BY Rahel Aima in Opinion | 04 APR 24
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The Venice Issue

Sweet Potatoes and Stones: The Ongoing Archive of Abdullah Al Saadi

Representing the UAE at the Biennale, the artist is considered a founding member of the Emirati avant-garde of the 1980s and ’90s

BY Rahel Aima in Opinion | 04 APR 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 242, ‘Mother Tongues

Stones, bones and invented languages – with a side of sweet potatoes – lie at the heart of Abdullah Al Saadi’s prolific, itinerant practice. For more than 40 years, he has traversed the craggy, petroglyph-dotted mountains around his Khor Fakkan home, immersing himself in nature and collecting discarded items along the way. He meticulously documents these extended trips through sketches and writing that, along with the found objects, form the bedrock of his multivalent work, which ranges from psychographic painting and photography to performance and sculptural assemblage. Back at his studio, the inveterate collector meticulously dates and classifies his findings in large metal trunks, which constitute an ongoing archive of fast-eroding folkways and the natural environment.

Abdullah Al Saadi at his studio, 2024. Courtesy: National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roman Mensing

Al Saadi’s taxonomic impulses underwrite his work, which is imbued with the self-conscious sadness of things left behind. One of his most poignant series, ‘My Mother’s Letters’ (1998–2013), catalogues objects that his illiterate mother would leave for him daily at his studio. The work is a kind of symbol-laden material epistle in which twigs, shards of stone and bits of twine or leather stand in for words, even as they index the interrupted transmission of knowledge across generations. In turn, Al Saadi used to write numbers on sweet potatoes and leave them outside his mother’s door, so she knew when to expect him home. It led to an exploration of constructed glyphic scripts, and a decade-long engagement with the humble vegetable. In 2000, the artist began characterizing these tubers, once a staple local crop grown by his farmer father, as musical instruments and gendered forms – many wouldn’t look out of place in a vintage pin-up mag. This resulted in his installation Naked Sweet Potato (2000–10), included in the UAE Pavilion group show at the 2011 Venice Biennale, which included clay sculptures arrayed in metal boxes, drawings, performance documentation videos, paintings, handmade jewellery and a particularly lovely series of engraved stones evoking the ancient rock art found on the Gulf of Oman littoral.

Abdullah Al Saadi at his studio holding an artwork from The Slipper’s Journey, 2015. Courtesy: the National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Roman Mensing

Today, Al Saadi is considered a founding member of the Emirati avant-garde of the 1980s and ’90s, who toiled away in relative obscurity until decades later when the country’s cultural ambitions necessitated an art-historical origin story. But the reclusive artist has largely chosen to consciously uncouple from this ongoing hagiography, instead continuing to work quietly in the studio he built next to his family home. He prefers to show his work in situ or, for a period in the 2000s, installed in the desert or on the beach along the route of his perambulations, reflecting his fervent belief that work should be experienced in the context in which it is made. For this year’s UAE Pavilion at Venice, Al Saadi will show eight bodies of work based on his journeys, including two new ones. The pavilion will replicate the mystique of a pilgrimage to the artist’s remote studio: visitors will move along a pathway with some works hidden in – what else? – metal trunks, which are revealed by performers who relay stories about both the works’ constituent objects and Al Saadi’s travels. It’s a project that feels quintessentially UAE – relocate, replicate, mediate – with the result threatening to be somewhat reminiscent of a theme park.

Tarek Abou El Fatouh and Abdullah Al Saadi at the artist’s studio. Courtesy: the National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia, Photograph: Daniel Borja of Seeing Things. 

While younger Emirati artists have a tendency to romanticize a Bedouin past from which they are now largely removed, Al Saadi is of the generation that witnessed first-hand the wholesale transformation of his society. As such, traditional ways of life are recast as gruelling acts of endurance art for which he often sets constraints, such as carrying his belongings in a wheelbarrow – a Sisyphean task given the uneven terrain – or wearing handmade rubber and goatskin slippers (Al Zannoba Journey, 2015). Put another way, we can understand these performances as primary, and everything made afterwards as documentation. They are reflected in works like Stone Slippers (2013), which marries a flimsy flip-flop thong with a weighty stone base and large, vegetal-toned scrolls, which still bear the influence of the two years he spent studying painting in Kyoto. Crucially, Al Saadi’s practice does not memorialize the past so much as mirror a country that is still very much predicated on a transient, peripatetic way of life – even if the modes of transport have changed.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘The Inveterate Collector’

Main image: Abdullah Al Saadi, Stone Slippers (Al Zannoba), 2013, installation view. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation 

Rahel Aima is a writer. Her work has been published in ArtforumArtnewsArtReviewThe AtlanticBookforum, friezeMousse and Vogue Arabia, amongst others.