Sharjah Biennial: how to make a splash, quietly

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It was, as Saturday night entertainment goes, a forbidding prospect: a performance by Filipino “avant-rock improvisers” the Brockas, on a balmy, boozeless night in the heart of the United Arab Emirates. The theme for this year’s Sharjah Biennial of contemporary art envisaged a cultural world that was no longer dominated by the west. Here was proof that the curators had taken their brief to heart.

The band struck up shortly before midnight, and I was out of there shortly after, when a man wrapped in a white sheet and wearing a plastic bag on his head started cavorting in front of a giant video screen showing dismembered dolls’ heads. The very phrase avant-rock, to be perfectly honest, should strike terror in any right-thinking person. This was not its greatest advertisement. No matter. It was as nothing I had seen or heard before, and that is what counts.

Sharjah, celebrating the 11th edition of its biennial, is rightly regarded as one of the most interesting events of the global art calendar. The emirate sits alongside two bigger players, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, whose cultural aspirations are regularly trumpeted around the world. But Sharjah has taken a different route.

“We are not glitzy, we are not flamboyant,” says Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, as we sit in a quiet courtyard the day after the concert. “We do things quietly.” Sheikha Hoor is the daughter of Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, and takes her art seriously. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, and has an MA in curating contemporary art from the Royal College of Art.

All of which she has put to good use in producing an arts event that reflects subtly on its host venue. Another theme of this year’s biennial is that of the nature of the courtyard, a space that is common to the Islamic world, and fertile ground for discussing the distinction between public and private worlds. “Of course it is a metaphor for bringing things together,” says Sheikha Hoor. “That is what Sharjah is. I always grew up feeling that it was this hybrid culture.”

Here is a show that relates directly to the existential questions that face Sharjah, a place that developed painstakingly over centuries as a trading port, and that was catapulted to global prominence just a few decades ago after the discovery of oil in the region. What kind of city should it be? Should it thrust ever skywards in celebration of its new-found wealth, like its more worldly neighbour Dubai? Or should it look inward, taking the time to build a more organic cultural infrastructure?

That very debate is played out in the small courtyards and mazy side streets of Sharjah’s heritage and arts areas, which feature a mix of restored traditional houses, and new arts spaces, which have been integrated into the neighbourhood with taste. It is hard not to get lost amid the winding alleyways, a result that is not entirely unintended. “I was very against over-signage,” says Sheikha Hoor. “It is part of the charm here just to stumble across the art works.”

The art itself is a typically varied collection of some of the contemporary scene’s most famous names, such as Carsten Höller and Francis Alÿs, and work from the non-western world that reflects on themes such as migration and diversity. There is a talks programme, and a film season curated by the Thai 2010 Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in an outdoor space designed by the German architect Ole Scheeren. The biennial’s atmosphere is resolutely uncommercial – there is barely a shop to be seen – bordering on the languid.

But it is its mise en scène that is its most striking aspect. Sheikha Hoor says there is a long-term plan to demolish some of the ugly 1970s buildings that line Bank Street, Sharjah’s first modern commercial avenue, to create a single pedestrian-friendly heritage zone. Was this a rare act of cultural nostalgia in a region that is known for its headlong embrace of the future?

“There is a nostalgia around,” admits Sheikha Hoor. “The Emirates became modern so quickly. There is a fear of people not realising what their own history is. That is why there is such a focus on conserving our traditional heritage.”

Sharjah’s history includes that of its migrant workers, a theme addressed at the biennial in “Shimabuku’s Boat Trip”, in which visitors are invited to share an abra, or traditional boat, with workers from all over south Asia, across Sharjah Creek, to buy ice cream seasoned with salt or pepper. Disentangle the metaphor for yourselves.

The workers, in the meantime, are also engaging with the biennial, flocking to see outdoor screenings of the video “From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf” by the Mumbai-based art collective Camp. Here are home-made films of the sailors working the busy trade routes to India, Pakistan and southern Iran, watched in enraptured silence by those same sailors on their evenings off. Not glitzy, not flamboyant. Just occasionally, contemporary art likes to make its statements with a lack of fuss, and it is all the better for it.

Sharjah Biennial, until May 13,

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