Biennials & festivals

Fake news, contested histories and fluctuating borders: the Sharjah Biennial in pictures

The 14th edition of the international exhibition in the United Arab Emirates includes more than 80 artists with over 60 new commissions

The art world descended en masse last week to the tiny emirate of Sharjah, close to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, for the opening of the 14th edition of its biennial (until 10 June). This year’s theme, Leaving the Echo Chamber, looks at the role and production of art in an era of fake news, contested histories and fluctuating borders. More than 80 international artists are on show in Sharjah Art Foundation’s myriad of venues, many of which are in and around traditional, historical buildings and some that are off-site.

Hoor Al Qasimi, the director of Sharjah Art Foundation, chose three curators who then collectively developed the theme: Omar Kholeif, Claire Tancons and Zoe Butt. After several editions organised by solo curators, this decision marks a return to the biennial’s earlier format of co-curators. “It is because different people bring different things to the plate and you do not necessarily want to invite one person to do the whole thing—you want certain strengths,” Al Qasimi says. “Omar has a strength in post-Internet art and new media, Claire’s with performance and procession, and Zoe’s with her focus on Southeast Asia. So that was an interesting mix for us.”

The curators have developed separate exhibitions. Kholeif’s Making New Time looks at how we can slow down our experience of the world in an age of constant, high-speed creation and consumption. Tancons’s performance-focussed programme Look For Me All Around You is centred on diasporic and migratory histories, particularly between the Gulf and the Americas. Butts’s exhibition Journey Beyond the Arrow looks at artists who are re-imagining national and historic narratives, especially with regards to colonialism, social and religious conflicts, and ideological extremism.

Although conceived as distinct shows, the works are in fact intermingled in many of the venues, leading to some confusion and lack of clarity in the curatorial message. The maze of buildings and courtyards can also be difficult to navigate, and the off-site venues in Hamriyah (around a 30-minute drive from the main venues in and around Al Mureijah Square) and in Kalba (around an hour and a half drive) can be hard to get to and easily missed. But Al Qasimi thinks these locations are important. “I am always pushing the curators to use [the off-site locations] and sometimes it is difficult to use many. Eungie Joo [the curator of the 12th biennial] used Kalba and then Christine Tohme [the curator of the 13th biennial] used Hamriyah and then I had the people in Kalba asking why we hadn’t used their site. So it is about having everyone involved and engaged,” she says. It is hard to imagine that many non-local visitors make it out to these locations over the biennial months, particularly as the sites are often activated through performances during the opening days and then left mostly empty.

Exceptionally, more than 75% of the works on show in the biennial are new commissions and many are large in scale and scope. This is where the real strength of the biennial lies—in giving both renowned and emerging artists the space, time and funds to create new work. “It’s really rewarding to support these artists and to see them go on after to get more attention, because they are great artists,” Al Qasimi says.

Here is our selection of must-see works in the biennial.

An electric performance-cum-dance off, Lopez’s work for the biennial looks at a ballet that was performed ahead of the 17th World Chess Olympics that were held for the first time in Havana, Cuba, in 1966. Titled La Partida Viviente [The Living Match], it was based on a 1921 chess match and the year it was performed, the Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca became the first and only Caribbean player to become world champion. Lopez was inspired by the ballet as a colonial imposition of a Western art form in the Caribbean. In Pataki 1921, he re-styles the ballet with traditional practices of Santería—an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba—dressing the dancers in costumes made of the local iraca palm leaves, native to Central America and the Caribbean. Performed in the Bait Obaid Al Shamsi courtyard under the glare of the desert sun, the dancers battled it out on a platform designed to look like a chess board, with the call and response moves rising and falling to the beat of traditional drums and instruments. The chessboard stage and costumes, along with a video of the performance, are on view throughout the biennial.
Performance view of Ulrik López's Patakí 1921 (2019), part of Look For Me All Around You. Performance with Karime León Barreiro, La Trinchera, Sara Cruz and Rafael Maya. Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, Arts Square. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

