The Sharjah Biennial has become the most talked about international art event in the Middle East and Central Asia. Now in its 11th edition, it is a sprawling two-month occasion that takes place across the historic city-state. Under the directorship of Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, the biennial in 2009 initiated the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), an artist-support organization. This year the foundation opened five interconnected, multifunctional permanent art spaces in the city's heritage area. Sharjah's arts and culture scene occupies a unique position in the wider Arab world. For seven years, neighboring emirate Dubai, for instance, has hosted a commercial art fair (Art Dubai) that seems more preoccupied with VIP access cards than developing new audiences for the cultural sector. This year, the Sharjah Biennial, rather than opening at the same time as the fair, launched its programs a week before, forcing cultural tourists to decide between the two happenings.
Indeed, all of the biennial's performances, film screenings, talks and other events were available to anyone who was interested. It seems appropriate, then, that the Tokyo-based curator Yuko Hasegawa chose the courtyard in Islamic architecture as the biennial's theme, using Sharjah's courtyards as a jumping-off point to consider how a space can be simultaneously private and public. Over 100 artists, many of them from the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East, contributed work to the exhibition.
The curator's focus on a spatial exploration of the urban sphere was most appropriately encapsulated in a new performance by Wael Shawky, titled Dictums 10:120. Here, 32 men—half local workers and half invited from South Asia—performed a Qawwali song. (Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music that is popular in the Asian subcontinent.) The lyrics were composed of fragments taken from curatorial talks held during the previous Sharjah Biennial, translated from English into Urdu. The men sat on cushions lined up in the middle of a narrow alleyway to the side of one of SAF's new spaces in what seemed to be a private invocation to two men who led this act of spiritual music. Without a public point of access, audience members found vantage points atop the new buildings. The experience of happening upon an apparently nonpublic act of initiation was one of the biennial's most engrossing moments.
Unique to this year's biennial was the use of a historic bank in the city's center. Across from this site, Danish artist collective Superflex created a public park titled The Bank (2013). They asked neighborhood residents to suggest existent objects of significance to them for the park, such as benches, bins, toys and signage. The collective then bought or re-created the items and placed them in the park, creating what they have dubbed "a currency converter of personal memories."The park was often occupied, but it was unclear whether the installation was permanent. It is hard to imagine that the black flooring they installed will survive under the throb of Sharjah's sweltering sun.
Another highlight was The Goodness Regime (2013), a single-channel film by the L.A.-based duo Jumana Manna and Sille Storihle. This formally imaginative documentary examines Norway and its reputation as a kind, peaceful country. Firsthand accounts are interspersed with Hollywood film scenes and reenactments of historical events by children. Through subtle humor, the artists weave a critique of the impetuses for wealthy nations to enact moralistic gestures. Elsewhere, Lebanese artist and filmmaker Lamia Joreige presented the mixed-medium installation Under-Writing Beirut-Mathaf (2013), which is the first part of an ongoing project considering locations in Beirut, starting with the neighborhood where the artist lives. This sweeping body of work could have formed its own monographic exhibition.
The Sharjah Biennial is still one of the few platforms in the area where so-called Middle Eastern artists living locally can receive commissions and work toward a world-class professional presentation. Where the SAF is most courageous is in its unabashed staging of film and video work—mediums often underrepresented in the region. Dozens of hours were screened. With vim and vigor, Hasegawa and Al-Qasimi brought film and video to the forefront of regional presentation, underscoring their importance as a means of cultural expression.
PHOTO: View of Wael Shawky's performance Dictums 10:120, 2013; at the Sharjah Biennial 11.