In an age of confusing, sprawling art exhibitions, the current Sharjah Biennial stands out as an intelligent, tightly curated show featuring some hard-edged works that ever so slightly unsettle the delicate political and cultural ecosystems in the Gulf.
The biennial has, since its launch in 1993, quietly provided a crucial platform for contemporary artists in the conservative enclaves of the Middle East. The emirate of Sharjah, just north of Dubai, is now considered a regional hub for contemporary art, more so than its oil-rich neighbour, Qatar, which, in recent years, has invested heavily in contemporary art exhibitions and acquisitions.
For the eleventh edition, curator Yuko Hasegawa looks at the world from the new vantage point that is Sharjah, under the title “Re:emerge: Towards a New Cultural Cartography”. Bringing together hybrid cultures underpins Hasegawa’s hugely ambitious thesis for the biennial which includes works by more than 100 artists and architects, 27 of them from the Middle East. She wants us to see the universe in a different way, challenging what she says is the “Westcentrism of knowledge in modern times” (or, as one commentator so eloquently put it while touring the biennial, this show is all about “cultural relativism” in the post-colonial era).
What could be a curatorial mish-mash is actually an illuminating, even gripping, exploration of the cultural cross-currents between East and West. Hasegawa embraces the local setting by showing a selection of works in the Sharjah Heritage Area, a warren of alfresco courtyards and rooftop terraces once occupied by Emirati families. Works by Emirati artists on show in this disorienting entanglement of buildings underline further the potency of art produced in the region. Nevin Aladag’s ‘Session’, 2013, a 3-channel video that trails objects along the sand and sea in Sharjah, is a highlight. Seek out also Beirut-born artist Marwan Rechmaoui’s faux-naïf renderings of Palestinian camps in Lebanon, made using rice and sugar bags.
Over in another biennial venue, an abandoned building once used by the Sharjah Islamic Bank, I was taken aback by the number of works that critique aspects of Middle Eastern society. Sarah Abu Abdallah’s ‘Saudi Automobile’ mixed-media installation, 2011, takes a swipe at Saudi Arabia’s medieval law banning women drivers. Ahmed Mater’s 2012 photography series “Desert of Pharan/Room with a View”, depicting the rampant redevelopment around Mecca, is exceptional.
Amar Kanwar’s meticulously structured, exquisite mixed-media installation “The Sovereign Forest”, 2012, focusing on the exploitation of Indian labourers, deserves special mention also. And Sara Ramo’s installation (“The Garden From Free Zone”, 2013), assembled from objects found in storage at the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information, is one of the most imaginative, brain-scrambling pieces I’ve seen in a long while.
Hasegawa uses Sharjah’s historical courtyards as a “central concept” for the biennial, a neat metaphor for private and public interaction, for stimulating cultural negotiations and generating knowledge, as well as presenting experimental works. It’s a shame then that some of the architectural pavilions don’t really succeed in the open-air spaces, with an especially cloying work by the high-profile Japanese practice Sanaa whose huge transparent bubbles in Calligraphy Square distract and exasperate. But this is a rare gripe over an astute, arresting exhibition.
Meanwhile, the organisers of Art Dubai, held last week at the Madinat Jumeirah venue (20-23 March), were keen to show that there’s more to the fair than purely commercial considerations. Its non-profit Art Dubai Projects programme included a selection of engaging pieces, such as Mohammed Kazem’s “Window 2011-2013” series of drawings. These indistinct sketches capture Dubai in transition, with its migrant workers, building sites and looming highways. And you’ve got to admire the gall of Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut who opened an Intern VIP lounge, a haven for all the unpaid volunteers working at the fair (the issue of free labour is something the art world needs to address). I, meanwhile, tried to enter the space and was duly escorted off the premises by a rather hefty guard.
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