These days Sharjah has become a haven for art-lovers thanks to the ongoing art biennial (March16-May16). Since its inception in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial is one of the most celebrated cultural events in the Gulf. In two decades it has formed a cultural connection between artists and art institutions on local, regional and international levels, while engaging the general community.
This edition’s programme has been the most ambitious so far, featuring more commissions than ever before. Some of them are massive on scale, like Imran Qureshi’s prize-winning site-specific installation. Artists, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, writers, editors and translators have brought to the table unique creations that expand the 2011 biennial’s themes.
I have already been there a couple of times and that has not been enough to view even a fraction of the works. The biennial has integrated buildings like the Sharjah Art Museum, the Bait Al Serkal and the Calligraphy Museum in the Cultural Quarter, as well as city streets to form a gigantic platform for regional and international artists. To encourage communication, commissioned works have been placed in such a way as to bring them face to face with visitors and residents.
For the first time the biennial has chosen a single theme— “Plot for a Biennial.” The “plot” is scripted around keywords like treason, necessity, insurrection, affiliation, corruption, devotion, disclosure and translation. Running parallel to the tumultuous changes in the Middle East, the theme seems to be a prescient choice, an uncanny coincidence. Who says art is removed from socio-political reality? At least here in the Middle East, where art is never removed from politics, artists seem to have contributed to the revolutions as much as twitter and facebook.
Hosted by the Sharjah Art foundation, the biennial’s framework borrows from the structure of a film narrative, wherein artists, filmmakers, performers and writers constitute a cast of players to become The Traitor, The Collaborator and The Experientialist.
Originally Sharjah Biennial was modelled on a classic biennial format with artists officially representing the country of their origin. But from 2003 the biennial underwent a bold shift under the direction of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who took on the role of co-curator. The focus since has been more on art and individual artists, especially contemporary art, rather than just Islamic and classical.
The uniqueness and strength of Sharjah biennial lies in that it has been able to withstand market and commercial pressures to foster a spirit of genuine creativity, cementing Sharjah’s role as the cultural centre of the Emirates.