Exploratory Artistic Drilling in the Gulf
Sharjah is the third largest of the seven United Arab Emirates and is regarded as the cultural centre of the federation. The Biennial was intended to display local activity, but the seventh Biennial has shown that the show now has international status. By Samuel Herzog
The Sharjah Biennial has at least one unique characteristic: it must be the only art event which owes its existence more or less directly to the Muslim ban on alcohol. In the seventies, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, as the Emir of Sharjah is known affectionately even today, was the first of the Emirs to open his country to international tourism: hotels were built, beaches laid out and all kinds of attractions developed.
Ten years later, under pressure from the Saudi king, the Emir imposed a ban on alcohol which had the effect of literally drying out the freshly blooming tourist industry.
Tourists, who were much more inclined to drink in the eighties than they are nowadays, turned their attention to the other Emirates, leaving just a few carrot juice freaks sitting beside Sharjah's swimming pools.
A new era for art in the Gulf
In order to appeal to them, the Emir decided to target a more local tourism, less dependent on supplies of beer. He restored the old city, rebuilt the Souk al-Arsah and built a huge angling centre on one of the islands in the Khalid Bay.
At the same time, he tried to establish Sharjah as the cultural capital of the Arabian Peninsula, with museums for Islamic treasures, archaeology, science and modern Arab art. The latest is a building housing a permanent exhibition of the "Art Collection of His Highness Doctor Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi."
The establishment of an art Biennial in 1993 can be seen as part of this process. The first five Sharjah Biennials concentrated entirely on classical and local art forms, especially painting.
That changed in 2002, when one of the Emir's daughters, Her Royal Highness Princess Hoor al-Qasimi, was chosen as director. The princess had studied at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London and had already organised a few exhibitions.
She and Peter Lewis curated the sixth Biennial in 2003, and she opened up the programme for new forms, such as installations, video, photography, performance and internet art. With the sixth Biennial, she wanted not only to raise the level of the programme, but also to mark the start of "a new era of contemporary art in the Gulf region."
Whether the sixth Biennial with its 120 artists from over twenty countries did introduce a new era is a moot point, but with the seventh, which was opened in mid-April with a celebratory reception featuring the most varied range of fruit juices, the Sharjah Biennial has certainly made it into the league of international Biennials.
The curator was the renowned Jack Persekian of Jerusalem. Together with Kenneth Lum and Tirdad Zolghadr, he put together an exhibition which cleverly brought together works by internationally famous artists and local pieces – an approach which has become usual in Biennials which are held outside the world's largest art centres.
Thinking across cultural divisions
The theme of the exhibition was also one which was appropriate for an international show: at the same time committed and general, so that curatorial freedom was scarcely restricted.
"In selecting the theme of 'Belonging' at this moment in time and place, the Biennial hopes to address itself to questions that explore how art may overlap with history and how artists may intervene in our space to allow us to think across cultural divisions and beyond our differences." That's what their opening press release said. Other public pronouncements, even if coloured by local complexities, also point to the issue of migration and identity which has been the topic of various recent major exhibitions.
Aside from this somewhat forced thematic gymnastics, Persekian has put together a show, with respect for the individual work, which can hold its head high in the world of similar events. In the fashionable Expo Centre, in the Sharjah Art Museum and spread out around the semi-public spaces of the museum campus, works of around seventy artists from around forty countries are presented.
Many of them are large-scale sculptures or installations, multiple video projections or photographic presentations. Almost all of them are presented in their own space – possible interaction between them is thus made impossible, but they can unfold their complexity unhindered.
Bearing in mind the generalised thematic of this Biennial, it's almost astonishing how many of the works deal more or less directly with local motifs. Not only artists from the region have allowed themselves to experiment with an artistic version of exploratory oil drilling in the Gulf.
A whole range of works deals with the rapid change in the landscape of the Gulf region. Mohamed Kazem of Dubai, for example, illustrates with his photos in illuminated boxes how the skyscrapers which are shooting up all over the region from day to day increasingly overwhelm human proportions.
Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria uses his pictures to show how "Dubailand" reminds him of Disneyland. And Fouad Elkoury of Paris demonstrates by hanging pictures beside each other that the dream worlds of Dubai and Las Vegas aren't that different.
The French photographer Anne-Marie Filaire suggests what might happen to the magnificent buildings of the region when the oil and gas runs out: she's photographed abandoned and unfinished buildings in Palestine.
Nari Ward from Jamaica reminds us of the continuous traffic chaos of the region (and indirectly of the rest of the world) which has been partly caused by the billions of dollars in the oil industry.
She's put together a "Sharjah birdhouse" made of rusty exhaust pipes. The wall paintings of Minerva Cuevas from Mexico show how the construction boom in the Gulf is threatening animal species in the region.
The Swiss artist Beat Streuli has painted portraits of people from the region, and thus drawn attention indirectly to the fact that about 80% of the United Arab Emirates' population of three million are foreigners – many of them guest workers from India and Pakistan.
The other Swiss artists in the show – Peter Stoffel, San Keller, Christoph Büchel and Giovanni Carmine, COM & COM, as well as the Zurich-based, Iranian-born Shirana Shahbazi – have all let themselves be more or less inspired by the place itself.
A different kind of Middle Eastern thematic is dealt with in the videos of the Iranian Ghazel. She has filmed herself in all kinds of "performances," wearing a chador.
She plays cricket with a hammer, she throws plates against a wall, she uses lipstick to decorate herself with a kind of war-paint ("Angry Day"), or she cools herself with a fan made from a map of the world ("Global Warming") – allusive stories about the secret live under the unifying black cloak.
One of the most visually striking pieces in the show is the work of Olaf Nicolai of Germany. In a street behind the museum he has put out a washing line between the houses and hung out trousers, tablecloths, socks and shirts to "dry" – in much the same way as we are used to seeing in Mediterranean alleys.
With this reference to the great book of yearning for Italianità, Nicolai creates an absurd analogy to the street lamps of Sharjah, which are modelled on those of the Champs Elysée in Paris.
It's a good analogy too to the way in which this Biennial, whatever local colour has been added, still follows western models. It's comprehensible, familiar, reliable. The Sharjah Biennial is an oasis of culture in the midst of a glittering desert of consumerism in the Persian Gulf. And yet: after a thirsty ride through this world of art, one is almost disappointed when all one finds is another oasis.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
7th Sharjah Biennial. Expo Centre and Sharjah Art Museum. Until 6th June. A catalogue will appear during the period of the exhibition.