Into the Echo

Zack Hatfield at the opening of Sharjah Biennial 14

Performance view of Meschac Gaba’s Perruques Architectures Émirats Arabes Unis.

THE SHEIKH WAS RUNNING LATE. It was 10 AM—the official opening time of the fourteenth Sharjah Biennial. Although a nice, durable red carpet had been rolled out in front of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Square, and a crew of cameramen in dishdashas was on standby, the planefuls of artists, curators, press, gallerists, and junketeers who had descended upon the Emirate last Thursday were told they might as well wander the grounds and see some art. We would be alerted when Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammed Al Qasimi finally arrived (his daughter and the biennial’s director, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, could be seen milling about, a refreshingly unroyal omnipresence). And so we moseyed through the square’s sunny heritage alleyways, letting the event make its first impressions, which, during a biennial’s opening week, are usually the only impressions.

The notes I took on my phone make little sense. They’re jittery with incongruities and ellipses, full of arrows, rather unforthcoming but trying very hard to enlighten—not unlike the biennial itself. This edition enlisted three curators—Omar Kholeif, Zoe Butt, and Claire Tancons—and thus marked a return to an earlier format (the past few have employed solo organizers), and its theme, “Leaving the echo chamber,” promised solace from our era’s viral closed-minded ethos.

There was no occasion that brought together all three curators for a discussion or Q&A, which felt like a missed opportunity, as did the noticeable lack of Gulf-based artists (two, by my count). I should mention here that people love to point out the “contradictory” nature of Sharjah, the most conservative Emirate that also serves as the country’s cultural hub, as though these qualities are intrinsically opposed. One London dealer tried to explain the omission of Gulf artists: “There are so many other institutions here that already do that.” It’s true that Sharjah hosts more than half of the UAE’s museums, but to not invite local artists to the international stage seemed, at the very least, weird.

Writer Yasmine El Rashidi, curator Omar Kholeif, writer Tarek El-Ariss, writer Hannah Feldman.

“Is it safe to wear shorts?” someone asked about the gala dinner. But let’s zoom through that—it was a low-key affair after we all passed through the metal detectors and, rising from our seats, performed the requisite, odd hush to greet the sheik and his court: The carrot and watermelon juice flowed freely; much of the press corps were installed across a couple tables; and after servings of lamb and potato gnocchi, we had Coca Cola digestifs. All to say, best to go right to the art.

The state-sponsored biennial, the curators of which each devised their own section, included eighty-one artists whose work often centers on the colonialist legacies and bloody evictions that continue to shape the world—from the Atlantic slave trade to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina to the Māori-European conflict and the persecution of the Hazaras in Afghanistan. While much of it was individually strong, as a whole, the event was predictably cacophonous. I departed convinced that after “leaving the echo chamber,” you simply find yourself in a bigger one.

Curator Claire Tancons.

Tancons’s section, “Look for Me All Around You,” comprised mostly performances, specifically “site activations.” Some of the pieces, such as Meschac Gaba’s paraders wearing architectural wigs marching to a nearby souk, thrilled in their simple elegance. Others failed to surpass the initial awe of spectacle, including Mohau Modisakeng’s much-talked-about Land of Zanj, an off-site two-parter that saw more than twenty performers dressed in black compose something between a pageant and a cortege that ambled from Kalba’s defunct Ice Factory to the coast of the Gulf of Oman. (Tancons is a specialist in processions.) What bothered me about the “activations” was how, post-happening, the biennial’s installations settled into props. Those outside the biennial class—that is, the locals, who could experience them staged in situ opening week—would most likely have to catch the video instead. “We have a whole campaign for community outreach,” Judith Greer, the biennial’s director of international programming, told me. “But we don’t really start it until after the craziness of this first week.” While normal, this felt surprising, considering the enthusiasm for “localities” that the biennial leadership expressed and the uncertainty about when or if future performances will take place.

By the weekend, SB14 basically became a choose your own adventure, only the adventures were all panels and dialogues with titles like “The Palimpsest of Historical Memory: On the Misnomer of the ‘Origin’” and “An Introduction on Time and Clocks and Time Zones: How the Mapping of Time instructs Mobility, How a Commitment to Time Can Never Be Quite Finished.” If that sounds too harsh, note that I’m just relaying the titles. I did enjoy Kidlat Tahimik’s talk with Butt on Sunday, during which he endorsed the Filipino concept of kapwa, defined as “ways of being at home in the world.” Later, in a nice reverse echo, Akram Zaatari, discussing his own work and the importance of being a local at more than one place, told Hannah Feldman, “I wish everyone was stateless.”

Artist Akram Zaatari.

A high point of SB14 was Tahimik’s wooden diorama Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III – the Protracted Kultur War), a commission that filled a room with sculptures to evoke clashing eons. The biennial also screened Tahimik’s three-hour, somewhat belabored magnum opus, Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment Redux (1980–), which we watched at Al Mureijah Square late one night as the venue’s stray cats nuzzled against our calves. The film retells the story of Magellan and Enrique, whom the former enslaved during his circumnavigation of the world in the early sixteenth century—a topic a couple other artists engaged as well. At both its best and its worst, SB14 embodied something the late Okwui Enwezor once said in these pages that can apply to most biennials: “People are going to get lost sometimes. The point is that as people navigate through the spaces, they are going to make their own narratives, their own stories.”

Curator Koyo Kouoh and writer/economist Felwine Sarr.

Early Sunday morning, some attendees decamped to Random International’s Rain Room, the viral sensation which now lives forever in an expensive, ticketed facility near its Al Majarrah Park (it barely ever rains here, and apparently locals are often politely enjoined by staff to collapse their umbrellas). Tottering through Rain Room seemed to be on some people’s bucket list, but what I found most thrilling was the lack of a wait. I preferred the rain room that was Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh’s multimedia installation in the garden at Bait Al Aboudi, Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past, the prize-winning work involving a lifeless tree, seawater-filled craters, and an Emirati rain chant hymned by children.

Perhaps the most memorable event of the entire opening week was a conversation between Nkanga and incoming Zeitz Museum director Koyo Kouoh, which began with a tender two-minute embrace onstage, a ritual between them. “I cannot accept the fact that people don’t greet,” Kouoh said. “It is the fundamental beginning of any human interaction.” Despite, or because of, the women’s close friendship, their talk was rare for its divergences—about the need for tolerance and “hybridity,” and even about the panel’s name: “Africa Is Not a Country; the Middle East Is Not a Continent.” At one point, Kouoh put forth the idea that Africa is indeed a country. To which Nkanga paused and, as if it were the only reply available, erupted into undulating song.

Novelist Douglas Coupland and writer-editor-curator Shumon Basar.

Musician Hasan Hujairi and curator Salma Tuqan.

Artist Bruno Pacheco, Sofia Victorino, artist Adriana Bustos.

Critic-curator Murtaza Vali.