Sharjah looks East and West during 11th biennial

Biennial embraces divergent ways of seeing the world, despite growing censorship in the Gulf



Politically, it is an edgy time in the Gulf. The emirs fear subversion from outside, and there are signs on Facebook and in private conversation that even some loyal Emirati citizens would like public debate to be less self-censoring. The relentless onwards-and-upwards tone of public statements is as tedious as Soviet propaganda and as self-defeating. There is, however, one small emirate where, at least in the art world, things are different, and that is Sharjah, home of a biennial that has just opened its 11th edition (until 13 May).  

Here, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, the emir’s daughter, is team leader, prepared to get her hands dirty and to take personal responsibility for her choices.

She is also aware that she has to seduce her public, the Emiratis not being natural exhibition-goers, and the remaining 80% of the population, mostly workers from South Asia, even less so. So, on the opening days, there were musical events with loud drums that managed to be both avant-garde and popular and attracted night-time crowds (this is a nocturnal society).

A children’s playground conceived by artists, but not so much so that it is not fun, has sprung up at the end of the major street running through the biennial territory. The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s photographs of the astonishingly huge and ugly buildings that have gone up around the heart of Mecca occupy a room open to the pavement and act like a powerful magnet on passers-by. In her catalogue essay, Sheikha Hoor gives rare recognition of the role of the South Asians­, “a migrant community whose diversity has enriched the local cultural landscape”.

The biennial takes pains to root itself in the local reality. For example, there is the work by the Japanese artist Shimabuku that takes you by ferry across the busy creek with all its merchant ships to eat ice cream with salt and pepper (it is art, after all) on the other side. Another piece, to the delight of local children, is a spectacularly effective fog machine by Shiro Takatani.

Some Westerners thought this

biennial would die when the previous head of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Jack Persekian, was fired for failing to notice that a work in a public area read as though it were blasphemous—but they had not reckoned with Sheikha Hoor. A fluent Japanese (and Russian and Chinese) speaker and highly knowledgeable about contemporary art, she turned eastward for her next curator: Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art.

Cultural relativism

This was not an evasive choice, but one that has enlarged the range of art on show and, incidentally, given Hasegawa much pleasure. “I grew up split between East and West,” she told The Art Newspaper. “Here, I feel comfortable.”

It seems natural that her theme reflects this cultural relativism. While the 2011 biennial was all about revolutions, this one is loosely about divergent ways of seeing the world and who has the power to tell you how to see it (the West being the bad guys, of course), both cartographically and metaphorically. At the March Meeting—two days of reflections by artists, curators and critics, organised every year by the Sharjah Art Foundation—Paulo Herkenhoff, the director of the Museu de Arte in Rio de Janeiro, did, however, point out that the only way of drawing a map without one area seeming more important and central than others would be from the heart of the globe outwards.

“Re:emerge: Towards a new Cultural Cartography” fits with current post-colonial studies, but it has also been directly responsible for the making of some very good art. No less than 33 of the 150 or so works are commissions by the Sharjah Art Foundation, and some of them join the permanent collection. Many are videos, and Sheikha Hoor says that they have the right to use them for educational purposes—and if they can afford to buy one, the production costs are deducted from the price (reminding us that this is not a rich emirate).

To mention a few works in this show, there is Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest, 2012, about the exploitation of Indian peasants, with beautiful great books of rough paper telling the story while film is projected onto the opposite page as though it were an illustration. Another is Yang Fudong’s black-and-white photo and film essay on eight panels about Sharjah, which manages to show dunes, camels and veiled ladies without for a second becoming advertising. A third is Gabriel Orozco’s pyramid of sand, illustrating the principle in physics of self-organising criticality, with geometric patterns on the walls attempting to analyse that principle, a gesture towards the contribution of Medieval Arabic “divine geometry”.

Every year, the foundation grows more roots into local society. This time it is a new headquarters, tactfully and elegantly inserted into the pattern of old streets. A library and more residency space are to come. Nothing is forced. In a part of the world where over-sell is the norm, the motto here could well be the phrase that Yang Fudong has attached to his Sharjah work: “Push the door softly and walk in or just stay standing where you are.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Sharjah looks East, and West'