Monday 11 May 2015

At Sharjah Biennal 12, art boosts tourism, possiblity

By Tajudeen Sowole
Unlike its co-Emirate, Dubai, which has larger than life characteristics, Sharjah is less daring, but endowed in art and culture contents. In 24 years, one of its icons, Sharjah Biennal (SB12), currently in its 12th editions, has become a prominent tourists' attraction in the league of leisure destination cities in the Middle East.

Visitors viewing Hassan Khan’s Various works and Intervention, 2014-2015 at Sharjah Biennal 12
     Photo by Deema Shahin.

Sharjah, about 55 minutes drive from Dubai, is one of the seven emirates that merged to produce the historic union of UAE in 1971. The city's biennal, is as global in content as any other similar event with artists and resource persons from across the world. Among other spots of art and culture, Sharjah boasts of “the only calligraphy museum in the Middle East.”   

 For some visitors who share their time between the two cities, SB12, which opened in March, ending June 2015, provides a deeper intellectual and perhaps texturised academic contents after one's break from Art Dubai. If I thought the world of art melted at Art Dubai, Jumeirah Madinat and designs peaked at Design Days, Downtown Dubai, near Burj Khalifa, arriving at Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) space offers a different way to contextualise and appreciate creativity.

 Visual arts take the lead during the March opening of the four months long SB12 while theatre and film contents, mostly open in May through June. Between 2013 and the 2015 edition, quite a lot has changed in the designs and size of the exhibition space of the biennal. For the art, the architectural designs of some of the spaces appears like an integral part of the curator's concept in managing the flood of creative elements from 51 artists whose works are displayed within and off SAF.

Themed The Past, The Present, The Possible, the twelfth edition of Sharjah Biennal complements the city's. 125,000 years history, says Eungie Joo, the curator.
 After an opening directional address by one of the guides, Katrina Webber Ashour, the leisure of art appreciation takes off at the SAF space as the tourists move, in groups, from one space to another viewing the works of the artists.  
  From Argentine, Eduardo Navarro's huge ball game in communication skill titled XYZ (2015); New York-based Ethiopian, Julie Mehretu's Invisible Sun, a monochromatic painting on canvas; to Beirut, Lebanon-based Rayana Tabet's marine subject, Cyprus; as well as outdoor installation, Sky Blue Flag by Brooklyn-based Byron Kim, the Sharjah gathering coalesced diverse artistic thoughts around the world into a vast intellectual dialogues between viewers and the works. Either as a creative concept or revisiting real life event, the exhibiting artists implore the strength of visual communication to enhance the value of tourism contents at the Sharjah space.

 For Tabet, the memory of a failed family journey led by his father, 29 years ago - fleeing from Lebanon - is shared in Cyprus, a boat installation with its anchor inside a high headroom space. A text attached to the installation tells the story of how the father's journey, sadly, "lasted a mere 30 minutes" after realising he could not move the boat to Cyprus. The idea to create art concept out of the failed asylum journey of h is father started in 2012 when Tabet "accidentally" came across the 850 killogramme boat on the shores of Jbell, in Lebanon.

  Given the depth of most of the works presented at SB12, which have been commissioned by SAF, they could end up in the organisation's collection. Among such works is Sky Blue Flag, an installation of spiritual content by Kim. Mounted off the SAF space, it continues the artist's research into conflict between abstraction and representation art, says a curatorial note attached with the work. More importantly, it has been inspired by the artist's several works in the past, which were always done in "kite in the colour of sky as a way to connect him almost invisibly with the heavens." 

 At the Sharjah Biennal 11, two years ago, a Nigerian performance artist, Otobong Nkanga had a presentation and installation titled Tastes of A Stone. Although no Nigerian artist is showing at SB12, the country's presence is felt in Chimurenga, an edition of Chronic, a Cape Town, South Africa-based publication founded in 2002 and commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Presented in May at Sharjah, it revisits the famous FESTAC 77 (2nd World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture held in Lagos 38 years ago.
 The participating 51 artists and groups, according to Joo, help "us imagine and reflect upon" the theme's "ambitions, possibilities and being".  The curator notes how the artists are involved in diverse dialogues as well as collaborative efforts to achieve ebullient results. "Together their works offer both material experience and meditative pause to reassert the need for wonder, mindfulness and query at this particularly disharmonious and decadent moment in human history."

Beom Kim, Untitled (Intimate Suffering #13), 2014, Acrylic on canvas (491 x 348.5 cm, shown at Sharjah Biennal 12). Photo by Alfredo Rubio.

 As the curator of SB12, Joo, a former Director of Art and Cultural Programs at Instituto Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brasil adds to the prominence of art of South America at UAE's 2015 art calendar. The Marker section at Art Dubai of the year was dedicated to South American artists.   

She was Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs at the New Museum from 2007 – 2012, where Joo spearheaded the Museum as Hub program; commissioned the monthly seminar Night School by Anton Vidokle (2008 – 9); edited the volume Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education(2009); and published the Art Spaces Directory(2012), a guide to over 400 independent art spaces from over ninety-six countries. Joo was curator of the 2012 New Museum Triennial: The Ungovernables and served as commissioner of the Korean Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, where she presented Condensation: Haegue Yang. Joo was founding Director and Curator of the Gallery at REDCAT, Los Angeles, from 2003 to 2007, where she developed residencies and exhibitions by SUPERFLEX, Damián Ortega, Sora Kim, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kara Walker and others. Joo received her doctorate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Still within the SAF space, a visit to the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum brings a fresh tastes in the art of scribbling with a blend of design. The museum is described as “the only one in the Arab world” focusing the art of calligraphy. The facility include calligraphy studios.

At the opening of SB12 in March, awardees included artists Eric Baudelaire, Asunción Molinos Gordo and Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. Other winners included artists Adrián Villar Rojas and Fahrelnissa Zeid, who were “honoured for their thought-provoking contributions to SB12.”
Prize jurors were Suha Shoman, Founder and Chair of Darat al Funun – The Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman, Jordan; Koyo Kouoh, founding artistic director of RAW Material Company, Dakar, Senegal; and Park Chang–Kyong, artist, filmmaker and artistic director of ‘MediaCity Seoul 2014', International Media Art Biennale in Seoul, South Korea.
SAF says it supports the flourishing of arts environment in the Gulf by nurturing artistic opportunities and actively pursuing both a regional and international programme of cultural collaboration and exchange. The organisation’s vision is premised on a boastful “pioneering role the Emirate of Sharjah has played in the artistic and cultural development of the Gulf region.”
 Among its mission - inspired by the cross-fertilisation and rich cultural diversity of the Emirates – is to provide local and international leads in the production and showing of contemporary art. “Recognising the central and distinctive contribution that art makes to society, the Sharjah Art Foundation cultivates a spirit of research, experimentation and excellence while acting as a catalyst for collaboration and exchange within the Middle East and beyond.”
Established in 2009, SAF’s primary role was to support Sharjah Biennial, which is described as one of the most celebrated cultural events in the region, since 1993, having created “a cultural bridge between artists, art institutions and organisations locally, regionally and internationally.”                 The SAF’s vibrancy has been linked to its President, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, under whose leadership, since Sharjah Biennial 6 in 2003, the programming has witnessed a improvement. Al Qasimi is an artist who received her BFA from the Slade School of Art, London, and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, U.K.

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