An electric performance-cum-dance off, Ulrik Lopez’s work for the biennial looks at a ballet that was performed ahead of the 17th World Chess Olympics that were held for the first time in Havana, Cuba, in 1966. Titled La Partida Viviente [The Living Match], it was based on a 1921 chess match and the year it was performed, the Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca became the first and only Caribbean player to become world champion. Lopez was inspired by the ballet as a colonial imposition of a Western art form in the Caribbean. In Pataki 1921, he re-styles the ballet with traditional practices of Santería—an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba—dressing the dancers in costumes made of the local iraca palm leaves, native to Central America and the Caribbean. Performed in the Bait Obaid Al Shamsi courtyard under the glare of the desert sun, the dancers battled it out on a platform designed to look like a chess board, with the call and response moves rising and falling to the beat of traditional drums and instruments. The chessboard stage and costumes, along with videos of the performance, are on view throughout the biennial.

Jompet Kuswidananto’s Sharjah Biennial commission is the opposite of a phoenix rising. The installation, made up of dimly-lit and broken chandeliers, is in the shape of a bird that is crashing into the ground. For Kuswidananto, it is a visual metaphor for Indonesia’s colonial history, looking at greed and desire for control through fragmented memories and old folk songs. The work references the Societeit Concordia, the Bandung social club that was segregated by race and class, but which made keroncong— a type of music brought to Indonesia by 17th-century slaves and developed by Indo-Europeans—popular. Contradictorily, keroncong music was originally considered lower class during the colonial era, but later came to be regarded as an outstanding Dutch contribution to culture. Kuswidananto’s work looks at this conflicting cultural memory and appropriation and expands it to the broader experiences of people’s assimilation as intercolonial subjects.
Jompet Kuswidananto’s Keroncong Concordia (2019), part of Journey Beyond the Arrow. Al Hamriyah Studios. Photo: Aimee Dawson

Jompet Kuswidananto’s Sharjah Biennial commission is the opposite of a phoenix rising. The installation, made up of dimly-lit and broken chandeliers, is in the shape of a bird that is crashing into the ground. For Kuswidananto, it is a visual metaphor for Indonesia’s colonial history, looking at the greed and desire for control through fragmented memories and old folk songs. The work references the Societeit Concordia, the Bandung social club that was segregated by race and class, but which made keroncong—a type of music brought to Indonesia by 17th-century slaves and developed by Indo-Europeans—popular. Contradictorily, keroncong music was originally considered lower class during the colonial era, but later came to be regarded as an outstanding Dutch contribution to culture. Kuswidananto’s work looks at this conflicting cultural memory and appropriation and expands it to the broader experiences of people’s assimilation as intercolonial subjects.

Looking at the detailed cartographies by the Chinese artist and professor Qiu Zhijie is like taking a peek inside his deeply philosophical mind. Mapping all kinds of non-traditional “geographies”, from emotional states to historical events and moments, he somehow tries to order the complexity and interconnectedness of the human condition. Qiu uses the Chinese traditions of ink painting and calligraphy to create his monumental maps, challenging cartography as a tool for control and conquest and reimagining it as a way to understand humans and our interdependence.
Qiu Zhijie’s various map works (2015-2019), part of Journey Beyond the Arrow. Gallery 3, Al Mureijah Square. Photo: Aimee Dawson

Looking at the detailed cartographies by the Chinese artist and professor Qiu Zhijie is like taking a peek inside his deeply philosophical mind. Mapping all kinds of non-traditional “geographies”, from emotional states to historical events and moments, he somehow tries to order the complexity and interconnectedness of the human condition. Qiu uses the Chinese traditions of ink painting and calligraphy to create his monumental maps, challenging cartography as a tool for control and conquest and reimagining it as a way to understand humans and our interdependence. The artist won one of the biennial prizes for the best works on show.

