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Notes from Sharjah and its monumental 15th biennial.

  • Review
  • Apr 14 2023
  • María Inés Plaza Lazo
    is editor-at-large, publisher and founder of Arts of the Working Class.

After walking for hours under the sun, in the calm center of the city of Sharjah, the air conditioner above the door blew over the sweat pearls on my forehead. A deserted square that looks like a chessboard, with only international art people in it. Almost fainting at one of the entrances of the Calligraphy Square Museum, I step into a dark room, where another door appears, expecting you to knock; a tiny hand on bronze hanging from the wooden surface. Behind this other door, a sort of throne is reserved at the center of this environmental installation for the patron saint of this biennial, the late Nigerian art historian and curator Okwui Enwezor. Titled In Between (2022–2023), Carrie Mae Weems’ installation accentuates historical lacunae, individuated by Enwezor in his decolonial practice, which successfully confronted institutions with the lack of representation of non-Western identities. Weems does not lose the sharpness of her distant, yet perforating critical work with this personal/impersonal homage. At one corner, we see an image of vultures eating from a puppet

Within the looping time of healing, traumatized identities—reigned over by hegemonic progressive times—are central pillars of the Sharjah Biennial, while the trope of Deep Time, which imagines a temporality that transcends human perception, bridges geographies and ties up knowledges to the contact zone where cultures meet. Unlike the predatory time of conquest, the 15th Sharjah Biennial tries to name the rituals of passage and lives undertaken by the migratory cultures inhabiting and gravitating around the Arabian Peninsula not by colonial aspirations, but by principles of exchange and environmental listening. In an animist manner, Hoor Al-Qasimi, director of the Biennial and Sheikah of the United Arab Emirates, attributes Enwezor with all of the theoretical foundations of the exhibition’s 15th edition, as well as offering a supernatural presence—a North Star to her own curatorial consciousness. It’s up to the visitors to either embrace the belief in this spiritual presence or to take it as a curatorial modality that honors Enwezor’s experimental, postcolonial approach to the arts, severing itself from decentralized narratives and from a white, cis-male art historical narrative. 


fig. 1


While the roar of the earthquake that devastated Turkey, Kurdistan, and Syria affected the spirits of those who fled from disparate geographies to attend the opening days, this new pain sharpened the urgency for carrying on Enwezor’s legacy. As Hoor Al-Qasimi’s curation reinforces, Enwezor’s teachings still challenge museological institutions through practices that could unleash grief, exposing the colonial mechanism of objectivization and the decontextualization of the artwork. 

I looked for the pluriverse of non-Western narratives present in the Biennale, in order to pay attention to the eroded historical chatter—and also because this is a better place for art workers to meet than Berlin: here, you are closer to contradictions and loopholes that Central Europeans can, at best, camouflage. Like a shelter for listening to the otherwise, a vermilion tent stands next to Weems’ work. A day is as long as a year (2022), an installation by Mounira Al Solh, is displayed as a majestic result of a collaboration between 30 Palestinian women who embroidered their respective personal histories and heritages onto white cloth, celebrating different paces of time and collective memory tenderly uttered in domestic places. Places for women to resist the abrasion of their own identity are everywhere, but are self-evident in Sharjah. Here, in this powerful, soft structure, I am covered by the legacy of women whose struggle roars in a time that scaffolds life, resulting in mighty explosions of resignification. 

In Bait Al Serkal, the former residence of the British Commissioner for the Arabian Gulf, intimate, small portraits of Black women activists and artists are installed in niches in the walls, partially covered by black sand. Their presence, semi-hidden in the place of colonial and monarchy power, unravels the dynasty that has been ruling Sharjah since the 18th century. The interventions are part of Helina Metaferia’s interdisciplinary and research-based practice, which centers on the stories of BIPOC and femme bodies. The Call (2019), extends this work,  documenting video performances by the descendants of celebrated African-American civil rights leaders. In this work, Metaferia’s subjects wear tapestries echoing the African-American tradition of quilting. Evocative collages and sculptures, such as in Crown (Sheba) (2023) espouse the symbol of power triumphing within a society rife with racialized and gendered injustice.


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The site-specific installation Until we became fire and fire us (2023) by the duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme inhabits the polished ruins of Bait Haider Abadi, one of the heritage houses in Al Mureijah Square. A mosaic of textiles and projections layers the walls of the venue, exploring the visual and aural manifestations of the desire to reconnect with severed homelands, communities, and histories. Poetic fragments and filmic moments on soft fabrics deepen a sense of discontinuity and misdirection conjured by histories of displacement and dispossession. It is the very same throughout history which sees a crescendo in contemporary migrations to escape conflicts, and exhausted environments, or to pursue the illusion of better living conditions. The more poetic approaches of Abbas and Abou-Rahme intersect with Bouchra Khalili’s multimedia installation The Circle (2023), which investigates the legacy of the Arab Workers’ Movement (MTA) active in the South of France between 1973 and 1978. Through publications, performances, and sound recordings, MTA members raised awareness about the working conditions of immigrants in France, and pioneered anti-racist struggles. With Khalili, migrant communities of the Global North rekindle the forgotten legacy of equal rights activism.


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Nearby in Al Mureijah Square, John Akomfrah trips deep into the coexistence of good and evil in Becoming Wind (2023), a five-channel video in a crucifix-shaped installation, which, through the motif of bowing pigeons, restitutes the allegorical representation of Eden. The film traces the progression from a time when munificent species abounded to the human-centered ecosystem of the Anthropocene to its decline during the current epoch of climate change. The work speaks about neocolonialism from a less human perspective, and is allegorical about the monopoly of inorganic matter: petrol and gas, “black gold.” The clash between the artworks and the conversion of monarchic buildings such as Bait Al Serka and Bait Obaid Al Shamsi and heritage sites in art centers disclose the artificial nature of the monarchic paradise. Its political and economical entanglement with Western capitalism is shortened, if not disguised, by the artworks carrying an institutional critique of the West. 

From the Khorfakkan desert, the omnipresent giant, I could observe the landscape; the point in the horizon at which massive buildings collapsed into oil pumps. I couldn’t avoid feeling a sense of fascination for the imperialist implications that layers histories of the Emirate of Sharjah. While the artworks broaden the spectrum of stories, they can’t hide from the view of critics and visitors, nor are they covered by the curatorship of Hoor Al-Qasimi: the contradictions of a country which bases its reconstruction on the exploitation of thousands of migrant workers and the luxury of petrol. This trade will never be disentangled by capitalist power, nor forgiven by those who have succumbed to realize this ideal of majesty. The desert will not erode history, but sediment in forms of redemption.




    Cover image: Helina Metaferia, various works from ‘By Way of Revolution’ (detail), 2019–2023. Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Bait Al Serkal, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

    fig. 1: Mounira al Solh A day is as long as a year installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Rob Harris © 2022 BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

    fig. 2: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Until we became fire and fire us (detail), 2023. Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation, co-commissioned by Polygreen Culture and Art Initiative (PCAI), Piraeus, Greece Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin.

    fig. 3: Bouchra Khalili, The Circle (still), 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation; MACBA, Barcelona; and Luma Foundation, Zurich. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin.



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