Culture | May 8, 2019
Poetry In Motion
In the film Nearby Sky, a woman chops stalks for her camel with her weathered, henna-tipped hands. Almost as soon as she has begun, she gets fed up with her knife, and, reaching for a sharpener, starts flaying the two tools against each other, in rhythmic, almost angry staccato.
The gesture distills the energy, frustrations, and short-fuse temperament of the film’s subject, Fatima Ali Al Hameli, the first woman to participate in the camel beauty pageants, races, and auction in the UAE. Al Hameli is allowed only reluctantly into this world: to the camera, behind her back, at times to her face, they say it is eib (shameful) for her to be there, and she never wins any of the honours.
When Nujoom Alghanem made a film about her in 2014, Al Hameli entered into the pantheon of Dubai figures that Alghanem has sketched portraits of through her camera: from her intimate, almost fly-on-the-wall documentary of the UAE’s first great conceptual artist, Hassan Sharif (Sharp Tools, 2017), to Amal (2011), a Syrian artist with a one-year contract to work for Dubai TV, to Said Al Zibadi in Sounds of the Sea (2014), one of last sea singers in Dubai.
National Pavilion UAE 2019 artist Nujoom Alghanem. Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE - La Biennale di Venezia
Alghanem, born in Dubai in 1962, was part of the circle that coalesced around Sharif, and she participated in the first cultural flowering of the young nation, in the poetry scene in Sharjah in the 1980s. Though still young, she published her poetry first in local newspapers and later in books, and married Khalid Al Budoor, another of the country’s great poets. But despite this centrality to the trajectory of arts in the UAE, she herself is somewhat of an outlier for the National Pavilion UAE Venice Biennale’s representation. Firstly, the event tends to take place on an international circuit that, in Dubai’s subtly dual-carriageway art scene, is more closely watched by the English-language community. And secondly, she’s not known as an artist at all, but as a filmmaker and poet.
“Poetry has its presence not only in my daily life but also in everything I’ve thought of or created,” she says. Though it has intersected with her filmmaking before — two of her films, Red Blue Yellow and Sharp Tools, "featured poems which were highlighted and sometimes led the content,” she notes — it has rarely made the leap into appearing in an art context.
But poetry is the reason that the pavilion’s curators, Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, invited her for a solo presentation in Venice: as a way to nod to the centrality of poetry to Arab culture in general, and to the particular role it has played in the Emirates.
“We always felt that we wanted to do something that capitalises on certain aspects of the art scene in the UAE that hadn’t been thoroughly explored in the past at the Biennale,” says Bardaouil, who was born in Lebanon and now lives between Munich and New York. “Poetry in the UAE was a way to document or preserve the collective memory of the community.”
Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. Image courtesy of National Pavilion UAE - La Biennale di Venezia
Given the importance of oral histories, it is no surprise that poetry would have taken priority over the visual arts in the development of the country’s art scene. And Alghanem’s practice also underlines, to a striking extent, the continuity between the poetry and filmmaking scenes in Dubai, which are both dominated by Arab-language speakers. In the same way that poetry is used as a means of social documentation, so too do her films bring a story from the social commons to light. And in both media — such as in the feminist tale of Al Hameli, ostensibly a story of a camel herder — the capacity of art to speak on multiple levels at once allows her to offer critiques of her society.
“As a poet, Nujoom is extremely non-didactic, and extremely allegorical in the way she alludes to a lot of important issues,” say Bardaouil. “Her work is extremely political in nature, but not ever outright. It’s not journalism, it’s poetry. This is the way we approached the video in Venice, when we wove in the spoken language. And likewise when you look at her documentaries, they are always open-ended.”
Passages, Alghanem’s immersive 26-minute video installation at Venice, is based on her poem “The Passerby Collects the Moonlight,” a story of migration and soft exile. In Alghanem’s hands, these two signal workaday features of Dubai existence are transformed into something larger, more universal: the feeling of being alienated from life itself. The poem is set in the evening, and sleep becomes the feared source of separation — a move that gestures towards the tradition of sleep as an allegory in poetry, and, heartbreakingly, which shows the inevitability and daily return of the man’s alienation, of his past receding further into memory, or the insurmountability of the economic obligations that keep him away from home.
The unnamed “He” of “Passerby” becomes in Passages a series of women on their journeys. Again, Alghanem says, these will move from the particular to the allegorical, from the Arab context to a universal one. Similarly, she rebuffs the idea that any of her films might be autobiographical in character, though she says she tactically uses herself in the films to create their feeling of intimacy and directness.
“Narratives do the same,” she adds, “Since they have a personal voice that can initiate an intensive humanistic dialogue and communicate straight to the heart.”
Without revealing too much of the installation, Fellrath and Bardaouil explain that the video retains this capacity of poetry to express not argument but affect — a kind of transposition of the story-telling and experiential mode so important to the feeling of poetry, when apprehended through a poetry reading, to the Venice work, in which Arab oral culture will meet the globalised visual art world.
“We worked together on expanding Nujoom’s experimentation with poetry to the language of the narrative of film in a non-linear way,” he says. “It’s not about understanding, it’s about conveying a certain feeling.”
11 May - 24 May 2019
UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale