Nujoom AlGhanem is interviewed by Hania Afifi

While the entire world was preoccupied with the damages of the 2008 financial crisis, the UAE was busy preparing for its debut at the 53rd International Venice Art Exhibition of 2009. It is as if they were determined to tell the world, that culture continues to be produced and deserves to be celebrated despite economic hardships.  Fast forward 10 years later, and we find ourselves in a similar scenario but with different challenges. The 2019 UAE national pavilion presents a solo exhibition for renown Emirati poet and filmmaker, Nujoom AlGhanem.  It is conceived as a single site-specific immersive work.  Composed of a 26-minutes two-channel video and twelve-channel sound installation entitled Passage, it addresses the global pressing issues of migration and displacement.  The immersive nature of this video-narrated poem enables you to experience the psychological, emotional and physical attributes of a journey; whether it be through yourself or a passage onto a different life.  We caught up with AlGhanem and asked her about her own passage through the Venice Biennale.

National Pavilion UAE 2019 artist Nujoom Alghanem.
Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia

Hania Afifi:

When and how did you know that you were selected to represent the UAE at for its national pavilion?

Nujoom AlGhanem:

It was an indescribable moment, full of joy and wonder. I was alone in my studio when Sam and Till, our curators, called me. Sam asked me if I was sitting or standing. I told him “I’m painting”. He said, “ok leave everything and sit down”. I was exactly in the middle of the studio and when he informed me that I would have been the solo artist for the year 2019 so I started screaming saying “oh my God, oh my God”.

HA: Who was the first person you shared the good news with?

NA: The first person I told her was my daughter, Fatima because she is an artist and shares with me the studio space almost every day. And the second one was my husband.

HA: Poetry is an aural art form deeply ingrained in the UAE culture.  Why did you add another sensory dimension with film?

NA: For this project the film was the first choice. However, poetry is a major part of my practice and introducing it side by side with the moving picture was an artistic decision because poetry is a unique form of expression. 

HA: Do you feel that film will limit the listener’s imagination of the poem?

NA: The project depends on both languages, visual and auditory. The visual image is also powerful and can convey the meaning profoundly. It can expand the significance of meanings. The curators and I felt that poetry will add another important layer to the narrative. As for the central poem used in the film “The Passerby Collects the Moonlight”, it was written in 2009, almost 10 years earlier. 

Nujoom Alghanem, Passage (production still), 2019.
Courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia.
Photo credit Augustine Paredes of Seeing Things
Nujoom Alghanem, Passage production still 2019.
Courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia.
Photo credit Augustine Paredes of Seeing Things

HA: Passage Is an amalgamation of two art forms: film-making and poetry writing.  Tell me about the challenges you faced in realizing this piece?

NA: Each stage has its own beauty and challenges. Yet, choosing the theme and writing was the longest which is logical in any film project. Shooting with around 100 extras in the desert was the most difficult part technically and logistically. Then shooting in the sea was another challenging part because we were watching the weather forecast to shoot the misty morning. 

HA: There is no doubt that the theme of displacement and migration is a global hot topic, however, the UAE is not at the centre of it.  Why did you choose to explore this theme for the UAE pavilion?

NA: The Committee of the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates, La Biennale di Venezia, Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, the Commissioner, and the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development which accepted me as the Emirati artist to present the country in the 2019 Biennial, were very liberal and supportive of my concept. They respected my choice and helped me and the curators make it happen.

HA: From your point of view, what is the role of the artist in global discourse?

NA: The artist is responsible for his/her concept, style, genera, language, approach, etc. It is important to give him/her the space and freedom to practice their art. If someone doesn’t like the outcome of his/her work that doesn’t mean he can prevent him/her from exhibiting or publishing. 

HA: Some artists say “we make art for art’s sake”.  What are your views on this?

NA: That’s the artist’s choice and we have to respect it.

HA: In recent years, the UAE government has actively encouraged creativity and the arts through numerous programs to nurture and develop young talents. From your viewpoint, is it important that the government takes an active role in the Arts? And Why?

NA: Sometimes societies cannot understand the importance of art because of different levels of education, understanding, awareness or lack of knowledge. However, the institutions can because they are found to support and educate individuals as well as public. They can give the artists the chance to show their creativity in a healthy environment. They can create these healthy environments and provide protection so different art forms can survive and progress.

HA: Impressionism was born in France, Futurism in Italy and Abstract Expressionism in the US, what genre do you hope the UAE will be recognized for?

NA: In our time in the 80s we wanted to create an art movement that stands for its own. With Hassan Sharif we were fascinated by the new forms. After more than two decades Hassan’s work got to be described as conceptual, he even was called the Father of Conceptual Art in the UAE.  Hassan himself didn’t want to be labeled but he got that tag next to his name. I cannot think of something in particular, but I believe that today it is very easy to think of anything and make it yours. I would like to create a movement with my friends and call it the Deformative Movement.

Sam Bardaouil, Till Fellrath, Nujoom AlGhanem

HA: As an Emirati artist, what would you like to say to:

  • Ralph Rugoff, the chief curator of this year’s biennale;
  • HE. Noura Al-Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture & Knowledge Development;
  • Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curators of the UAE pavilion; The visitors of the pavilion.
  • The visitors of the pavilion.


  • To Ralph Rugoff: Thank you for making our Times with art memorable;
  • To HE. Noura Al-Kaabi: Thank you for always being there;
  • To Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath:  You are everywhere in my thoughts;
  • To the Visitors of the pavilion: The shadows scare no one here, the water does not kill. These are only our thoughts, imagine the reality.