Lisa Reihana’s immersive, four-screen 3D video installation tells a part-fictional, part-historical story about the early days of colonisation in New Zealand. Charlotte Badger, a western female mutineer, is taken in under the protection of the Maori chief Huri Waka, upsetting the traditional roles of women as the matriarchs, owners of property and spiritual custodians. Puhi, a proud woman of the Maori tribe, becomes jealous of Charlotte’s rising status and the two fight. The film also conflates the “value” of a foreign woman with that of the musket, an increasingly important weapon in the fight against the colonialists at the time. The storyline is compelling, while the film itself is an incredible spectacle that really makes the most of the 3D technology, to the point of genuinely feeling seasick on the Charlotte’s boat.
Lisa Reihana’s Nomads of the Sea (2019), part of Journey Beyond the Arrow. Gallery 3, Al Mureijah Square. Photo: Aimee Dawson

Lisa Reihana’s immersive, four-screen 3D video installation tells a part-fictional, part-historical story about the early days of colonisation in New Zealand. Charlotte Badger, a western female mutineer, is taken in under the protection of the Maori chief Huri Waka, upsetting the traditional roles of women as the matriarchs, owners of property and spiritual custodians. Puhi, a proud woman of the Maori tribe, becomes jealous of Charlotte’s rising status and the two fight. The film also conflates the “value” of a foreign woman with that of the musket, an increasingly important weapon in the fight against the colonialists at the time. The storyline is compelling, while the film itself is an incredible spectacle that really makes the most of the 3D technology, to the point of genuinely feeling seasick on the Charlotte’s boat.

Alfredo Jaar’s installation, which takes up almost all of the ground floor of this gallery, literally shines a light on the women who have made outstanding civic contributions as leaders in fields including human rights, sexual violence, censorship, ethnic persecution and other causes, but whom remain under-recognised in their respective fields. The 33 tiny portraits on show—each with four standing spotlights focussed on their face—include Kalpona Akter, a labour activist fighting for safer working conditions who was once a child sweatshop labourer; and Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and journalist who now specialises in defending victims of atrocities committed by the Syrian government. Jaar began the project with just three women in 2010, but he plans to extend the work to include 100 exceptional women in future iterations.
Afredo Jaar’s 33 Women (2014-2019), part of Making New Time. Gallery 5, Al Mureijah Square. Photo: Aimee Dawson

Alfredo Jaar’s installation, which takes up almost all of the ground floor of this gallery, literally shines a light on the women who have made outstanding civic contributions as leaders in fields including human rights, sexual violence, censorship, ethnic persecution and other causes, but whom remain under-recognised in their respective fields. The 33 tiny portraits on show—each with four standing spotlights focussed on their face—include Kalpona Akter, a labour activist fighting for safer working conditions who was once a child sweatshop labourer; and Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and journalist who now specialises in defending victims of atrocities committed by the Syrian government. Jaar began the project with just three women in 2010, but he plans to extend the work to include 100 exceptional women in future iterations.

Staring at the hanging, straining body of the Cuban artist Carlos Martiel—with his feet tied by a rope hanging from the ceiling—the crowd of biennial-goers take on a sinister, voyeuristic role. The artist is in fact simulating the act of pearl diving, a major industry in the region until the 1930s. Adding to the bizarre and uncomfortable act of spectatorship, waiters hand out Arabic sweets adorned with pearls during the performance. Martiel’s research focuses on the African diaspora, value systems and he has recently begun looking at the slave trade and related industries that link East Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Taking place in a madbas—a room once used for pressing dates to produce molasses—an additional layer of historical hard labour is added to the work. Martiel is also presenting a second work, Eslabón (2019), on the roof of Bait al Shamsi, where he stacks cages used for fishing in the Gulf, placing himself inside one as part of another performance.
Performance view of Carlos Martiel’s Sabor a Lágrimas (2019), part of Look For Me All Around You. Bait Obaid al Shamsi’s madbas, Arts Square. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Staring at the hanging, straining body of the Cuban artist Carlos Martiel—with his feet tied by a rope hanging from the ceiling—the crowd of biennial-goers take on a sinister, voyeuristic role. The artist is in fact simulating the act of pearl diving, a major industry in the region until the 1930s. Adding to the bizarre and uncomfortable act of spectatorship, waiters hand out Arabic sweets adorned with pearls during the performance. Martiel’s research focuses on the African diaspora and he has recently begun looking at the slave trade and related industries that link East Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. With the performance taking place in a madbas—a room once used for pressing dates to produce molasses—an additional layer of historical hard labour is added to the work. Martiel is also presenting a second work, Eslabón (2019), on the roof of Bait al Shamsi, where he stacks cages used for fishing in the Gulf, placing himself inside one as part of another performance.

