CAMP, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, 2009–13, video. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah. 

Sharjah Biennial 11

Various Locations
United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

All eyes were on Sharjah, as the highly anticipated 11th edition of the Sharjah Biennial (SB11), long famed as a repository for dialogic and ideational exchange, opened to the public in early March. This year, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi took on the role of both president of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) and artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial, after Jack Persekian’s six-year tenure in the latter position ended in a dismissal over the display of controversial artworks in the festival’s tenth edition. Stakes were high for SB11, which aimed to propagate the notion of Sharjah as a place for progressive and critical thinking, while continuing to integrate itself into the local, traditional community. With this in mind, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, together with the Biennial’s curator, Yuko Hasegawa, chose the ambitious yet conservative curatorial premise entitled “Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography.” 

This theme was deployed through the seemingly simplistic architectural concept of the Islamic courtyard, which, in fact, connotes historical, environmental, religious and social complexities. Implicit use of subtle, poetic forms with intricate subtexts seemed the salient approach for the biennial’s most impressive artworks. Turkish conceptual artist Cevdet Erek’s Courtyard Ornamentation with 4 Sounding Dots and a Shade (2013) emitted rhythmic, staccato beats from four speakers installed on each inner wall of a courtyard within an older heritage house in the SAF art space area. In the middle of the plaza, these configured popping sounds or “dots” combined to produce a tribal-like dance beat. Another wondrously playful installation was German artist Thilo Frank’s Infinite Rock (2013), in which viewers individually entered a black geometric cavern, sat on a swing and looked around to see infinite reflections of themselves and the room, as all of the interior surfaces were lined with mirrors.

Across from the heritage area, on Bank Street, the Biennial continued in the Sharjah Islamic Bank—a 1970s structure that will soon be demolished—which effectively brought art closer to the local public. Video installations such as Iraqi artist Jananne al-Ani’s compelling Shadow Sites I (2010), Excavators (2010) and Groundworks (2010), which explored alternative readings of space and memory, provided the building with a new narrative. 

In the festival, there was a conscious focus on sound and video, which Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi referred to as being “direct” with “an instant message” and “most accessible to [the] audience.” Similarly, the offering by Mumbai-based collective CAMP, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2009–13)—a video exploring the life of Sharjah’s historically significant trading area, situated near the Sharjah Creek—drew much attention from Pakistani, Indian and Iranian locals. Another project involving the local Urdu-speaking community was Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s musical performance, Dictums 10:120 (2013), the traces of which could be heard down the alleyways of the new SAF art spaces. For this project, SB11’s production and technical teams selected text from art talks that had been held at the Biennial’s tenth edition, which was then translated and sung in the traditional Qawwali style of Sufi music. Conceptually, this performance gave back agency to the unsung heroes of the community, although in reality it came across as a somewhat awkward juxtaposition to those familiar with the language and tradition.

With SB11, there was a conscious effort to emphasize the city of Sharjah’s own mix of nationalities, and to look to the “Global South” as an area where artists need more support and exposure. The effect that this direction will have on Hasegawa’s grand aim to “reassess the Western-centrism of knowledge” is yet to be seen. For now, the SAF’s newer art spaces will help to host residencies and film festivals, and exhibit contemporary art from the ever-expanding region, while maintaining Sharjah’s characteristic medina-like aesthetic. When asked about the various types and ages of the Biennial’s venues, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi replied, “Sharjah’s buildings come from different periods, some derelict, some rebuilt and some renovated—each have different truths.” In the same vein, the cycle of conserving and building on Sharjah’s history as a place of cultural and conceptual growth continues with successive editions of the Biennial.