Sharjah Biennial 9: The Gulf’s Premiere Contemporary Art Event

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Under the watchful eye of the daughter of Sharjah’s ruler — the British educated Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi — and Jerusalem-born, Palestinian curator and artistic director Jack Persekian, the Sharjah Biennial has swiftly become the Gulf’s premiere contemporary art event. Maintaining its presence as an interlocutor for contemporary art and dialogue within the United Arab Emirates for almost two decades, and now in its ninth installment, the Sharjah Biennial returned to the arts and heritage district of Sharjah’s Expo Center and Museum. For the first time, it coincided with Art Dubai and the region’s only fringe fair, Al Bastakiya, capitalizing on a diverse audience of heavyweight international collectors, curators, critics, artists, and general art enthusiasts.

Composed of three chapters — past, present, and future — SB9 began with a rigorous three-day education program entitled the “March Meetings.” The program brought together a diverse group of cultural practitioners and institutions working within the Arab world and its diaspora, including Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Lebanon’s Arab Image Foundation, New York’s ArteEast, and London’s International Curators Forum. The centerpiece of SB9, however, is the main exhibition, Provisions for the Future. Curated by Isabel Carlos, it features 60 international artists, of whom half have been handpicked from an open-call submission announced in 2008.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is recent Artes Munde prize recipient and Indian artist N.S. Harsha‘s ambitious Nations installation. Featuring a mock factory with lines of sewing machines churning out the flags of the 192 countries of the United Nations, it corresponds with the abundance of textile shops in the vicinity of the arts district of Sharjah. Another standout is Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas‘ powerful installation of miniature paintings of school children, titled God Grows on Trees. Featuring 99 images of children (an ode to the 99 names of God in Islam) who attend a local religious school in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, it spotlights the art of Zikr — the Islamic act of reciting the name of God and simultaneously learning to master one’s breathing. Situated within a closed wooden booth, the installation can be experienced only by one visitor at a time, and is the recipient of the SB9 Award. Also of note is the work of newcomer Lamya Gargash, an emerging Dubai-born artist whose photographs of private Emirati homes and offices, titled The Majlis, provide a candid view into the private spaces inhabited by UAE locals. The project has also earned her a place in the inaugural UAE Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale.

Parallel to the central exhibition was “Past of the Coming Days,” a ten-day performance and film program curated by Tarek Abu El Fetouh. Featuring cutting-edge film and video, it included new work by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and live art by Lebanese political performance artist Rabih Mroué, along with nightly radio broadcasts by Mumbai-based group CAMP, another recipient of the SB9 Award.

Accompanying SB9, a catalogue, titled Provisions, continues the process-based theme, and features a scrapbook-style compilation with original artist notes, emails, sketches, and a questionnaire, all edited and designed in collaboration with Bidoun magazine and Amsterdam-based design bureau the Khatt Foundation.

Sharjah Biennial 9 continues through May 16. Watch a video overview of the exhibition on YouTube.

Image: Lamya Gargash, The Majlis, 2008-2009