Hoor Al Qasimi: On contemporary life along borders and in between cultures.

To mark the 15th edition and 30th anniversary of the Sharjah Biennial, we have interviewed its curator Hoor Al Qasimi. The Emirati royal has elevated and transformed the third-largest UAE Emirate into an International Art Capital. Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor, reflects upon his visionary work, which transformed contemporary art and has influenced the evolution of institutions and biennials around the world, including the Sharjah Biennial.
by Lara Morrell
Lara Morrell
Hoor Al Qasimi

Documenta played an influential role in your early career, especially the 11th edition in 2002 directed by the late Okwui Enwezor, for whom you also curated the UAE Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale ‘All the World’s Futures’ in 2015. Could you tell me about how Enwezor has guided your career as a curator to date and about his abiding role in this years’ Sharjah Biennial? 

Okwui’s curation of documenta 11 in 2002 had a major impact on my curatorial consciousness, especially as it relates to the biennial model and its potential as a platform for knowledge accumulation, creative experimentation and social impact. When I became director of the Sharjah Biennial the following year, Okwui’s example had a formative influence on the institutional trajectory we mapped out for this platform. The 2003 edition of the Biennial broke from the national pavilion model and focused instead on the liminal spaces of contemporary life along borders and in between cultures, reflecting the kind of decentralization that defined Okwui’s curatorial intervention in documenta 11.

In 2005, when he first introduced the phrase that would become the guiding principle of this biennial— ‘thinking historically in the present’—he invoked the ‘dislocation of belonging’ and the ‘disjunction of time’ as the shared affective core felt across the postcolonial world. I asked him to curate Sharjah Biennial 15 because it became clear that this edition of the Biennial would speak to this and be an important de colonial ‘locus of enunciation’ for artists. We had many conversations before he passed in 2019, in which he made it clear that he wanted me to take up the curation of this Biennial, building upon the groundwork he’d laid. Though we’ve expanded on his initial premise, convening more than 150 artists, it was important to me throughout this process that his postcolonial methodologies and vision remained the anchor of the Biennial and its critical starting point.

How did you land this fortuitous opportunity and what were your first moves? How has the Biennial format evolved over the years and what can visitors look forward to, for this edition? 

In 2002, I went to Berlin to explore its arts scene. Okwui’s curation of documenta and transformation of the exhibition into a revolutionary platform for artists outside of Europe and the US was truly a consequential turning point for the art world, and for me, personally. It was a theoretical backdrop against which I was able to rethink the arts in Sharjah and how the emirate had the potential to be a centre of contemporary art in the region. When I returned to Sharjah after documenta, I was so energized by what I had seen that the year after I decided to get involved with the Biennial and was appointed its director.

Since its first edition in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial had been largely a regional presentation, structured around national pavilions. Since 2003, the Biennial has become an increasingly international platform for exhibition-making and experimentation in the region and beyond.

This year’s Biennial is centred around Okwui’s explorations into the postcolonial, dissecting how various histories continue to shape our present through the work of more than 150 participating artists. In line with Okwui’s efforts to decentre models of presenting and thinking about art, so too have we decentred our Biennial—work will be presented in 19 venues across the Emirate of Sharjah, encouraging engagement with our diverse cultural and ecological landscape. And because it’s a milestone year—the Biennial’s 30-year anniversary—we’re celebrating with a major line up of more than 70 new works.

The Sharjah Art Foundation has established itself in the International art arena, when and why did it come about and how does it impact the local community?

Building on my work with the Sharjah Biennial, I established Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009 in response to the ever-growing contemporary art scene in Sharjah and the region, which deserved its own  permanent platform. I therefore created the Foundation as an institution that would ensure continuity with the history of the Biennial, while also offering a year-round programme of exhibitions and events. Throughout the year, the Foundation brings artists, performers, photographers, publishers, curators and filmmakers to Sharjah. They engage with the culture and history of the emirate, providing regional audiences with opportunities to experience emerging voices and new directions in art from around the world. Through community programmes and architectural projects that preserve and protect Sharjah’s historic architecture, the Foundation also positively impacts our local communities.

In 1976 Sharjah hosted the first “Symposium on African and Arab Relations,” to which 45 African and Arab thinkers were invited to participate. Could you tell me about the importance of this symposium for African and Arab Relations and about The Africa Institute’s mission at large.  

The 1976 symposium created conditions for forward-thinking intellectuals to discuss the state of African and Arab relations and allowed for them to conceive the notion of an institute dedicated to the study and documentation of historical linkages between the two groups. The symposium also addressed the need for a documentation and data collection centre to be focused on Arab-African relations in Sharjah, an annual meeting to discuss Arab-African relations and a proposed Arab-African Fund.

As a product of these initial talks, The Africa Institute was established on 6 June 2018, fulfilling the notion of an interdisciplinary academic research institute dedicated to the study, research, and documentation of Africa, its people and cultures, its complex past, present, and future and its manifold connections with the wider world. As the only institution of its kind located in the Gulf—a historical nexus of African-Arab cultural exchange—The Africa Institute seeks to illuminate African and Gulf ties and to expand the understanding of African and African diaspora studies.

Keep up to date with My Art Guides
Sign up to our newsletter and stay in the know with all worldwide contemporary art events