We report back from Sharjah Biennial

Last week I was in Dubai for the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, arguably the biggest event for contemporary visual art in the Middle East with over 90 artists from around the world taking part. There was over 65 works specially commissioned across visual art, film and beyond, built around the notion of a ‘plot for a Biennial’ principally a set of keywords for a script dreamt up by the curators Suzanne Cotter (used to be at Modern Art Oxford, now at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) and Rashi Salti (ArteEast, NY).It was also a good opportunity to check out Art Dubai.

I arrived fairly dazed and confused after watching too many films on the plane and not enough sleep. After about an hour the hotel took pity and found me a room so I could at least shower! I headed in the vague direction of where I thought the art museum was and luckily found it – I hadn’t found any maps online and it was a while longer until I worked it all out. Sharjah is a fairly nice place, looks like most new-style middle eastern cities with shiny architecture but not as flashy as Dubai. It’s much more conservative, there’s absolutely no alcohol (probably a good thing with no sleep!) and you have to check your clothes aren’t too revealing.

After a good nosy round the art museum I put a frock on and headed to the Emirate next door for the opening of Art Dubai, a large commercial art fair. It was pot luck what the work was like but it had some interesting commissions and stalls. Earlier I’d seen an ad for ‘Hear Me Roar: New Art from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran’ – you’ll know if titles like that excite you! So I decided to find the Roar exhibition at a place called thejamjar on the way. The hotel porters and taxi driver thought me mad, particularly as I only had 45 mins to find it – only when I read out the line ‘behind Dubai Garden Centre’ was a collective aha and the start of a fairly dangerous speed ride. As happens in contemporary art the world over, thejamjar was found it the middle of an industrial estate, looking nowhere near as dodgy as say, Birmingham’s Eastside I waived the taxi driver anyway.

Hear Me Roar was a short and snappy exhibition that punched above its weight. The standout artist was Saira Ansari, a young female artist from Pakistan (who I just noticed on Google is in the Saatchi collection but that website is banned from viewing here). She took over a wall of the one gallery exhibition with several series of drawing, text and photos; she uses her own experiences to ruffle feathers about society (in particular in Pakistan) including one in childish drawing style that explores her relationship with absent father. I could instantly picture this medium work in our galleries (especially 1 and 2), and plan to explore more later. Newsha Tavakolian’s large photographs are intriguing and cinematic, again would work well (like Carey Young’s last week in gallery 2) however here they feel a bit scene stealing in close proximity to the other works. The centre is also a creative hub with an artists’ development project, educational programmes, runs an Art Bus scheme, I really liked its ambience – a great place to discover. I enquired about a taxi but the gallery host wasn’t sure about a number, I asked if it was safe for me to walk a few blocks – I suspect it probably was but the guy decided to drop me at the nearest mall in thejamjar van instead! That’s audience focused!

Art Dubai was held at the Jumierah Madinat, a posh Disneyesque mega resort that you can easily get frustrating lost within. It was much less hectic than a fair like Frieze and the stallholders were much more likely to encounter serious buyers but this didn’t make it snobby. The fair was growing and the selection felt more international. I was delighted to find Chemould Prescott Road/Chatterjee & lal’s stand (both Mumbai) full of Rashid Rana’s work and even better in the midst was Rashid himself. Rashid is one of Pakistan’s leading artists with a practice crossing conceptual and formal concerns underpinned by a critical and political consciousness, and I’m delighted to be co-curating a major new solo exhibition of his work at Cornerhouse in October (before then you can catch some of his new work at Lisson Gallery, London). We decided to head to the Biennial party but first food and Umer Butt from Grey Noise (Lahore) kindly took us to his Red Tomato Pizzeria. Turns out Umer also represents Saira Ansira (the artist I mentioned earlier) so that saved Google time! Also with us were Prateek and Priyanka from Experimenter whom I met on the British Council entrepreneur trip to India 2 years ago – bit gutted I hadn’t brought my podcast equipment out, I could have got some great sound bites!

Day two was about finding all the bits of the Biennial I couldn’t find the day before and hopefully bumping into some more artists  – this however was near impossible to plan! First though I popped to the Marayan Centre in the Al Qasba waterside development where I knew there was a couple of artists in a group show who will hopefully be at Cornerhouse next April (2012). The main centre had an exhibition called Al-Ghaib: Aesthetics of the Disappearance, a few strong pieces but I felt the overall concept to be a bit woolly. They were very on the ball at getting all your contact details and encouraging Facebook sign up! I much preferred the exhibition on the second floor, which was actually the separate Barjeel Art Foundation, and the one I’d be very proud to present. Strike Oppose (like it!) looked at alternative forms of oppositional communication to a range of things from the media to ‘mindless hogwash’ (everyone should attempt to get ‘hogwash’ into an exhibition abstract). Sharif Wakid and Youssef Nabil’s work in particular stood out, both of whom will hopefully have works at Cornerhouse next year. Wakid’s ‘To be continued..’ used the conventions of a terrorist’s farewell video though the subject himself used the avoidance tactic of reciting the tales of ‘1001 nights’. Nabil employed colour hand drawing techniques on elaborately staged, sumptuous photographs that evoked classic 1950s Egyptian melodrama film stills.

The Biennial itself was roughly in 4 groupings of buildings across the arts and heritage areas. These were a couple of the standout pieces for me… Fictionville (Rokni Haerizadeh) took media news images, re-presenting them as a series of multi-media paintings that anthropomorphise the subjects, confrontationally critical they were a sort of anti-CNN meets Hogarth meets Animal Farm. Genius. Amar Kanwar’s The Torn First Pages was about Burmese book-seller Ko Than Htay who tore out the first pages of all the books as they contained the regime’s propaganda slogans and was subsequently imprisoned for it. The piece stretched this into a 19 screen large and powerful multi-media installation as a composition to the struggle of the Burmese people. As it went dark in the narrow alleys of the heritage area I stumbled upon  Mustapha Benfodil’s ‘It has no importance’, a complex theatrical installation of sound, football figures, graffiti and much more exploring his relationship between popular culture and the literary world he inhabits in Algeria. He’s not in our forthcoming exhibition but he’s coming anyway as he’s married to one of the artists who is! Slavs and Tartars ‘Friendship of Nations’ collides two key movements of modern ideological revolutions – the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 and 1980s Solidarity movement in Poland – in an impressively crafted immersive installation inviting you to draw the parallels.

Rania Stephan’s 70 minute piece was an inspiration (well at least on one wanting to make similarly brilliant 70 minute artists’ film) – ‘The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni’, a famous Egyptian film star whose career at the top spanned several decades before she ‘jumped’ off / fell out of a window of a building on London’s Edgeware Road in 2001. ‘Face Scripting: What Did The Building See?’ (Shumon Basar, Eyal Weizman, Jane and Louise Wilson) re-presents the infamous surveillance footage released that linked Mossad agents to the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mahbouh as a short with high production values, installed with a mirror either side of the screen which both reveals text in the images and foregrounds the reflections and movement caught by hidden cameras and ‘hidden’ people.

The 10th Sharjah Biennial at times felt random though I liked the curatorial approach even if it ran away with itself a little (especially in the catalogue). It was a proper contemporary art experience and you have to discover Sharjah in order to engage, as you should do. Right next stop for me the Hong Kong Film Festival…I’ll keep you updated.

Sarah Perks
Programme & Engagement Director