Mar 11 2019

Sharjah Biennial 14: March Meeting, Day 1

by HG Masters

ULRIK LÓPEZPatakí 1921, 2019, photographic documentation of live performance at Bait Obaid Al-Shamsi on March 9, 2019, during the March Meeting Program at Sharjah Biennial 14. All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Sharjah Biennial 14—“Leaving the Echo Chamber”—and the concurrent three-day March Meeting symposium were divided between the Biennial’s three curators and their respective exhibition programs. In reality, this year’s March Meeting was elongated to four days, beginning on Friday March 8 in Kalba, a town on the eastern coast of Sharjah facing the Omani Sea. There, curator Claire Tancons had convened performers and speakers in the former Kalba Ice Factory and nearby Fen Cafe and Restaurant for a performance program as part of her exhibition platform within the Biennial, “Look For Me All Around You.” The title of Tancon’s exhibition references pan-African leader Marcus Garvey’s phrase “Look for me in the whirlwind or a storm, look for me all around you . . .” and elaborated on ideas of the diaspora, not only in terms of populations but what she called “migrant images and fugitive forms.” 

MOHAU MODISAKENG, Land of Zanj, 2019, photographic documentation of live processional performance at Kalba Ice Factory and Kalba Beach on March 8, 2019, during the March Meeting Program at Sharjah Biennial 14.
MOHAU MODISAKENG, Land of Zanj, 2019, photographic documentation of live processional performance at Kalba Ice Factory and Kalba Beach on March 8, 2019, during the March Meeting Program at Sharjah Biennial 14.

Friday’s discursive program included writer and editor Fabian Villegas’s talk about the need for “new forms of political narratives” and “epistemologies of the South” among populations facing civilizational crises, a theme that resonated with speakers Yarimar Bonilla—an associate professor at Rutgers University who penned an article in the Washington Post about how Puerto Rico’s “quasi-colonial” status as a United States territory exacerbates its vulnerability to natural disasters—and African diaspora ethnographer Aisha Bilkhair, whose work illuminates the seaborne cultural links between the Gulf and Africa. Mohau Modisakeng’s processional performance Land of Zanj (2019), created with Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni, began within the Kalba Ice Factory, with black-clad performers interacting with objects including an old chest and a long wooden boat that recall the material and commercial histories, including slavery, of the Swahili Coast of southeastern Africa. Later, the performers led audiences along the Kalba beach, entering the water and staging other tableaux, such as lying in an old wooden bed, processing through a wooden door, or climbing in and out of an old fishing boat, suggesting the passages of people and cultures across the sea. 

Back in Sharjah on Saturday March 9, the program began in Bait Obaid al-Shamsi with a performance by Carlos Martiel, Sabor a Lágrimas (2019), which featured the artist lying face-down on the floor with legs suspended by ropes used by pearl divers, within a space formerly used to press dates and make molasses, as date pastries with fake-pearl skewers were passed to viewers. In a subsequent performance, Eslabón (2019), the artist lay on the floor of a rooftop area piled with semi-domed fishing traps, recalling kinds of bondage between the body and the equipment of grueling forms of labor. 

Partial installation view of HANNAH BLACK and EBBA FRANSÉN WALDHÖR’s Suntitled, 2019, plywood, audio recording, asphalt, fabric, speakers, light sensors, microcontroller, gobo, dimensions variable, at Sharjah Biennial 14, 2019. 

On the rooftop of the same complex, at 11:11 AM that morning, with a completely different and more playfully sardonic tone, Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör’s installation Suntitled (2019) was activated. At specific times of day, sunlight streams into the pale-blue, painted, cubic room, which has little smiley faces cut into the sides and roof. The light causes the smiley faces to move across the surface of asphalt chunks on the floor, arranged to vaguely resemble anthropomorphic figures. At these times, an audio track kicks in, so the figures appear to deliver a humorous monologue about existence as a “semi-solid petroleum product.” 

A few minutes later, the courtyard came alive with Patakí 1921 (2019), organized by Ulrik López on a giant chessboard in the plaza. Two sets of dancers were dressed in white and black palm-fiber costumes, echoing those of Yoruba practitioners in Benin, and recalling the syncretism of traditions like Santería and Regla de Ifá. To live music, the two sides faced off, recreating in Afro-Caribbean dance-forms a ballet originally developed for the 1966 World Chess Championships in Havana. The dance, titled La Partida Viviente (“the living match”), commemorates a 1921 chess match in which Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca defeated a European, though it was originally choreographed in the form of a European classical dance, rather than one that reflected the more complex heritage of the Caribbean’s populations. 

The first talk of the day featured Whitney Museum performance-art curator Adrienne Edwards, who offered a powerful reflection on ideas and metaphors of Blackness, drawing on texts by Marcus Garvey and Martinican writers Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant, as well as other historians and theorists. She was followed by artist Jace Clayton, who spoke about the phenomenon of “white noise” as a symptom of climate change, particularly in the form of air conditioning, but also the drum-machine snare sound produced by the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. 

MESCHAC GABA, Perruques Architectures Émirats Arabes Unis, 2019, photographic documentation of live processional performance with wigs made from artificial hair on March 9, 2019, during the March Meeting Program at Sharjah Biennial 14. 

In the afternoon, Meschac Gaba’s processional performance Perruques Architecture Émirats Arabes Unis (2019) saw woven headpieces in the shape of buildings in the United Arab Emirates being worn and transported from one square to another. Back in Sharjah Art Foundation’s Gallery 1, Peter Friedl’s project No Prey, No Pay (2019) featured special guest Johnathan Lee Iverson donning a sequined suit and top hat and performing, with excellent bravado, the role of a circus ringleader. No Prey is one of several works by Friedl including non-white subjects in performative roles since Report (2016), his project for documenta 14. 

Outside the Sharjah Art Foundation spaces, the day’s second panel, “To pay and repair?,” looked at museum institutions and the idea of extraction and restitution. Academic Alexandre Kazerouni spoke with searing clarity about how the museums of the Gulf in Qatar and Abu Dhabi (what he called “mirror museums”) have been instrumentalized for the local elite to enter the political power hierarchy of the West. Felwine Sarr, an author of a French government report on the restitution of colonial artifacts, raised questions of reparations and how that can be achieved. Artist and researcher Imani Jacqueline Brown’s video-lecture looked at the parallels between fossil-fuel extraction and cultural funding through the site of the Mississippi Delta. Finally, architect Philippe Rahm talked about the urgency for architects to reduce energy consumption of buildings, as inefficient heating and excessive air conditioning are the biggest contributors to global climate change. 

That evening, Eisa Jocson’s performance of The Filipino Superwoman Band (2019) in the courtyard addressed topics of migrant labor through the 1989 R&B single by Karyn White, Superwoman, which was a popular track in 1990s Manila. The song and its various iterations, with words intentionally dropped out by Jocson and two other singers, evokes both the care work of Filipino migrant laborers performed around the world as well as the phenomenon of Filipino show bands in the UAE, a reminder that migrant labor can be cultural too, even when it’s not in the social strata of the international art world. 

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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