Contemporary Art

Sharjah: Still waters run deep in the Gulf

Posted April 3rd, 2012

Arab World, Contemporary Art


The noise may all be about the art scenes of Doha and Dubai, but the solid creativity is in Sharjah. The little emirate actively encourages both traditional and contemporary art – and makes a point of making the art accessible citizens, visitors, and even Pakistani and Filipino migrant workers.

Anna Somers Cocks reports from Sharjah for The Art Newspaper: “Glitz and six-inch heels at the Dubai art fairs last month; high-cost international art in Doha with the Takashi Murakami show, previously in Versailles, where it was paid for by Qatar’s ruling family. The noise in the western media has been about these places because that is where there is money, there is buzz, and for many, art is all about money.

But there is another, quieter emirate, where art is still about art, where there is an evolved museum scene, where you can see theatre and hear cross-over music such as Tarek Atoui’s “Revisiting Tarab”, heard last month in one of the old city’s squares.

It is Sharjah, the emirate in the UAE that westerners can rarely quite place (it is just north of Dubai, as close as Wimbledon to Piccadilly). With income from a little gas and a free port, it is not rich compared to Abu Dhabi or Qatar, yet it has invested for over 20 years in its museums, in its biennial and the March Meeting, now in its fifth edition, when it invites a range of international artists, curators and policy makers, not to mention journalists, to do some cross-fertilising talking.

If Qatar is known for its foreign policy ambitions and Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi as the seat of the UAE’s central government, Dubai as the hub for finance, commerce and tourism, Sharjah is the emirate where intelligence and education are valued most highly. The emir, Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, gained PhDs in history and geography at Exeter and Durham universities, and takes the lead. His daughter, Sheikha Hoor, a fluent Japanese speaker and graduate of the Slade and Royal Academy Schools has a gentle manner but a resolute character, which led her, when only 22, to turn the 2003 Sharjah Biennial from a show where the efforts of ambassadors’ wives were exhibited into an international event, fully in touch with the contemporary avant-garde. Abdul Rahman Al Owais, the minister of culture of the UAE, admitted to The Art Newspaper that he had opposed the change, but says that the biennial is now one of the outstanding events of the UAE. Actually, it is one of the outstanding events of the whole Middle East, easily the equal of the Istanbul Biennial, and an indispensable insight into the ideas circulating in the region and beyond. “A lot of artists here use art as an outlet for political dialogue, as the best way of getting their point across. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Sheikha Hoor. This issue came up also at last month’s March Meeting: “If the [US] State Department had looked at what artists were doing in the Cairo Townhouse [an art centre in the depressed city centre] rather than listening to President Mubarak, they would not have been caught so unaware by the revolution,” says Cynthia Schneider, a specialist at Georgetown University in culture and diplomacy. (Currently, though, life has overtaken art; the artists are too busy getting on with the revolution to be making works, says William Wells, the founder of the Townhouse.) ”

Read on at The Art Newspaper.

More at the Sharjah Art Foundation and their Vimeo Channel.

Sharjah and Art Production in the Gulf

“There are needs in the area, in the region, and we need to support [them]. How can we do this in the context of a biennial?” Jack Persekian, Maha Maamoun, Suzanne Cotter and Rasha Salti tackle these questions and more in this panel discussion held at MoMa in November 2010. They discuss the history of art production in the Middle East and frame the Sharjah Art Foundation as an alternative to western sources of funding and support for local artists working in the Middle East. By probing the history of Sharjah as a city and the evolving history of the biennial itself, the group paints a portrait of the Sharjah Art Foundation and its role as a catalyst and supporter of a vibrant contemporary art scene in the Middle East.

Jack Persekian is the Executive Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Maha Maamoun is a visual artist whose work has been screened in the US, UK, and throughout the Gulf region. Suzanne Cotter is the Curator of Exhibitions at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and and Rasha Salti is Senior Director of ArteEast. Cotter and Salti are co-curating Sharjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial, which opens on March 16th, 2011.

Revolution in the Arab Art Scene? – The 10th Sharjah Biennial | Arts.21

The Biennial in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates is the most important exhibition of contemporary art in the Gulf region. The upheavals in the Arab World can be felt here, too. At its opening, people demonstrated in solidarity with the protesters in Bahrain.New, unaccustomed voices in a region where it is not a matter of course for artists to make political statements. ARTS.21 was on hand and reports.