Speaking Out in Sharjah: A Report from the March Meeting

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: Postcards of War, 1997-2006, series of 18 postcards, 4 by 6 inches each. Courtesy the artist. 


Since its inception in 2008, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual March Meeting has grown to become a city-wide multidisciplinary event. The 2016 edition was organized around the rubric of “Education, Engagement and Participation” and included a three-day summit composed of presentations and panels by nearly 50 artists, curators, program directors, and other “cultural managers” from around the world. The meeting was held in Calligraphy Square, one of three clusters of arts spaces that flank Bank Street, a central artery in downtown Sharjah. In addition to the meeting were attendant solo and group exhibitions installed across SAF locations, most of which were curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the foundation and daughter of Sheikh Sultan III bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, who has ruled Sharjah since 1972. In 2015, Hoor Al Qasimi curated the United Arab Emirates Pavilion for the 56th Venice Biennale, a credential that has ushered her on to the stage of high-powered global art world figures. Recently, Al Qasimi has set her sights on expanding the reach of the foundation by acquiring and restoring defunct buildings, such as theaters and factories, throughout the Emirate of Sharjah. For example, her Venice presentation titled “1980-Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates” is currently on view at The Flying Saucer, a landmark building located about four miles east of the city center. In her opening remarks, Al Qasimi noted that “we need to engage with Sharjah as a totality, its villages and towns as well as its two coasts.”

The week’s events were inaugurated with a performance by Taro Shinoda and Uriel Barthélémi staged in the Mleiha Desert, an hour’s drive east of the city. A massive screen was installed in a craterlike valley, beside a tall wooden platform with a drum set on top. Some spectators gathered around the crest of the dune to look down at the scene while others sat on cushions in front of the screen. When the sun went down, a video began in which the names of cities (Beirut, Boston, Sharjah, among others) filled the frame. The names faded and gave way to images of city streets at night, which faded into images of a slowly moving moon. The projection was accompanied by a percussive sound piece by Barthélémi who played on the platform while Shinoda digitally mixed the audio at a station on the ground below. While the real moon shone to our backs, the audience stared wide-eyed at its incandescent twin on the screen for an hour, as Barthélémi’s percussion swelled to an urgent crescendo, then diminished to a meandering pianissimo.

While the evening’s performance cast a sedate tone, the keynote for the March Meeting, delivered by William Wells, cofounder and director of Townhouse, a nonprofit art space near Tahrir Square in Cairo, was something of a call to action. In December 2015, Townhouse was raided and shuttered by the Egyptian government, which cited “administrative irregularities” as its motivation. Townhouse still conducts its administrative operation and has recently acquired a bus that, as Wells described, would operate as a kind of nomadic office out of which the organization could produce mobile programming. In her no-nonsense yet impassioned presentation, Zoe Butt, director of Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, discussed the difficulty of running an alternative arts space in Vietnam, where governmental corruption and censorship are rampant. In 2012, Butt launched an artist-in-residence program open to Southeast Asian artists. During her tenure at Sàn Art, Butt learned that the term “curator” raises too many red flags for government officials, so she adopted the moniker “events sponsor” to avoid investigation by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. However, due to what Butt described as a “failure” of her leadership, the residency program was discontinued in February 2016, after the government revoked the institution’s operating licenses. Ahmed Attar, creative director of the Cairo-based SEE Foundation, echoed many of the participants’ testimonies when he said that “people are sick of failure.” Oscar Murillo was scheduled to present a “case study” on Social Practice art but instead, Reem Faddah, curator of the 2015 Marrakech Biennale and associate curator of Middle Eastern art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, read a statement emailed to her just a few hours prior to the panel by Murillo, stating that he had discarded his UK passport and was detained in Sydney. His action, he wrote, was “an instinctive yet orchestrated act to respond to immigration, racial integration and worker’s rights.” In the context of institutional shutdowns and censorship—discussed earlier in the conference—Murillo’s action merely raised eyebrows, not consciousness. To his credit, Murillo did address the suspect labor conditions of migrant workers in the UAE, a topic not broached for the meeting’s duration.

Al Qasimi moderated presentations by Klaus Biesenbach of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Biesenbach and Al Qasimi discussed their plan to bring Random International’s The Rain Room (2012-ongoing) to Sharjah. The installation consists of a freestanding boxlike room in which a field of falling water, controlled by sensors, pauses wherever a human body is detected. I wondered why this particular work would contribute to the cultural landscape of Sharjah, beyond the crowds it could draw. The emirate is, after all, in a desert. The deployment of rainfall as a signifier for climate change might not hold water. Al Qasimi then discussed “do it [In Arabic],” curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, a franchised relational aesthetics exhibition (launched in 1993) that has been touring globally since that time. For its current iteration, commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, 60 artists wrote instructions for actions that are posted on placards around Bait Al Shamsi, an open-plan building located within the Sharjah Arts District. Anyone who is interested can participate. Among the beneficiaries are local children who lack arts education due to budget cuts in schools.

There were moments of genuine synergy between the March Meeting’s program and the satellite exhibitions. For example, Iranian-born artist, researcher, and curator Azadeh Fatehrad addressed the import of the Iranian women’s movement as it related to Iran’s visibility (or lack thereof) within the global art network. She began her talk by projecting a photograph taken on March 8, 1979, International Women’s Day, a day deliberately chosen by a group of Iranian women who gathered to protest legislation about women’s dress codes. Since she began her research, Fatehrad has been barred from entering Iran, where her family still resides. Speaking to a room in which a number of the woman were covered, this presentation seemed like one of the “subtle transgressions” for which Al Qasimi’s program is known. In Arts Square, adjacent to the Sharjah Art Museum, was a retrospective of Iranian multidisciplinary artist Farideh Lashai (1944-2013.) The exhibition was held in Bait Al Serkal, an exhibition space in a recently renovated home. Lashai’s work ranges wildly from tender watercolors of flowers to large-scale painting and projection installations inspired by Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810-20.) Lashai’s works are a powerful synthesis of Western and Iranian tradition, a troubled autobiography, and childlike curiosity. The work felt fused to its locale. The building’s wide porticos, open central courtyard planted with orange trees and perfect proportions made for a heartbreakingly beautiful installation.

Sharjah, located in the economic and politically stable UAE, under the rule of a relatively liberal and culturally attuned Sultan, with its cultural life directed by Hoor Al Qasimi, has become something of an intellectual oasis in the Gulf. Sheikha Al Qasimi is an adept and versatile curator, as evidenced in the politically and conceptually driven exhibition of works by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige as well as the mini-retrospective of understated and poetic clay sculptures and paintings by Simone Fattal. The only project not organized by Al Qasimi was Tarek Abou El Fetouh’s “The Time is Out of Joint,” a group exhibition that took two historical exhibitions and one future exhibition as its conceptual framework. Sharjah is right in priding itself as being the anti-spectacle, grassroots alternative to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but as the emirate continues to gain visibility on the global stage, its missteps will be just as visible as its successes. If Al Qasimi can resist the influence of celebrity curators and stick to her own nuanced approach, then Sharjah will continue to flourish.