A niche of sophisticated reflections, scathing messages, disruptive suggestions. Founded in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial is today one of the most prestigious events in contemporary art, not only in the Gulf. Having grown over the years in size and prestige, it is now a recognized international platform in the intellectual debate on the major current issues. From racial and gender injustices, to the devastation of armed conflicts, diasporas and even decolonization and postcolonial subjectivity.
From racial and gender injustices, to the devastation of armed conflicts, diasporas and even decolonization and postcolonial subjectivity.
Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, receives me in the garden filled with bougainvillea of one of the historic buildings in Sharjah, the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates after Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the nation's de facto cultural capital. For five months, from February to June, the city is staging the Biennal together with Al Dhaid, Al Hamriyah, Kalba and Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman. Among redeveloped historic districts, in traditional internal courtyards and in modern buildings of contemporary architecture, the exhibition is open to visitors free of charge, enlivening the relaxed atmosphere that reigns on the Tropic of Cancer.
This year, the 300 works on display, by 150 artists from all over the world, are organized around the theme Thinking Historically in the Present, a title that pays homage to the Nigerian art critic and curator Okwui Enzewor, first curator of African origin of the Venice Biennale and long-time collaborator on the Sharjah Biennale until his untimely death in 2019
“I'm very grateful to him for giving us this title,” says Hoor emotionally. Daughter of Sheikh Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi, a ruler who is passionate about art and culture, her manner is simple and informal. She agrees to talk to us about “her” Biennal (which she has directed since 2003) by comparing it with the important archetype of the Venice Biennale, the founding event dating back to 1895.
“Sharjah also started with traditional representation, with the country pavilion format, but when I got involved, I realized that there are so many problems when you talk about countries. Some people live as refugees, there are mixed marriages or different ethnicities living in the same country. How do we define nationality? This is one of the things I changed; I got rid of the national representation to create a more “curatorial” exhibition.
According to Hoor, who is also president of the International Biennial Association (IBA), the format of the Sharjah Biennial guarantees freedom and flexibility in terms of themes: “I know the Venice Biennale very well; I go every year. In 2015, I also curated the Emirates Pavilion. It's difficult for them to change in any way, but they are trying. I am thinking, for example, of when Germany and France exchanged pavilion in Venice in 2013 (for the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, which sealed the Franco-German friendship, ed). Or John Akomfrah, a black British man of Ghanaian origins who, moreover, we are also proud to host here. His works will represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2024; it is an important message. But what I mean to say is that Biennials now, at least many of them around the world, truly focus on cities and communities and what they can do for the local people. For traditional biennials, however, there are limits imposed by diplomacy. In Sharjah, we can present artists who criticize the country they come from. Here, we have created an experimental hub where we can push the boundaries.”
Hoor's enlightened and progressive vision cannot be fully understood without considering the path traced by her father
Hoor's enlightened and progressive vision cannot be fully understood without considering the path traced by her father: a PhD in history, at the head of the monarchy since 1972 and the last monarch of a dynasty that dates back to the 1600s. Patron and collector, he has made the Emirate a little treasure trove of culture, filled with museums, cultural institutes and art events capable of attracting international attention, such as the Sharjah Book Fair, one of the largest book fairs in the world.
“My father opened the African Hall and the Conference of African and Arab Relations in 1976. Forty years later, I, in turn, launched the African Institute in Sharjah. His first book, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, showed how the British misrepresented the families of the region “pirates” as a pretext to come and take control of the coasts. My father also studied in depth the Portuguese invasion. Historically, so much has been written about our part of the world from the outside. We all grew up with the western point of view. Now we are trying to write our own story and talk about our history from our perspective. Sharjah has become a platform in which many people can come together in conversation about the Global South.”
The strength of the messages and their representation is astonishing. Art is a free zone, a land of freedom of expression and denunciation, even with respect to the norm and the dominant – western – canon, which we seek to get past. This common thread runs through all the editions; it is almost a mission for the Biennal.
Hanni Kamaly (HeadHandEye, 2017-2018) presented a short film on colonial authority maintained in parts of Africa through the mutilation of body parts and the deformation of the head, hands and eyes of the local people.
The voice of Robyn Kahukiwa also comes from afar, as one of New Zealand's most important female Maori artists. A palette of strong colors and mural dimensions that bring the primordial and literally generative vigor of Maori culture to the fore, with a maternity scene featuring ancestral figures, divinities and totems. At the crossroads of art and activism, her multidisciplinary work focuses on denouncing the expropriation of land and the identity of indigenous peoples.
The work of Kimathi Donkor, an English artist of Ghanaian origins adopts the force of a journalistic documentary combined with theatrical staging to denounce the racial injustices of which the British authorities have been responsible in recent years. Under Fire: The Shooting of Cherry Groce (2005), features center-stage the flash of the gun fired against the dark background of the painting. In The Death of Clinton McCurbin (2022), the line created by custodian helmets, the characteristic hats of British policemen, traces the fall of the victim, a moment before his death.
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