New vision at the Sharjah Biennial

“Uprooted” by Doris Salcedo is made up of 804 uprooted trees to represent the plight of refugees

A UAE flag flies near Sharjah’s new Souk in the centre of the city. It is the largest flag I’ve ever seen, attached to the longest flagpole I’ve also ever seen. Its size means it moves as if we’re watching it in slow motion, the wind barely managing to flutter its enormous mass. It’s difficult not to see the flag’s heavy, towering presence as akin to Sharjah’s absolute monarchy – known for repressing basic freedoms (as well as sponsoring this biennial). As with the other Emirates, being gay is outlawed here and the country has become notorious for its poor treatment of migrant workers – individuals who make up the vast majority of the country’s population.

Biennials by their nature reflect the progressive politics of the art they commission and curate. The fifteenth edition of the Sharjah Biennial is no exception, addressing postcolonial themes from contemporary artists living across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America (the “global south”) as well as diasporic artists originally from those regions. Sharjah is generally considered to be the cultural capital of the UAE and it’s a sizeable show, bringing together over 150 artists from 70 countries and occupying eighteen venues across the entire emirate of Sharjah, which has land on both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Many of the venues are historic buildings that have been thoughtfully repurposed as exhibition spaces. The Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market in Sharjah city and the Ice Factory in Kalba (an abandoned fish-feed mill and ice storage facility on the coast) are not only the most notable, but also show the strongest work.

At the Ice Factory, Doris Salcedo’s Uprooted will surely become one of the biennial’s enduring images. A new commission from the foundation, it’s made up of 804 uprooted and displaced trees that have been intricately assembled to depict a house. Structurally uninhabitable, it represents the refugee’s predicament of being shut out while perpetually yearning for lost shelter. For the viewer, walking around it while trying in vain to see through the dense wood becomes a physical enactment of the forced exile of immigration. Yet because this experience takes place inside the comfort and privileged environment of a gallery, it raises questions about the viewer’s complicity and invites us to re-examine our attitudes towards immigration.

One of the biennial’s aims is to connect post-colonial themes to Sharjah’s own history

The use of trees with scorched roots makes a link between the violent way communities are forced from their natural habitats into mass migration, and the exploitation of that environment and its dwindling resources. It also makes a visual connection with the mangroves growing freely outside on the border with Oman, a reminder of the factory’s significance as a site of trade and exchange. This points up another of the biennial’s aims: to connect post-colonial themes to Sharjah’s own history, signalling that it “has long been a crucible of hybrid cultures.” According to the curatorial statement, the show aims to move away from the usual “emphasis on Portuguese or British colonial aspirations” and look instead at “networks of regional communities and settlements.”

The Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market in Sharjah is a historic building repurposed as an exhibition space

At the Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market a gentle, curving interior leads to individual traders’ booths that have been left untouched since the market’s closure, complete with vintage signs, bright murals and arched windows. While the individual works here vary in their concerns, all respond subtly to the site’s history. Mirna Bamieh’s Sour Things uses the study and exploration of fermentation’s rich micro-worlds as a metaphor for examining urban life, while the large neon sculptures of Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi’s Effloresence represent the national flowers of contested regions such as Palestine. Reminiscent of commercial signs, they play on the irony of how delicate natural forms like plants are being simultaneously destroyed and exploited, as signifiers of national identity.

“Arcadia” by John Akomfrah, is a video work that attempts to tackle the ecological implications of settler colonialism

The casual acquisition of so many spaces – and their slick finish – reflects an extensive budget: no surprise, given the biennial’s curator and director, Hoor Al Qasimi, is the daughter of Sharjah’s sheikh, Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. But how does the radical postcolonial agenda fit into autocratic, state-sponsored cultural production? Is it an example of art-washing, or can state and biennial happily contradict themselves? Given several of the participating artists are gay, including the UK video artist Isaac Julien, there is no discernible whiff of censure, so perhaps they can – and this is in marked contrast to recently documented examples at art exhibitions in Singapore and Shanghai.

