Monday 27 March 2023

'Thinking Historically...' with critical depths, other narratives of over 150 artists at Sharjah Biennial 15

Installation 'A Retrogress: Scene 1' (2022), by Mary Sibande.

OUTSIDE its traditional venues, Sharjah Biennial 15, in UAE, had expanded spaces into outskirts of the city. With a theme linked to late curator, Okwui Enwezor, it featured over 150 artists, including art from African descents, from more than 70 countries.

Themed Thinking Historically in the Present, it was conceived by Enwezor who died in 2019. Curated by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF)’s Director, Hoor Al Qasimi, the 30-year-old biennial opened its 15th edition on February 7, showing till June 11, 2023. 

In a curatorial note, Qasimi tracked how Enwezor inspired her career through 'documenta 11' exhibition, in Kasel, Germany, in 2002, which was directed by the late curator. "Soon thereafter, when I became director of Sharjah Biennial, Enwezor 's example was a formative influence on the institutional trajectory we mapped out for this platform," Qasimi wrote. On the theme of the 2023 Sharjah Biennial, Qasimi disclosed that the phrase 'thinking historically in the present' first came from Enwezor in 2005. 

While some globally known artists showed little surprises, others created depths of freshness in critical contents. The day-one of select guests' tour of the Sharjah Biennial 15 had Dutch artist, Patricia Kaersenchout's tapestry titled Of Palimpsest and Erasures (2022), celebrated the "undocumented" African women of the transatlantic trade in slave era. The mural-size installation, which welcomed guests at Al Hamriya Studio, showed a diptych that depicts women with children at farm. The artist escalated the composition as the farm scenes, sandwiched by green monochrome of drawings of plants, highlighted women as genuine industrious era of the obnoxious era of trade in humans.

Moving further into the venue, some other installations by other artists showed at the Hamriya confirmed the depth of presentations at the Sharjah Biennial 15.  Among such exciting works came from Mary Sibande, in the installation titled A Retrogress: Scene 1 (2002).

Still within the Hamriya Studio vicinity, seven artists' works were mounted inside a space known as Old Al Diwan Al Amiri. Among the installations was that of Yinka Shonibare CBE, whose signature is always as constant as his last work. The Nigerian-British artist's display of seven reduced-life-sized statues, Decolonised Structures, tells the story of arrogance British colonisers, in Africa and other parts of the world. Woven around the the diversity of possibly Victorian fashion was each identity of the past,  robed in Dutch wax fabrice. 

In a Biennial, some elements of surprises and freshness from exhibiting artists always energise critical appreciation. For the Sharjah Biennial 15, that freshness was missing in Shonibare's Decolonised Structures.

The Sharjah Biennial 15 spaces were dotted with quite a number of commissioned installations. Among such SAF-Commissioned installations was My Mother's Memories, a Buried Mound (2023), by Wangechi Mutu. It celebrated the resilience of Kenyan women who stood their grounds against British colonisers. To a large extent, Mutu, in the installation, asserted her spot as one of the most exciting artists to have emerged on the contemporary art landscape of Africa.

A tourist' delight facility known as The Flying Saucer displayed the installation of sculpture, painting, 'In the Dark, We Lose Our Edge (2023), by American, Kambui Olujimi. Mounted on sandfilled blueish floor with wrapped walls of gold colour mural drawings, Olujimi's installation radiated significant rays of critical contents. More interesting, the artist created perception of interactive moment as visitors were asked to wear opaque cover over their shoes.

 Significantly, the architecture of The Flying Saucer deserved the visual radicalism in Olujimi's works. The venue is an architectural masterpiece that beamed creativity to the city centre. The Flying Saucer, historical, dates back to the 1970s, emerging with different roofings. But those decades of history not withstanding, the star-shaped Flying Saucer seemed to have sustained its central design identity through three decades, as seen in some pictures on display at the basement of the building.

From a cone-shaped sound installation by Hajra Waheed, titled Hum II (2023), echoed in multivoices of descending and rising tones, came an amazing poetic-eco energy. Waheed's Hum II, deservedly, was among the Sharjah Biennial 15 prize winners, announced by SAF few weeks ahead of the tour of the event. Other winners included Bouchra Khalili who received the Prize for The Circle (2023), and Doris Salcedo who was given the Prize for Uprooted (2023). Lee Kai Chung, Gabriela Golder, Amar Kanwar, Tania El Khoury, Ibrahim Mahama, Joiri Minaya and Varunika Saraf were among others who got Honourable mentions.

Post-transatlantic slave trade narrative got boost from the perspective of a descendant of the victims. Afro-Cuban artist, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons' installations of floor spot-lightings, boxed sands, and large paintings, 'Murmullo Familiar (Family Whisper)', appeared like one of of such uncommon source of history.

 Campos-Pons' visual contents loaded the canvas with quite a lot, yet the walls appeared too huge to comprehend the large size of the paintings. It seemed that without the large sizes of the paintings, the artist's message would still endure in modestly sized wall pieces. So, what has huge size of the paintings got to do with the SAF-commissioned installations by Campos-Pons? 

  -Tajudeen Sowole, Lagos-based writer on The Arts, was on the Press Trip of Sharjah Biennial 15, in UAE.

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