|President and director of SAF, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi; HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi presenting Sharjah Biennial Prize to Otobong Nkanga. Pic: c/o SAF.
Whoever visits Sharjah Biennial 14 in UAE, which opened on March 7 and currently showing till 10 June, 2019, would not miss the prize winning installations art by Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh. Sharjah, the same city where five Nigerians were caught for alleged robbery is home to the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), which is one of the most visited art spaces in the art world destinations.
Themed 'Leaving the Echo Chamber', the 2019 Sharjah Biennial has on display artworks including projects and commissions from over 80 artists selected across the world. Apart from Nkanga and Ogboh, another Nigerian artist, Leo Asemota's work sculpture and drawing is also on display.
Perhaps, while the five Nigerians plotted to carry out their robbery operation on a bureau de change shop in Sharjah, artists Nkanga and Ogboh were receiving the Sharjah Biennial's most prestigious art prize. Shortly after the biennial opened in March, the two Nigerian artists were formally given the prize by the HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Federal Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ruler of Sharjah. The Sharjah Biennial Prize was established in 1993 by the organisers and is currently being awarded by SAF. Recipients are selected by a jury appointed by the foundation.
Artists Mohamed Bourouissa, Shezad Dawood, Phan Thảo Nguyên and Qiu Zhijie also received special mentions for their projects. The jurors were Octavio Zaya, Homi Bhabha and Solange Farkas.
Ahead of the opening of another event, Art Dubai -- in neighbouring city -- a Monday afternoon press trip to the Sharjah Biennial offered one the formal opportunity to see the prize winning installations of Nkanga and Ogboh. Titled 'Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past' (2019), it's a sight-specific project, which highlights certain trajectory of the host city. Mounted among ruins converted to art space, at Bait Al Aboudi and the surrounding grounds in Al Mureijah Square, the visual and sound installations include oval craters bordered by sand mounds. Filled with water brought in from the sea, the craters are spiced with salt. And generating what appears like some scientific experimentation in the lab, the artists keep traces of saline just as the water evaporates.
The duality concept of the installations comes with the sound-effect generated in creative alignment to the visual components. The sound contents are more instructive in what the press trip tour guide described as representing "Emirati ‘rain song’ performed by children in Sharjah."
However, Nkanga and Ogboh seem to treat visitors to the site differently: seeing the installations at night is absolutely not the same during the day. An informal visit to the installations during a dinner at SAF ground, five days ahead of the press trip, presented a different view entirely. The poetic coalescence of all the contents in communicating with the sounds and lights presented contrasting view in appreciation compared to seeing the same installations during the day time.
For Asemota, his wprks presented in installation format and titled 'The Intrinsic Tendency of The Ens Sign' (2019) celebrates Edo people's cultural value. Articulated in drawings, photographs and sculptures it narrates the yearly Igue rites while also revisiting the British invasion and conquest that led to the infamous looting of the former Kingdom of Benin's cultural objects.
There is more in critical appreciation to the work, so suggest the accompanying texts of the exhibition: Expanding on this triangulation of culture, history and reason, Asemota travelled to Benin City to observe the Igue rite and its subtleties as a stimulus for ideas that could push his project further. The Intrinsic Tendency of The Ens Sign (2019) is a multimedia installation. Evolving over the duration of the biennial, the 'live' artwork will start with drawings and sculptures presented on pedestals reminiscent of the richly embellished carved wooden agba ceremonial stools from the Kingdom of Benin. Following the presentation of these works will be a filmed performance by The Handmaiden, described by the artist as a creative being and the central figure in The Ens Project.
Based in Antwerp, Belgium, Nkanga is no stranger to the Sharjah Biennial space. In 2013, she showed at the 11th edition of the event with performance and installation titled 'Taste of a Stone: Itiat Esa Ufok'. 2013
Curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons Leaving the Echo Chamber highlights the invasion of people's lives by all sorts of communication contents and gadgets. "It encompasses the noise of mainstream media coverage, conspiracy theories, sensationalised storytelling and social media feeds that reverberates within closed
systems and networks that prevent people from engaging with each other in complex ways," stated Noor Al-Qassimi, President of SAF. "Although the biennial does not propose answers or solutions, it does offer opportunities to closely examine how stories are told and from what perspectives they are communicated and historicised."
As a fast growing tour destination, Sharjah, also from September last year started adding new concept to the city's contents. Still under the leadership of Al-Qassimi, the new addition, The Africa Institute, in March organised a conference themed Global Africa: African and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century. Held at Africa Hall, over 20 presentations from scholars were dissected.
The Africa Hall was also relaunched late last year with performances by Youssou N’Dour, among other African artistes and a symposium on geographical forms of abstraction, convened by Al-Qassimi, Okwui Enwezor and Salah M. Hassan, The Africa Hall, according to Qasimi, was originally built in 1970s, but the purpose were not realised then.