In an empty courtyard surrounded by stone walls, visitors made their way around stagnant pools of water, drawn toward brightly colored panels set into the back wall of the space. The sounds of birds and bubbling water surrounded them. Suddenly, a dead palm tree at the center of the courtyard spoke with a woman’s voice, telling the visitor about her slow death from loss of nutrients; the voice mourned not only life, but love, explaining that her lover drained her of existence. This mixed-media work, Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past (2019), was a collaboration between the Nigerian artists Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh and won the 2019 Sharjah Biennial Prize. Haunting and evocative in its own right, the work also reflects many of the themes addressed by artists throughout this biennial: the passage of time, loss, displacement, memory. According to Hoor Al Qasimi, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, this edition of the Sharjah Biennial sought to leave behind the “echo chamber” of mainstream media, with its closed feedback loops, and to “offer opportunities to closely examine how stories are told and from what perspectives they are communicated and historicized.”1 The 14th Sharjah Biennial took the somewhat unusual approach of inviting three curators—Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif, and Claire Tancons—to each shape their own section of the exhibition, a strategy that at times resulted in a lack of cohesion between approaches, even when individual works within the sections were strong [Image 1].
In “Journey Beyond the Arrow,” the section of the Biennial curated by Butt, the selected works were meant to reflect on global connections and exchange, focusing on the human journey and the tools that make it possible. Two works by artists from Southeast Asia and Oceania were among the most compelling in this section, perhaps fittingly given the unique history of those regions in the ongoing collision between East and West, native and other. Kidlat Tahimik, from the Philippines, presented Ang Ma-bagyong Sabungan ng 2 Bathala ng Hangin, A Stormy Clash Between 2 Goddesses of the Winds (WW III–the Protracted Kultur War) (2019), a mixed-media installation that filled an entire gallery with a combination of sculpture, audio, and video. The installation commented on the onslaught of Western cultural values and commodities that threaten to overtake indigenous communities of the Philippines. In this work, the indigenous goddess Inhabian stands against the tsunami-like onslaught of Marilyn Monroe, in which Hollywood glamor and American consumerism threaten to overwhelm traditional tools and symbols such as ancestor statues and outrigger canoes. There is no clear outcome to this “Protracted Kultur War,” and the relentless sound of wind and waves playing throughout the installation suggested that the battle will be as ongoing as the seas themselves.
In a four-channel 3-D video installation by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, Nomads of the Sea (2019), the sea delivered one of the story’s protagonists, an English woman mutineer, to a Maori community in the South Pacific. The story focused on the ways in which this Pakeha (Western) woman is both valued and co-opted by the Maori as they use her to gain standing and to push back against Western incursion. The complex relationships alluded to, if not fully explored, in this dark and surrealistic work set the tone for an overwhelming sense of uneasiness that pervades the film and reflects the artist’s understanding of “colonial encounters in the South Pacific as a continuum of entanglements between European and indigenous people that continue to this day.”2
Kholeif, whose section of the Biennial was titled “Making New Time,” focused on the ways in which artists can reshape and reimagine material culture as a means of historical reflection. In this exhibition, works by Hrair Sarkissian and Heather Phillipson accomplished this reimagining and reflection in ways that both engage and haunt the viewer. Sarkissian, a Syrian artist working in London, uses photography, video, and sculpture to make spare, elegant works that evocatively capture the losses experienced in Syria and other war-ravaged areas in the Middle East. Sarkissian presented three works at the Biennial, including Horizon (2016), a two-channel video that captures an aerial view of a sea route between southwestern Turkey and the island of Megisti in Greece that is used frequently by refugees escaping the Middle East. Although this is one of the shortest routes by which refugees can reach Europe, the vertiginous installation of the video, with one screen on the floor and the other on the wall, and the speeding passage of the camera as it glides over barren land, then deep sea, then rocky shore, made clear that it is not an easy or hospitable passage. The horizon is held out as a sign of hope, but also of the unknown and daunting future. In both Final Flight (2018–19) and Residue (2019) the artist uses 3-D scanning technology to explore loss and deterioration. In Final Flight, the object of Sarkissian’s exploration is the Northern bald ibis, a bird whose ancestors featured in ancient Egyptian art. The last known colony of seven of these birds was being preserved in Syria, near Palmyra; since the destruction of that site in 2014 they have not been observed. Sarkissian collaborated with the 3-D technology company Factum Arte to create the sculptures of ibis skulls used in the installation, which were displayed along with a video, an archival ink-jet print of ibises in flight, and a map showing the ibises’ migratory path from Syria to Ethiopia. The video played on a screen installed in front of a row of concrete and iron pedestals on which the seven replica skulls are mounted, mute witnesses to the visual journey of their final flight and a metaphor for the hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced Syrians, who have also faced a kind of extinction as a result of their country’s civil war [Image 2].
