Trends Biennial United Arab Emirates

Still waters run deep in the Gulf

The noise may all be about the art scenes of Doha and Dubai, but the solid creativity is in Sharjah

Visitors to the 2007 Sharjah Biennial. The emirate has been building a reputation for culture for the past 20 years

Glitz and six-inch heels at the Dubai art fairs last month; high-cost international art in Doha with the Takashi Murakami show, previously in Versailles, where it was paid for by Qatar’s ruling family. The noise in the western media has been about these places because that is where there is money, there is buzz, and for many, art is all about money.

But there is another, quieter emirate, where art is still about art, where there is an evolved museum scene, where you can see theatre and hear cross-over music such as Tarek Atoui’s “Revisiting Tarab”, heard last month in one of the old city’s squares.

It is Sharjah, the emirate in the UAE that westerners can rarely quite place (it is just north of Dubai, as close as Wimbledon to Piccadilly). With income from a little gas and a free port, it is not rich compared to Abu Dhabi or Qatar, yet it has invested for over 20 years in its museums, in its biennial and the March Meeting, now in its fifth edition, when it invites a range of international artists, curators and policy makers, not to mention journalists, to do some cross-fertilising talking.

If Qatar is known for its foreign policy ambitions and Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi as the seat of the UAE’s central government, Dubai as the hub for finance, commerce and tourism, Sharjah is the emirate where intelligence and education are valued most highly. The emir, Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, gained PhDs in history and geography at Exeter and Durham universities, and takes the lead. His daughter, Sheikha Hoor, a fluent Japanese speaker and graduate of the Slade and Royal Academy Schools has a gentle manner but a resolute character, which led her, when only 22, to turn the 2003 Sharjah Biennial from a show where the efforts of ambassadors’ wives were exhibited into an international event, fully in touch with the contemporary avant-garde. Abdul Rahman Al Owais, the minister of culture of the UAE, admitted to The Art Newspaper that he had opposed the change, but says that the biennial is now one of the outstanding events of the UAE. Actually, it is one of the outstanding events of the whole Middle East, easily the equal of the Istanbul Biennial, and an indispensable insight into the ideas circulating in the region and beyond. “A lot of artists here use art as an outlet for political dialogue, as the best way of getting their point across. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Sheikha Hoor. This issue came up also at last month’s March Meeting: “If the [US] State Department had looked at what artists were doing in the Cairo Townhouse [an art centre in the depressed city centre] rather than listening to President Mubarak, they would not have been caught so unaware by the revolution,” says Cynthia Schneider, a specialist at Georgetown University in culture and diplomacy. (Currently, though, life has overtaken art; the artists are too busy getting on with the revolution to be making works, says William Wells, the founder of the Townhouse.)

The theme of this year’s March Meeting was artists’ residencies—the embedding of artists in communities for mutual benefit—and the commissioning process. Apart from the session led by the artists, who upset at least one member of the audience by harping on about grants for production costs rather than higher things, the two main themes were: whom is the art reaching and what are its social and political implications? The speakers ranged from the US to Korea, from the director of the Grizedale Sculpture Park in England’s Lake District to the cultural adviser to Tokyo city. They were there either because Sheikha Hoor had made contact with them on her travels, as in the case of Lu Jie, the Beijing-based founder of the Long March Project, or because of the researches of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which is now the organisation behind the biennial and the exhibitions and performing arts in between. We heard from Adeela Suleman of the Vasl Artists’ Collective how artists from abroad still want to take up residencies in Karachi, Pakistan, despite the risk of terrorism; how the Southbank Centre in London has turned the concept of residency on its head by inviting people from the Morrinho Project in the São Paulo favelas not to bathe in the cosmopolitanism of London, but to teach Londoners how to deal with youth crime, “to get a blood transfusion from the younger, more energetic country into the comfortable, first world country”, as Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, puts it. Agreed, says Wells: “You should invite the non-West to the West to run workshops, rather than send westerners out to pontificate.” He went on to warn against ignorant political correctness, as with the 2010 Cairo Biennial, which the US government has always supported as part of it subvention of the Egyptian status quo. This time, instead of sending an American artist, as in past years, it told the director of the Arab American Museum to choose Arab-American artists, who were then shocked to get a cold reception by their Egyptian counterparts, who felt that the biennial was being pigeon-holed, with a concentration on its “Arabness” and ethnicity.

Delicate topics were touched upon at the meeting and with a sense of common purpose, but one young Emirati man in national dress, a rarity in the audience, asked the key question: “Why are the museums empty?” Yet, while this is certainly true of Qatar, with its beautiful but echoing Museum of Islamic Art and its Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, it is much less so for Sharjah, where strenuous efforts are made by its museums, which are in the historic centre, to involve the people. “Our audience is everyone, we translate some of our material into Urdu and Tagalog,” says Sheikha Hoor, referring to the Pakistani and Filipino workers, who in other emirates get ignored in any cultural programming, much to the indignation of western critics. “We encourage the artists in our residencies to work with the universities and schools. We collaborate with the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, which is for the disabled, especially the autistic. Of course we are for the elite, but also for people attracted by our music performances, for example. And I do not want to monopolise the scene with contemporary art; we also have the Calligraphy Festival, which attracts people from far afield. You can’t expect everyone to like what we are proposing.”

She came up against this rudely last year shortly after the biennial had opened, in Sharjah Heritage Week, when families and school groups were visiting the old city, where the works of art were sited in the courtyards. They were shocked to see apparently blasphemous sexual writings in Arabic on an installation by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil. In fact, they were a denunciation of the misappropriation of Islam by murderous groups during the Algerian civil war from a theatrical piece already shown in France by the artist, but when shown here without any explanation, it was inevitable that they would be misunderstood. The director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Jack Persekian, who admitted he had not seen the work, resigned, arousing protests by artists and curators in the US. At the time, people wondered whether there would be another Sharjah Biennial, but the curator for 2013 has been named, Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and the March Meeting has gone ahead as planned. The episode was neither a symptom of an Islamicist clamp-down, nor a reaction against the liberal educational model established by the emir and carried forward in the cultural sphere by his daughter and museum professionals. “I told all the staff, there is no one person to blame,” says Sheikha Hoor. “We all failed to notice the work. To have placed it behind the Iranian mosque, with children playing and families visiting, was a great mistake. Sharjah is a conservative emirate, but we don’t censor books. We try to extend the boundaries and we have works that would be risqué elsewhere, but I don’t want to push our audience away. If they reject us, we might as well not be in Sharjah.”

This is the voice of someone who has proved her pragmatism, progressiveness and sensitivity. This is the place with the most deeply rooted cultural scene in the region. This is the place where the most original artistic fruit may be borne, and where the West is most likely to learn about the creativity of the new economies.

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