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On the Sharjah Biennial: an Interview with Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi

2 years ago

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi is President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and a practising artist who received her BFA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002), a Diploma in Painting from the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2005) and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London (2008). In 2003, she was appointed curator of Sharjah Biennial 6 and has since continued as the Biennial Director.

Al Qasimi serves on the Board of Directors for MoMA PS1, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; International Biennial Association, Gwangju; Ashkal Alwan, Beirut and Darat Al Funun, Amman. She is Chair of the Advisory Board for the College of Art and Design, University of Sharjah; member of the Advisory Board for Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi and former member of the Advisory Board at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013-2016). She has served on the juries and prize panels for the Maria Lassnig Prize (2017), Mediacity Seoul Prize (2016), Hepworth Wakefield Prize for Sculpture (2016), Prince Claus Awards (2016), Berlin International Film Festival – Berlinale Shorts (2016), Videobrasil (2015), Dubai International Film Festival (2014) and Benesse Prize (2013).

Recent curatorial projects include major retrospectives “Yayoi Kusama: Dot Obsessions (2016–2017), “Robert Breer: Time Flies (2016–2017), “Simone Fattal”(2016) and “Farideh Lashai” (2016) as well as “1980–Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates“, UAE Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); “Rasheed Araeen: Before and After Minimalism (2014) and “Susan Hefuna: Another Place” (2014). Al Qasimi was co-curator for “Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: Two Suns in a Sunset (2016), exhibited not only in Sharjah but also at Jeu de Paume, Paris; Haus der Kunst, Munich and IVAM, Valencia (forthcoming). She co-curated the major survey shows “When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938–1965)” (2016) and “The Khartoum School: The Making of the Modern Art Movement in Sudan (1945–Present)” (2016–2017).

Mara Sartore: How has the concept of the Sharjah Biennial developed since its foundation? What are the guidelines that still characterise the Biennial??

HA-Q: Sharjah Biennial began as an international exhibition at the Sharjah Expo Centre in 1993 featuring presentations organised by individual countries as a form of ‘national’ representation. Since that time, it has grown considerably in scale and intention.
When I became involved in 2003, the Biennial adopted a curatorial model as the organising principle, so while it remained international, the selection of artists was now made by a curator or curatorial team.
Responding to what we saw as needs within the local and regional art world of that time, we began to expand into other activities, which included launching a residency programme and commissioning new works, such as outdoor installations, performances and events.
In 2005, the Biennial began to shift from exclusively using the Expo Centre into spaces located in the Art and Heritage areas of Sharjah. By moving the Biennial to the heart of the emirate, we were able to introduce the exhibition to a wider audience. The move also provided artists with a range of exhibition spaces to explore, including historic buildings, courtyards and open public squares. By 2009 the Biennial had moved completely away from the Expo Centre and focused on the exhibition possibilities presented by the Arts and Heritage areas and over time, expanding beyond into the city of Sharjah. In 2013 the new Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces were inaugurated with Sharjah Biennial 11, and in 2015 the Biennial also expanded to sites across the Emirate to the town of Kalba on the Coast of Oman. This year, the new Hamriyah Studios located on the northern coast of Sharjah will be opened with projects commissioned for SB13.
Organised under the auspices of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) since the Foundation was established in 2009, each Biennial iteration has its own identity, curator and curatorial concept. For SB13, curator Christine Tohme has expanded the Biennial’s structure across space and time to encompass exhibitions, projects and education programmes in five locations – Sharjah, Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah and Beirut. Given the importance of education and community outreach to SAF programming, another notable component of this edition is the SB13 School, a year-long educational initiative that extends SAF programming to the west, central and eastern regions of Sharjah.
All of these developments have come about in a very organic way and in response to the needs of our community and artists. An important characteristic of any biennial is to act as both a site of experimentation for artists and a place of discovery for audiences. Sharjah Biennial has always placed strong emphasis on offering artists the opportunity to imagine and create new projects and this effort has resulted in works that can be enjoyed and appreciated on a variety of levels.

M.S.: This year’s Sharjah Biennial, curated by Christine Tohme, is titled “Tamawuj”. Could you tell us more about the concept behind this title?

HA-Q:  Tamawuj is an Arabic term that can be defined in three ways: a rising and falling in waves; a flowing, swelling, surging or fluctuation; and a wavy, undulating appearance, outline or form. The title relates to how Christine is rethinking this year’s Sharjah Biennial by opening up a conversation about what a biennial is and what its possibilities can be. Rather than a stand-alone event, Christine has conceived of SB13 as a temporal space shared with friends and colleagues that examines the informal infrastructures that support art practices. In this way, SB13 encourages us to question how we can reshape our approaches in order to make them more relevant.

M.S:  Interlocutors are working to create four off-site projects: artist Kader Attia in Dakar, curator Lara Khaldi in Ramallah, independent curator Zeynep Oz in Istanbul and the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts Ashkal Alwan in Beirut. What kind of programmes are they developing?

HA-Q:  Christine Tohme has invited interlocutors with whom she shares longstanding collaborative bonds to organise four off-site projects around the four keywords of SB13. Taking place in Dakar, Ramallah, Istanbul and Beirut, these projects continue conversations that were begun many years ago and inject them into the structure of Sharjah Biennial 13. These interlocutors’ interventions are occurring within SB13’s broader examination of the fundamental elements of human existence – networks, infrastructures, and more directly, natural elements such as water, earth, crops and the culinary.
The first off-site project took place in January 2017 at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Artist Kader Attia organised a two-day programme of workshops, symposiums and performances that theoretically and artistically explored the keyword of water. Bringing together a panorama of viewpoints focused around two polarised understandings of water – the cultural and the political – the programme explored poetry, magic and animist beliefs alongside issues of economic and political power, colonial legacies and hegemonic modernities.
After the opening act in Sharjah (10 March—12 June), the Biennial moves on 13 May to Istanbul, where Zeynep Oz considers crops, and more specifically seed dormancy, through a combination of commissioned and existing artworks and performances. In Ramallah, Lara Khaldi’s ongoing research around the keyword of earth explores infrastructure, including underground and built environments in relation to collectively authored intangible literature like rumours, urban myths, popular culture and folklore. Starting 10 August, the five-day symposium will also include performances and concerts.
Ashkal Alwan’s three-day conference beginning 15 October on the theme of the culinary will include talks, workshops, cooking sessions, food tastings, performances and new art commissions. The event will focus on the consumption and production of food as well as ways food traditions condition our socio-political and cultural environments.

Mara Sartore

  • Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
  • Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi

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