Landscape and memory – grand themes in the analysis of culture – came together at the Sharjah Biennial 14 (SB14) in the most unexpected ways. Perhaps for the outsider, like me, who had scant knowledge of both the Biennial or the United Arab Emirates before deciding to travel, the six days were an absolute eye-opener.
Opening on 7 March 2019, the Biennial has galloped into international visibility over the last few iterations – it is now in its 14th edition – and this success is attributed to the leadership of the Sharjah Art Foundation, the development of infrastructure and also curators who have in recent times aligned the Biennial with the global art world.
SB14 was set primarily in the capital city of Sharjah – one of seven emirates of the UAE – a striking, cultural counterpoint to its brash, gaudy neighbour Dubai. Having colonised the old, inner city into a warren of arts spaces under the Foundation – the Biennial also enticed one to cross the territory from its location on the Persian Gulf to the seemingly sleepy town of Kalba on the Gulf of Oman, a smooth two-hour highway ride away.
While Dubai is party central, Sharjah seems to inhabit a more contemplative space – and is a ‘dry’ state to boot. And with SB14 overlapping the annual March Meeting plus the first international event, Global Africa, by the newly minted Africa Institute of Sharjah, it was truly an embarrassment of intellectual and artistic riches.
Three Curators, Criss-crossing Perspectives
Zoe Butt, Omar Kholief and Claire Tancons gave structure and varying registers to a show that represented the works of over 82 artists and their collaborators. Adding to SB14’s theme, “Leaving the Echo Chamber”, the curators added their own colour coded ones – “Journey Beyond the Arrow” (Butt), ‘Making New Time” (Kholief) and “Look For Me All Around You” (Tancons) – sharing the same spaces but insisting on their own distinct thematic trajectories. A recipe for confusion for someone wanting to follow each curators’ thought process.
Tours by the curators did help add clarity as they set up conversations between the selected works – many newly commissioned – which would not have been evident by merely viewing them. These hidden conversations came alive in the talks given by the curators and their associates during the three-day March Meeting that extended the discussions from the first two days of the Biennial. There was a density of ideas being produced not just through the artworks but also the talks, performances and tours.
‘The Middle East is Not a Continent’
Claire Tancons took on the fascinating question of the connection between “Africa” and the Persian Gulf with discussions of the meaning of “blackness” not referenced to the trans-Atlantic slave trade but one in which slavery was nonetheless one mode of incorporation into society and economy. The artists she assembled spoke to a range of geographical and historical contexts – such as Suchitra Mattai who weaves her personal Indo-Caribbean family history into a literal tapestry in Imperfect Isometry.
This connection with African worlds also emerged in the work of Ho Chi Minh-based Vietnamese artist Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn under Zoe Butt’s curatorial lead. His work, The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, imagines conversations between Senegalese soldiers under the French flag and Vietnamese women who came together during the French-Indochinese War, as well as their offspring.
“Heart is head,” said Zoe Butt to me when I remarked on the emotional quotient of the second day of the March Meeting at the Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts. Convened by Butt and Kuala Lumpur-based curator Lee Weng Choy, the series of lectures, performances and discussions produced a much emotionally charged day, than the one we had with Tancons the day before.
International art speak and social theory-laden talk – fugitivity, scopic regimes, extractivism, errantcy, Afro-pessimism – gave way to ‘plain’ speech and the communication of ‘feeling’, though neither end of the spectrum was absent in any of the three curatorial trajectories.
Ulrik López’s energetic ballet Pataki 1921, and the award-winning Aging Ruins Dreaming Only To Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past, a contemplative landscape with whispering palms by Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh, both had ‘heart’ too.
A wonderful vein of art, specifically painting, emerged with curator Omar Kholief’s question “how do we slow down and ‘experience’ the experience?”. He returned to painters Anwar Jalal Shemza (India), Semiha Berksoy (Turkey), Marwan (Syria) from the middle 20th century, asking us to consider their contexts with works from the ’50s to ’70s. Kholief took us further into the present with works by Cory Arcangel and Ian Cheng’s “computer generated simulations”, perhaps with his own question left unanswered.
New Imaginative Routes
On the first evening of the March Meeting at Al Mureijah Square, the wind was visibly chilling everyone to the bone as we listened to discussions about climate change. From Imani Brown’s takedown of “Oil Money and Arts Funding” – delivered as a video presentation as Brown refused to travel to avoid a larger carbon footprint – to Eisa Jocson’s The Filipino Superwoman Band, part of her work centring on Filipino music performers in the Middle East and Asia, these works reminded us of the complex realities of economy and society in the UAE and the region today.
Something SB14 had the courage to raise.
The Sharjah Biennial 14 took place from 7 March – 10 June 2019 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.