In Residue, Sarkissian again evokes the loss and absence experienced by Syrians through his 3-D scanning and printing of a negative of a woman’s portrait from the mid-twentieth century that he found in an antique shop in Damascus. We are keenly aware of both the original beauty of the portrait—the woman’s hair perfectly coiffed, the strands of pearls around her neck—and the imperfections and damage rendered by time. These imperfections and losses of the visual information of the negative serve as corollaries for a loss of history, memory, and material culture in the country itself. Heather Phillipson’s three-part installation, Cyclonic Palate Cleanser (2019), was more jarring than Sarkissian’s, yet dealt with similar concerns about loss, death, and existential destruction. Phillipson, who was born and still lives in London, approaches her work through a concern with the overwhelming deluge of sounds, images, cultural references, and toxic materials that make up contemporary life. Her installation made use of sound, video, and diverse materials, including burnt bread and sculptures of frogs, to comment on issues of climate and chaos, the three components together forming a “triptych of toxic creep and excretion.”3
Curator Claire Tancons brought together a group of artists whose works in the section titled “Look for Me All Around You” reflect, at times directly and at times obliquely, the conditions of Sharjah as an historical and contemporary migratory zone or cross-cultural meeting point. Kuwaiti artist Alia Farid’s video, At the Time of the Ebb (2019), documents the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) on the Iranian island of Qeshm. By showing the film at the Sharjah Biennial, Farid brings to the foreground the overlap and connections in the identities of Iran and the Arabian Gulf, an overlap that is particularly noticeable in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Iranian trade and cultural traditions are still a marked presence today. Tancons’s biennial platform was also the site for the work of the only Emirati artist included in this year’s Biennial, Alaa Edris. Edris, who was born in Sharjah and now works in both Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, created a site-specific sculpture and video installation, The Black Boxes of Observational Activity (2019), which was displayed on the roof of one of the galleries. Viewers approached a box that looked like a cross between an old camera obscura and the type of telescope found on observation platforms, then peered through a small hole to view a screen that showed a video of the scene that the box was directed at. These videos were recently produced, but subtly manipulated to give a futuristic quality to them. A comparison between what was seen onscreen and what could be seen outside the box highlighted the sense of the box serving as an intermediary between a visible present and a conjectured future and, by extension, between the visible present and the now invisible past of these historical areas of Sharjah [Image 3].
While the 14th Sharjah Biennial featured many powerful works from artists hailing from areas outside of the mainstream art scene, it remained unclear whether the strategy of engaging three curators with their individual platforms contributed in any significant way to that success. Arguably, one curator with a global vision or a curatorial team working in tandem could have developed a program that featured a similarly expansive representation while ensuring a more even balance between the Global North, Global South, and the immediate Gulf region. While a biennial such as Sharjah’s, with its mandate of international reach and relevance, is under no obligation to feature local talent, it does seem unfortunate that there were not at least a few more Emirati artists represented in the exhibition. With the continued development of arts education in the UAE and the opening of contemporary arts spaces such as the Jameel Arts Centre and Concrete at Al Serkal Avenue (both in Dubai) the country is increasing its prominence in the global contemporary art world, and it would be good to see this reflected in one of its oldest and most esteemed cultural events.