In 1972, the year that Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi became the ruler Emir of Sharjah, oil was struck 50 miles off the emirate’s shore. Soon, its capitol city was producing 35,000 barrels each day. Fast forward to 1993, and Sharjah was inaugurating its first biennial exhibition of contemporary art. As is rapidly becoming the norm, the development of an “art world” was part and parcel of the UAE’s entrance onto the world economic stage. Now in its 13th iteration, the Sharjah Biennial has grown from an exhibition of mostly commercially oriented art, held in one of the city’s expo centers, to a wide-ranging program of performances, lectures, and large-scale public installations. This shift is due in large part to the relatively new influence of the Emir’s daughter, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who became the president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009. (The Sheikha is a Western-educated artist, and serves on the board of MoMA PS1.) In March I traveled to Sharjah and neighboring Dubai, hoping to get a firsthand perspective on an emerging art scene and market that is distinctly different from its Western counterpart.
Sunny Rhabar, the Director of the Third Line Gallery in Al Quoz, gave me a summary explanation of the differences between Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi, the three major centers for art in the region. Dubai’s galleries share a grassroots, homegrown feel—they’ve mostly opened in the past few years—and are mostly commercial spaces that show a mix of international and local artists. Sharjah’s art spaces, on the other hand, are largely nonprofits funded by the government. (The city was given the title of UNESCO cultural capital of the Arab World in 1998, and in 2006 the Sheikh created the Sharjah Museums Department to oversee cultural institutions within the emirate.) However, Sharjah’s government is relatively conservative, even by Arabian standards (alcohol is strictly prohibited; homosexuality is illegal), which means that occasional issues arise around contemporary artworks that are deemed offensive to Islam and/or the emirate’s ruling body. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is considered the most heavily commercialized, with young artists fighting to be collected by the Western institutions, including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, that are opening extensions there.
Globally, contemporary art practices continue to explore performance, new media, and social practice—works that are, for now, still difficult to sell, buy, and “collect”—so, while Dubai can culturally get away with a lot more than Sharjah can thanks to its relatively liberal climate, the works you see in the galleries on Al Serkal Avenue and in Al Quoz in Dubai are mostly formal and made in traditional media: painting, photography, drawing, and sculpture. Meanwhile, the Sharjah Biennial’s program, while hemmed in, to a certain extent, by the emirate’s conservative cultural atmosphere, includes a wide variety of mediums, and a lot of performance work. So it’s Sharjah that is beginning to spearhead innovation in the arts in the region. This year’s Biennial, Re:emerge: Toward a New Cultural Cartography, curated by Yuko Hasegawa of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, touches off from the concept of the courtyard in Islamic culture—a space that crosses both public and private life, and houses a variety of activities. Functionally, this loose theme presents an examination of the flow of cultural production in the non-Western world.
Exemplary works from this year’s Biennial, which is spread out over multiple sites across the city, include Shimabuku’s Boat Trip, a participatory work by the Japanese artist Shimabuku, wherein visitors are ferried across Sharjah Creek in a motor boat to a vendor selling salted or peppered ice cream; a composition by Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui that involves ten drummers performing in synchrony at various locations on the roofs of the newly renovated buildings in the Heritage Area; and Copenhagen-based collective Superflex’s large-scale playground installation on Sharjah’s thoroughfare Bank Street, where they have recreated and installed examples of public architecture (benches, umbrellas, streetlamps, etc.) based on the memories of the migrant workers from around the world who live in the city.
The Sharjah Biennial’s focus on performance and traditional art forms means that local residents—including the more than a quarter of the population made up of migrant workers from Southeast Asia and North Africa—participate in and enjoy many of the Biennial’s activities. When the art world has headed back to its after-parties and hotel bars in Dubai, Sharjah’s streets remain lively with film screenings and musical performances late into the night. (It’s also worth noting that all of the Biennial is open, for free, to the public.) Evening attractions include the Mirage City Cinema, inside the Heritage Area, where Persian rugs and cushions are laid out in the evening for open-air screenings curated by such guests as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton. In the end, I was glad I was staying in Sharjah, where I could attend such events alongside the real inhabitants of the city. An art biennial for the everyman: now that’s avant-garde.