Evaporating Suns: Contemporary Myths from the Arabian Gulf a conversation with Munira Al Sayegh and Verena Formanek

On the occasion of the opening of the exhibition of Evaporating Suns we met with the curators Munira Al Sayegh and Verena Formanek. The preface to the exhibition catalogue edited by KBH.G, poses some key questions to underline the importance of this exhibition: “does the function of myth in the Arab world differ from that in the West or the global South? Is there a common denominator, are there core stories that are generally valid and accessible beyond cultural differences?” The answer relies upon the audience, viewers are invited to suspend preconceptions and stereotypes and open themselves up to a journey through the region’s artistic production.
by Mara Sartore
Mara Sartore
Verena Formanek, Munira Al Sayegh

Mara Sartore: How did this project come about?

Verena Formanek: I was asked by Raphael Suter, as I have lived for many years in the Emirates, to create an exhibition about this area, I hesitated because I’m not so fond of experts that after living a long time in region tell their story about the country, its a matter of respect. But after thinking about it for a while I realised I would have loved to do this with Munira, because I deeply appreciate her way of thinking. The main thing for me was to explore the vision of this generation who have grown up in the Emirates. When I asked Munira she also had her hesitations about the idea of an exhibition on the UAE, with there being a problem in the global west with it, and I said that if we were working together it wouldn’t become an “orientalism” so to speak.


Munira Al Sayegh: I thought a lot about this exhibition, about representing a culture outside of its original context and what that means, to open things up to the viewer to allow a Western audience to become acquainted with it, and I started to think about the ethical framework around this exhibition. I started working with my team, they helped with the selection of the artists, we created a long list between the four of us and we started also to think about the theme, which had to come from either an urgency or invoke inspiration.

Exhibition view, Evaporating Suns – Contemporary Myths from the Arabian Gulf, Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger, 2023 Photo: Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger | KBH.G

Mara Sartore: Can you tell us how did the theme of myth came to mind?

Munira Al Sayegh: One evening I was sitting on the balcony with my mother, and we were having dinner, with the sea in front of us. She started talking to me about the folkloric music that comes from the sea, and I started realising how a lot of this folkloric music points at myths, at stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. I began to think about taking all these stories about the sea from fiction to non fiction, and from that I realised that myth would have been a very interesting frame work with which to present this exhibition. Myth in society can also become fact, if you believe in it enough, and then when you take the fact out of its original space in can become a myth again.

Mara Sartore: All the work in the exhibition is commissioned, how did you manage this, and for how long have you been working on it?

Munira Al Sayegh: Yes it is all commissioned – a part from two works, those of Farah Al Qasimi and Saif Mhaisen.

Exhibition view, Evaporating Suns – Contemporary Myths from the Arabian Gulf, Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger, 2023 Photo: Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger | KBH.G

Mara Sartore: Could you tell us also about how you came up with the title of the exhibition?

Munira Al Sayegh: All my exhibition titles are very metaphoric, this title came to me while I was in Venice, one evening I was lost looking for my apartment and I closed my eyes and had this vision of an evaporating sun. It is really interesting when you put two scientific terms, one next to the other, and suddenly it makes no sense, it is a sort of oxymoron, it’s a mythical framework where the sun evaporates and there is no water, it questions reality by creating a new reality. I was driving with mother in Abu Dhabi, before travelling to Basel, it was sunset and this special moment of the day in my city is incredible, it’s a whole performance in the sky, and I was trying to focus on my drive without being distracted by the beauty in the sky and my mother looks at me and she said: “it looks like the sun is evaporating into nothing”, it was as if the colours of the sun are transformed into the sky and then vanished to leave darkness.

Exhibition view, Evaporating Suns – Contemporary Myths from the Arabian Gulf, Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger, 2023 Photo: Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger | KBH.G

Mara Sartore: Verena, you said that the main issue facing to this exhibition was to avoid “orientalism” and all stereotypes connected to this, how did this work out?

Verena Formanek: my interest in presenting such an exhibition was to destroy Middle Eastern stereotypes. Returning to Europe I realised how much we are confronted with these prejudice in this post colonial perspective of the global west. I’m very grateful we succeeded in overcoming these stereotypes, I personally think this exhibition shows a level which I assume most of the people here in Switzerland will be surprised by, because they come from a region most people don’t have enough information about. This was my dream and Inshallah we have succeeded.

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