Spring Break


Left: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey with Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Right: Artist Wael Shawky with Sharjah Biennial 11 curator Yuko Hasegawa. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

THEY WEREN’T TOGETHER LONG, and they were arguably mismatched from the start. She was older, more serious, sober, and down to earth. By all outward appearances, she was also indifferent to the business of buying and selling art. She flirted with the deeper, more disruptive powers of contemporary cultural production until they blew up in her face two years ago, compelling her to return to a more diplomatic, community-minded middle ground. He, meanwhile, was young and brash, an ostentatious lush. No matter how much noise he made in her direction—the special projects, discursive platforms, and window dressing all around—he had commerce in his heart and the market on his mind. In 2009, the stars aligned and she slipped into his orbit. For the next few years, they found themselves locked into a loose marriage of scheduling convenience. But with so many clearly diverging agendas on display, their partnership was ultimately doomed. This was the year, then, when the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai finally broke up, divided their audiences, and split the month of March between them.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as all that when the Sharjah Biennial opened for the eleventh time last week, having shifted its dates a few days earlier than usual, and a week before Art Dubai. But for anyone with limited time or other obligations in life, this meant choosing one initiative over the other. Unless you happen to live in the UAE, in which case your local art scene just kicked into hyperdrive (lucky you) and will remain so until well after this cantankerous twenty-first-century caravan of biennial hoppers and art fair hangers-on packs up, goes home, and stops asking you sensitive, socially awkward questions about censorship, the purpose of art in autocratic societies, the most gauche and outrageous things to do in Dubai, the absence of any Arab Spring action, or the trial of those ninety-four Emirati political activists who have been charged with crimes against the UAE’s national security.

Left: Artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah and producer Lina Gopaul, founding members of the Black Audio Film Collective. Right: Laura Egerton of Abraaj Group Art Prize with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver and critic Murtaza Vali, guest curator of the 2013 Abraaj prize.

That said, the presence of so much artistic (if not political) action is itself an interesting measure of how much the cultural landscape here has changed. A decade ago, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, one of the daughters of Sharjah’s longstanding ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, was an art-school student in her early twenties when she took inspiration from Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta and overhauled the biennial completely. Antonia Carver, now the director of Art Dubai, was working as a journalist and critic at the time. She called that first edition of Sharjah’s second incarnation “a pacemaker” and predicted “the launch of a new era” for contemporary art in the Gulf.

In many ways, Sheikha Hoor was onto something and Carver was right. More than a hundred galleries have since opened in Dubai. Sharjah today boasts around twenty museums. Even discounting the mega art-money-real-estate projects launched, stalled, or looming ominously on the horizon in Abu Dhabi, philanthropic foundations and nonprofit project spaces are popping up all over the Emirates. What sets Sharjah apart is the steadiness and modesty of its approach. The biennial started small and grew. Now it is just one piece of a larger, more complex puzzle that includes residencies, production grants, five new exhibition venues, and regular public programming, all of which falls under the auspices of the four-year-old Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). Parallel histories of institution building and exhibition-making elsewhere in the Gulf are spotty and inconsistent at best (nota bene, Doha). Sharjah is not without its problems, but the causes of its conflicts, when it comes to art, tend to oscillate between strategies that are too daring and those that play it too safe.

This year, it was unquestionably the latter. Ever since Yuko Hasegawa was appointed curator of the current edition, it has become palpably clear that Sharjah would follow up the debacle of 2011—a gutsy exhibition by Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti, and Haig Aivazian, which took risks and paid a high price for them—with a professional show that would steer clear of any danger and give local audiences a lot by way of playgrounds and gardens. The themes and touchstones were never particularly convincing—courtyards, migrations, trade routes, the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta, the twentieth-century scholar Edward Said—and the underlying approach to postcolonialism and identity politics always sounded out of date. Worse, the notion of turning away from the arrogance of the West to consider the ascendance of the East between a glorious past and a globalized future seemed less an idea to shape an exhibition than a marketing campaign for an urban renewal plan.

Left: Stefan Tarnowski of the Home Workspace Program, Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme, and Victoria Lupton, Ashkal Alwan's project coordinator. Right: Artist Tarek Atoui.

Not that Hasegawa didn’t offer a sprightly argument: “Rather than simply unearthing the history of the city,” she said, “the concept of the courtyard as something semi-private and semi-public hints at the possibility of such spaces functioning as places of skepticism and resistance with regard to things like superficial globalization, perfunctory democratic dialogue, and the shape of demonstrations in the current social and political circumstances.” It just seemed as though Sharjah’s courtyards were a decoy, a string of spaces where architects simply placed large sculptural objects—SANAA’s acrylic bubbles, Studio Mumbai’s lean-tos, Thilo Frank’s huge fake rock with mirrors and a swing inside—while ideas related to sound, language, music, and the transmission of historical knowledge through, say, song remained curiously undisclosed as potentially more interesting themes.

One of the great things about Sharjah is that it opens without any of the varnish of a press preview or a VIP vernissage. One day, the biennial just starts, and last Wednesday, it did so with no catalogues, no guidebooks, no new tote bags (the horror), and about half the staggeringly high number of video works dysfunctional. I grabbed a fellow writer and together we coaxed a marked-up, hastily photocopied set of maps from two young women in the SAF office who were feeling their way blindly through their first day on the job. By nightfall, we had all shifted into treasure-hunt mode (ninety-nine artists, thirty-three sites, four days to find them all) as we scoped out the lay of the land, divided as it was into four color-coded plots, one swiftly rebranded the red-light district by Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme.