There is so much work by Khadim Ali on show in various different venues that it almost feels as though he has snuck a solo exhibition into the Sharjah Biennial without anyone noticing. Covering a wide range of media from sound installation and tapestries to murals and sculpture, the pieces all tackle the normalisation of violence in Afghanistan, whether through education, propaganda, protest or everyday items. Ali uses traditional symbols and characters, such as those from the epic Shahnameh poem, as well as local crafts to depict the violent images and sounds. The pieces have been made by craftspeople in Isfahan, Bamiyan, Kabul and Yogyakarta. “His work considers the use of flags as cultural representations of aid, the monumentalisation of the bomb as a symbol of martyrdom, the prevalence of propaganda songs and the role of archives that visualise recurring political histories,” a statement says.
Khadim Ali’s Flowers of Evil (2019), part of Journey Beyond the Arrow. Various venues. Photo: Aimee Dawson

There is so much work by Khadim Ali on show in various different venues that it almost feels as though he has snuck a solo exhibition into the Sharjah Biennial without anyone noticing. Covering a wide range of media from sound installation and tapestries to murals and sculpture, the pieces all tackle the normalisation of violence in Afghanistan, whether through education, propaganda, protest or everyday items. Ali uses traditional symbols and characters, such as those from the epic Shahnameh poem, as well as local crafts to depict the violent images and sounds. The pieces have been made by craftspeople in Isfahan, Bamiyan, Kabul and Yogyakarta. “His work considers the use of flags as cultural representations of aid, the monumentalisation of the bomb as a symbol of martyrdom, the prevalence of propaganda songs and the role of archives that visualise recurring political histories,” a statement says.

At the very end of one of Sharjah Art Museum’s long halls is Shezad Dawood’s latest foray into Virtual Reality (VR). The work looks at the relations between the US and Pakistan since its partition from India in 1947. There are two mirrored installations for the VR sets are decorated with neons, wallpaper, tapestries, sculptures and a poster that feature inside the  VR environment, further blurring the boundaries between the viewers’ sense of reality. ‘Encroachment’ is “a meditation on the idea of sovereignty, private property and the politics of space in the two largest cities in Pakistan—Lahore and Karachi,” a statement says. The different scenes in the video include the Modernist building of the former US embassy in Karachi; a renowned colonial-era bookshop in Lahore; and a video game arcade, complete with an interlude where you get to play Space Invaders. The work will travel in an expanded form to the New Art Exchange, Nottingham, in January 2020.
Shezad Dawood’s ‘Encroachments’ (2019), part of Making New Time. Sharjah Art Museum, Arts Square . Photo: Aimee Dawson

At the very end of one of Sharjah Art Museum’s long halls is Shezad Dawood’s latest foray into Virtual Reality (VR). The work looks at the relations between the US and Pakistan since its partition from India in 1947. There are two mirrored installations for the VR sets are decorated with neons, wallpaper, tapestries, sculptures and a poster that feature inside the VR environment, further blurring the boundaries between the viewers’ sense of reality. ‘Encroachment’ is “a meditation on the idea of sovereignty, private property and the politics of space in the two largest cities in Pakistan—Lahore and Karachi,” a statement says. The different scenes in the video include the Modernist building of the former US embassy in Karachi; a renowned colonial-era bookshop in Lahore; and a video game arcade, complete with an interlude where you get to play Space Invaders. The work, which was another winner of one of the biennial prizes, will travel in an expanded form to the New Art Exchange, Nottingham, in January 2020.