Understanding Sharjah and Its Eleventh Biennial

L to R: Speakers Judith Greer, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi and Girish Shahane in Mumbai on March 22, 2013. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, March 22, 2013 — As a prelude to Asia Society India Centre’s guided group visit to the eleventh Sharjah Biennial, we were joined for a discussion with Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Judith Greer, Associate Director of International Programmes at the Sharjah Art Foundation, moderated by Girish Shahane, Mumbai writer and editor.

Sheikha Al-Qasimi introduced the 2013 biennial, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, speaking first about its usage of public spaces and courtyards throughout several areas the city, including heritage districts, newly renovated multipurpose exhibition spaces, and the occupation of a bank building previously slated for demolition. She highlighted several commissioned artworks, including an installation by Japanese artist Shiro Takatani, featuring smoke and mist to allude to chaos theory, and a work by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, who collaborated with local Biennial staff and drummers to compose a word and sound piece made with language borrowed from the curatorial statements.

Judith Greer spoke about another curatorial subtheme of the 11th Biennial, which is cartography. She discussed how Sharjah is distinguished by its geographical relationship to the sea, and its trade with the rest of the world. It is a cultural capital in the U.A.E., with a high percentage of the Emirates' cultural funding allocated to Sharjah in recent years. Through historic and contemporary trade the local culture shows varied influences from South Asia, the Far East, eastern Europe and northern Africa. The collegial relationships between Sharjah and many countries including India, the UK, Russia have made it easier for visiting artists to work on commissions at the Biennial. Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi added that foreigners' visits to Sharjah infuse the city with welcome new cultural characteristics and backgrounds.

Asked by Girish Shahane about whether there is a privileging of viewers and audiences at the Biennial, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi said that there is no segregation of audiences — everything is open to the public. All visitors are welcome to enter, and there is the hope that local residents unfamiliar with contemporary art will be enticed to visit on their own accord. She noted, "when we have openings, there are no VIPs. Local kids come in and bring their friends. It's a reflection of us becoming more established. Kids feel ownership of the stage, they just come in and dance."

In response to a probing question from Girish Shahane about freedom of expression in a non-democratic culture, Greer and Al-Qasimi spoke about current controversies surrounding the Middle East, and its effect on art in Sharjah. They noted that Sharjah is less commercial than Dubai, and that it does not really face problems with free speech. Greer further observed that many local artists are fed up with stereotypes associated with the Middle East, and with the expectation that their work should focus on political and censorship controversies. She said they do not feel opposition from fundamentalists, and that they are engaging with people in open public spaces and through public installations. Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi observed that the Sharjah Biennial is for the public and that the organizers needed to be sensitive to their audiences. She said, "There aren't many things that we cannot talk about. Politics is fine, it's in the news, we talk about it all the time. There are certain things that are illegal, that we cannot touch upon, like blasphemy or full frontal nudity, but everything else is discussed openly."

The speakers acknowledged that the biennial has faced extremely challenging times. They openly discussed a controversy that occurred in the 2011 Biennial, when Mustapha Benfodil’s installation Maportaliche/Ecritures sauvages (It Has No Importance / Wild Writings) was hastily removed due to public outrage, and the director, Jack Persekian, was asked to leave. Greer explained that the work "included obscene language offensive to Muslims — to anybody, really," and it was located in an area with a major public courtyard frequented by families with children, behind a major mosque. She said the situation boiled down to a serious lack of institutional oversight, and that it had been a learning experience. Greer talked about how western cultures raised an uproar, cast it in a limited way as a case of censorship, saying "there is no free speech there." She emphasized that every institutional person she knew, from major museums across the world, told her, "we would never have even gotten that work out the door." She said that the organizers had grown and learned from the situation, and subsequently had expanded their education and outreach efforts a great deal. Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi agreed, talking about how it had also made them think about who their community is, who their audiences are. She pointed out that if the Biennial was offending their audiences when they intended to engage them, then they were not really starting a dialogue.

In closing the discussion, they estimated that the biennial receives about 80,000 visitors, and said “we love hearing locals call it ‘our biennial’." There is a steady support base, which they want to keep as diverse as possible. The Sharjah Art Foundation also has interns from Harvard University and from Alexandria, Egypt. Their base of patrons includes individuals from the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Reported by Anuja Sheth, Intern, Asia Society India Centre and Susan Hapgood, Art and Culture Consultant, Asia Society India Centre.