The lack of pushback for artists participating in the biennial is worth noting – perhaps contemporary art shows don’t attract the same moral backlash as other forms of mass culture, such as the recent furore about Beyoncé performing at the opening of a hotel in Dubai. (Though this may also have had something to do with her $24m paycheck.) Only one work at the biennial, a performance piece by Mithu Sen called I am From There, I am From Here, seems alive to its controversial context. Performed live, it’s a remarkable piece, and not just for the way it makes the room bristle at the references to Sharjah’s own neo-colonialism and the artists’ participation in that. Made up of an imagined exchange between the artist and OpenAI’s generative AI chatbot, GPT-3, it’s a fifteen-minute video in which the artist and the bot satirically discuss how to perpetuate forms of neo-colonialism in Sharjah. The AI bot recommends the Western-museum model, with provocative suggestions like “the Museum of Lost Limbs (of Migrant Workers)” and “The Museum of Dangerous Working Conditions”, along with correspondingly bizarre images.

Being gay is outlawed here, but there’s no whiff of artistic censure

This piece aside, the biennial’s overall theme of Thinking Historically in the Present allowed most artists to neatly sidestep difficult issues, by inviting them to examine Sharjah’s colonised history rather than its independent present. Conceived (to what extent is unclear) by the late, acclaimed curator Okwui Enwezor and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, it is in many ways a homage to Enwezor’s legacy of having significantly enriched and transformed the mainstream understanding of contemporary African art. Enwezor is most famous for his radical curation of Germany’s critically revered Documenta 11, where, in 2002, he took the quinquennial show out of its home town of Kassel and spread it across four continents in order to explore postcolonial hybridity and global modern identity.

Many of Enwezor’s radical ideas play out in Sharjah, in particular his aversion to the use of national pavilions in biennials such as Venice. There are no national pavilions here this time, and no reference to the nationality of the artists on the accompanying wall texts. Artists are instead grouped by themes, in a shift away from postcolonial national identity and towards “more liminal narratives of global circulation, displacement and diaspora.”

While this is a commendably ambitious approach, I don’t think it always has the intended impact. First, the curation needs to gently guide visitors, and I found a lack of curation in many venues, such as Al Mureijah Square, where works are introduced with a minimal wall text, and often separated into their own individual rooms with little dialogue between them. Although it’s possible to discern broad themes – such as the folkloric and mythical overtones of many works at the Al Dhaid – it would be helpful to have these made explicit. Without that, the artists’ work somehow has to speak to its own concerns, as well as the ambition of the whole biennial. Commissioned works which do try to articulate Enwezor’s ideas, such as John Akomfrah (who is representing the UK at the Venice Biennale next year) with his five-channel video work Arcadia, can feel confused. Shot between Sharjah and Scotland, it feels more like a David Attenborough documentary than something tackling “the ecological implications of settler colonialism.”

Hajra Waheed’s “Hum” is a sublime piece of sound art housed within a huge conical sound chamber

The best works, in fact, are often those which don’t attempt vague grandstanding about global shifts and “transnationality”, but deal with lived experience, illustrating the local and national concerns of each artist, or their individual research into communities. The most successful in this vein is Hajra Waheed’s Hum, a sublime piece of sound art housed within a huge conical sound chamber. The composition involves only voices, played out meditatively in seven songs central to specific, popular uprisings and anti-colonial struggles across the world. Tarweedeh, for example, is an encrypted style of Palestinian folk song developed by women to send coded messages to men in prison; it was used throughout the Ottoman era as well as during the British and Israeli occupation. Like the show’s strongest commissions, it wears its (thorough) research lightly, inviting us to engage with the biennial’s complex themes through a profound sensory experience.

The fifteenth edition of the Sharjah Biennial in the UAE runs until 11 June 2023

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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April 2023, Arts & Culture, Horizon Line

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