Left: Artist Taus Makhacheva. Right: Artist Carsten Nicolai performing as alva noto in the courtyard of Bait Obaid Al Shamsi.

A performance by the artist Wael Shawky, titled Dictums 10:120 and featuring thirty-two qawwali singers, drifted through the alleyways and over the perimeter walls of the new-old heritage area, drawing us in and, following the artists Jananne al-Ani and Susan Hefuna, up to the rooftops for a better view. The song they sang was composed of random bits of dialogue about the biennial, arranged non sequitur, translated into Urdu, and adapted to a centuries-old style of emotionally intense, devotional Sufi music. The lyrics shuffled between hilarious examples of empty artspeak and pointed references to just about all of the issues that had precipitated the art-versus-audience crisis last time. Clearly on a roll, Shawky’s video Al-Araba al-Madfuna (2012) was also a highlight of this biennial, featuring boys in fake mustaches reciting an incisive text about political inheritance and the exhaustion of resources by the late Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustageb.

Later that night, I caught up with Carver, the artist Basim Magdy (showing a great video and a suite of drawings), the curator and critic Murtaza Vali, and a very pregnant Laura Egerton of the Abraaj Group Art Prize. We were all so late getting through security to the gala dinner that it took me an hour of puzzling over the bucket of confiscated lighters at the entrance before realizing we’d missed the awards ceremony completely. Sheikha Hoor’s father made an impressive exit. The rest of us packed onto a broken down bus and headed for the biennial afterparty in Dubai, hosted, per long-standing tradition, by the Third Line and Bidoun. Held in the bar of the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, it was a low-key affair. The Third Line’s Sunny Rahbar rushed by in a blur of red and purple sequins and told us to hold tight for a change in music. I wandered into a debate between Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP, who were arguing duration and video with John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul, both founding members of the Black Audio Film Collective. Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation (2012) is a layered history of our times as told through the biography of the Jamaican-born academic Stuart Hall. “I think we pushed single-channel video as far as it could go,” said Akomfrah. But for all the genius of threading forty-five minutes of archival material across multiple screens, a straw poll that day had told him no one wants more than fifteen minutes of video, even of good work. What to do? Make great work. The Unfinished Conversation was worth its time twice over.

Left: Artists Lamia Joreige and Jananne al-Ani. Right: Artist Ernesto Neto.

I ducked out of the party early but heard from a friend the next day that the bus ride home had been “complete mayhem, everyone drunk, Ernesto Neto on the mic, singing the whole way.” We still had days and days of programming ahead of us—a marathon performance by Otobong Nkanga; film programs organized by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton, among others; music by Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto; a delightful boat ride across the creek for a project by Shimabuku, with the promise of salt-and-pepper ice cream on the other side—so I skipped the various excursions to neighboring Ajman (too sordid, too creepy), despite writer Stephanie Bailey’s winning promise to keep the nightlife “civilized messy,” or was it “messy civilized”?

After four days of good behavior, I was, indeed, done. On my way to the airport, I remembered having made a quick trip to Sharjah last year, during a long layover in Dubai. Sheikha Hoor had curated a video exhibition then called “In Spite of It All,” featuring fourteen works from the permanent collection that had figured into previous biennials. It was an excellent study of violence and reprieve, and it had been done not for an international audience but for Sharjah as it is every other day. It was a fraction of the biennial’s size, but it was coherent and concise. Given the scheduling shift, Hasegawa’s edition hadn’t drawn a huge crowd, but it was a smart crowd, consisting primarily of artists and curators from all over the world, with sizable contingents from Brazil, India, and Japan. Taken together, I think this means the biennial will be all right—and maybe in the long run even better—on her own.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Artist Otobong Nkanga performing Taste of Stone, Itiat Esa Ufok in Bait Khaled bin Ibrahim Al Yousif. Right: Artist Simon Fujiwara with writer Stephanie Bailey.

Left: Artists Sille Storihle and Jumana Manna. Right: Artist and drummer Cevdet Erek after a day of performing Tarek Atoui's Within.

Left: Curator Eungie Joo of Brazil's Instituto Inhotim. Right: Dealer Jose Kuri of Kurimanzutto.

Left: Curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh and artist Hassan Khan. Right: Art historian and critic Claire Bishop with writer and editor Nikki Columbus and artist Basim Magdy.

Left: Habib and Taro ice cream vendors for Shimabuku's Boat Trip. Right: Reem Shadid of the Sharjah Art Foundation with artist Yazan Khalili and curator Reem Fadda.

Left: Curator Adriano Pedrosa. Right: Curator Duygu Demir of Salt in Istanbul with art historian and critic Sarah-Neel Smith.

Left: Designer Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares and curator Nat Muller. Right: Ozkan Canguven, director of Rampa in Istanbul.

Left: Artists Tony Chakar and Haig Papazian with curator Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks of Cornerhouse in Manchester. Right: Curator Sarah Rifky, codirector of Beirut in Cairo.

Left: Writer and exhibition maker Pablo León de la Barra. (Photo: Amal Khalaf) Right: Filiz Avunduk of Frieze and 5533 in Istanbul with Galeri NON director Derya Demir.

Left: Barrak Alzaid, director of the Isabelle Van Den Eynde Gallery in Dubai, with architect and critic Alia Al-Sabi of the Sharjah Art Foundation and artist Francis Alys. Right: Samar Kehdy of MuCEM in Marseille.

Left: Artists Otobong Nkanga and Amina Menia. Right: Artists Graziella Rizkallah Toufic and Tamara al-Samerraei.