Art After War
Kuwait’s National Works at the 55th Venice Biennale
Under the patronage of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, Kuwait's first pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale features the work of two acclaimed Kuwaiti artists: sculptor Sami Mohammed and visual artist and professor Tarek Al-Ghoussein. Through its focus on structures of grandeur, National Works examines the development of art and nation in Kuwait post-independence. Curated by Ala Younis, the pavilion also raises critical questions: how do buildings or sculptures convey grandeur? Is it about size or subject? And how do these structures interact with individuals?
Despite depictions of construction, much of National Works exposes the destruction of Kuwait. The Iraqi occupation of 1990 emerges as the second most important event in Kuwait's history after independence in 1961. The Gulf War transformed such "symbols of grandeur" into symbols of resistance. Although formerly associated with newfound wealth and development, these structures have since borne the marks of lost power and aggression. From 1991 forward, "national" took on a new meaning.
On display for the first time outside of private grounds are Mohammed's most notable works-the bronze sculptures of Kuwaiti emirs Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (1972) and his brother Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (1989) commissioned by local newspaper Al-Rai Al-Aam. In addition to the two sculptures, Al-Ghoussein debuts several photographs of Kuwaiti landmarks from his series, K Files, an ongoing project that merges family photographs and documents with a new set of works shot specifically for the 55th Venice Biennale.
At this pavilion, Mohammed's works are displayed in parts. But though the sculptures are segmented, their unity remains in the pictures and stories that show their progression-from idea, blueprint, gypsum, and finally to bronze.
The shimmering figures are Kuwait's first two emirs after its independence from Great Britain in 1961. Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem established the first constitution and decreed the first National Assembly. During the reign of Sheikh Sabah Al Salem, Kuwait instituted its first university and nationalised its oil sector. Miraculously, the sculptures survived the violence and looting of the Gulf War; but as the story goes, Iraqi forces hounded their maker to cast a statue of Saddam Hussein. For the seven months, he lived in hiding and grew a beard.
Al-Ghoussein's photographs also self-portraits, taken at locations of significant national value. We see the artist amidst the shattered Salam Palace, beneath the curves of the National Assembly, at Abdullah Al Salem High School, hanging on a pier at the manmade island of Um Al Gaz, at the Nasr Sporting Club, sitting in the lower level of the Stock Exchange, and finally, at the Al-Rai Al-Aam headquarters where Mohammed's statues for decades stood.
Most of these buildings were constructed during the 1960s and 1980s, and represent the country's modern urban landscape. Many would also recognise them as iconic; for instance, Kuwait's National Assembly signifies both political independence and an artistic vision. Overlooking the Gulf, its prominent curves give the impression of a tent-like structure. On the other hand, Salam Palace-the former residence of state guests-appears as a mansion of ghosts. Iraqi forces occupied the palace during the invasion, and after the war, left it completely defaced.
The photographs portray more than just grand twentieth century construction, however. With the presence of the artist in every frame, we notice the relationship between structure to individual. In the picture taken at Al Nasr Sporting Club for instance, Al-Ghoussein appears as a black speck, only visible in comparison to the vast rows of dull, empty bleachers.
The photographs also make us question the meaning behind the selection of structures. Why Al Nasr Sporting Club and not any other stadium? Where are the iconic, Aga Khan Award-winning Kuwait Towers? Are they too cliché? Do they lack the macabre quality of the broken Salam Palace?
On a micro level, National Works focuses on two disparate interpretations of what constitutes art, of what can pass as "national," and of what we see as 'grandeur'. The works exhibited belong to a time when structure was art, and when art was valued-articulating the schism between Kuwait post-independence and Kuwait post-war. After 1990, nationalism became the antithesis of invasion, liberation overshadowed independence, and the collective consciousness transformed into one that was marked by the effects of war and survival. Not only that, but Kuwait lost its place as an artistic hub in the Gulf. Salam Palace and Abdullah Al Salem High School symbolise more than grandeur, they also depict the way Kuwait has stood still since 1990.
Though the structures exhibited at the pavilion symbolise independence, modernity and progress, they more importantly illustrate a country's reclaim to power. As survivors of war, they represent the struggle for liberation, a second independence, and a reinterpretation of "national." In the end, National Works presents audiences with Kuwait's national narrative from the start of its modernity and up to the present, all the while trying to contend with the aftermath of a two-decade-old war.