and myth. To bring this to the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia is to offer a platform to Saudi women during a period of profound cultural transformation. Conscious of the work’s fundamental reckoning of the ways Saudi women are discussed both locally and internationally, our curatorial approach aims to bridge local narratives and global perspectives, amplifying the collective voices of women that have been central to Manal’s participatory art practice.

You are representing Saudi Arabia in Venice, what message about Saudi Arabia do you want to give?
The pavilion challenges stereotypes of Saudi women, ideas imposed from elsewhere which ‘other’ them. For example, the media headlines silkscreened on the petals of the desert roses are opposed by the sonic element with a song performed by groups of women. Dismantling preconceived ideas portrayed in the media or fixed in stereotypes, the message is one of a new space and a new voice. The pavilion engages different timescales: the ancient time of the desert, the time of tradition through the reimagined Aldahha or Alardah battle ceremonies, and the collective time of women’s gatherings. Mixing ephemeral materials such as the sonic and the traces of gatherings that happened elsewhere with more definite structures such as the desert rose and the printed materials, Manal and the women she has worked with are articulating a new future. The artist hopes that the work, most notably, will encourage women to look within themselves and to lean on their community of women, “to find their voice and their space within this new chapter in history, much of which is still unwritten.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Saudi Pavilion

Why did you choose Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan?
Manal’s participatory art practice creates spaces for women, bringing them together into moments of powerful collective expression. In the context of this year’s biennale theme, ‘Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere’, the ability to articulate one’s own reality against forces that other and dominate is important. Manal’s work resonates between the intimate spaces where it originates and the public platforms where it reverberates; this is where identity is made and history happens. Her work has long charted moments of significant transformation through collective experiences of this change. To present it in the context of Venice, reframing certain perspectives on Saudi women speaks to the theme and is a natural extension of Manal’s practice.

Shifting Sands: A Battle Song will be on view from April 20 to November 24, 2024 at the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the Arsenale, Sale d’Armi, Venice, Italy.

Read Next: Saudi Artist Manal AlDowayan Channels the Voice of Women at Venice Biennale 2024

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