Fast forward on the Persian gulf: the youthful director of the Sixth Sharjah International Biennial, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, expanded the event's scope to include cutting-edge art from over 24 countries - Report From The U.A.E
Art in America, Nov, 2003 by Grady T. Turner


Many visitors attending the opening of the Sixth Sharjah International Biennial in early April agreed: this was not your typical vernissage. For starters, no one was able to partake of the wine generally ubiquitous at such events. The most conservative of the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah conforms to Sharia, the strict Islamic code governing most aspects of daily life. Wine is accordingly proscribed. More disconcerting than the absence of wineglasses was the presence of armed militia. As the biennial began in this Persian Gulf city roughly 400 miles south of Iraq, American-led forces were just entering Baghdad. Security was a reasonable concern at this very public gathering, sponsored by the royal family.

If it all seemed a bit surreal, those at the launch knew that few things about this biennial conformed to normal expectations. True, the exhibition had all the earmarks of other international events, presenting the work of 117 artists from over two dozen nations installed in the gracious Sharjah Art Museum and the city's expansive new Expo Centre. But the biennial's scale and ambition were themselves departures from expectations. The five previous biennials had been far more local in scope, featuring painting and sculpture created by artists from the area. Regional artists were well represented in this greatly expanded installment, but their work was displayed among a broad range of pieces by foreign artists using diverse mediums. Video was heavily emphasized; indeed, this was touted as the first exhibition to bring new media to the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps the most significant transformation happened behind the scenes, as the biennial was given over to a new director, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi. The appointment was instigated when the sheikha complained to her father that the previous biennials were too limited in vision. He suggested that she do something about it. Soon, Sheikha Hoor was appointed director.

Never mind that Sheikha floor was a 28-year-old art student with no prior curatorial or administrative experience. More important was the fact that her father is Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, the sheikhdom's ruler since 1972. Thanks to his patronage of events such as the biennial, Sharjah is the cultural capital of this nation made wealthy by oil, shipbuilding and business. In addition to attending the show's vernissage, the sheikh also presided over the opening of a luxuriously appointed art college on the grounds of the American University, to be administered in conjunction with London's Royal Academy of Arts. As it happens, the latter is also Sheikha Hoor's recent alma mater.

In the case of the biennial, at least, nepotism provided a fortunate catalyst for change. Faced with the prospect of turning a regional art exhibition into an international biennial in less than six months, Sheikha Hoor turned to Peter Lewis, a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, who agreed to act as chief curator of the exhibition. What they accomplished in so short a time was impressive, with some noteworthy art handsomely installed in the museum's galleries and the Expo Centre's vast areas.

Even with the exhibition's successes, it was inevitable that the nascent undertaking would be beset with challenges, some having to do with finessing cultural sensitivities, some having to do with creating an international art event from scratch.

Birth Pangs

Lewis inherited over 2,000 artists' submissions which had already been made in response to an open call. He elected to augment this by inviting the participation of other artists, including those recommended by colleagues with expertise in various fields. The results were, perhaps predictably, uneven.

Emerging British artists were well represented, which comes as no surprise given Lewis's position at the college that spawned the Young British Artists of the 1990s. Indeed, the biennial proved to be an intriguing harbinger of what is to be expected of recent Goldsmiths graduates. Art from China was smartly chosen with the assistance of independent curator Thomas Berghuis. However, many nations were left to chance selections from the submission pool. While there were some notable contributors, North America was represented by an odd smattering of artists chosen solely because they applied. These included the phoned-in efforts of Christo and Jean-Claude, who submitted photographs of past projects, and two small and charming paintings by the indefatigable art duo Liz-n-Val.

Israel was excluded altogether, as its statehood is not recognized by the United Arab Emirates; cultural exchange between them is thus impossible, a reality made all the more lamentable by the insights this biennial offered into contemporary Middle Eastern art. As indicated by the knee-jerk controversy engendered at this summer's Venice Biennale by the inclusion of Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti's work involving oversized mockups of Palestinian travel papers, the reception of the region's art remains determined by political circumstances.

Art-world politics were also at play in the biennial. Privately, some artists grumbled that the biennial's awards were chosen for reasons other than pure merit. Jurors distributed prize money to an eclectic mix of artists: British ceramist Jim Coverley; conceptual artists Mohammed Kazem of the United Arab Emirates and Chen Lingyang and Zhu Ming of China; Palestinian Rashid Masharawi and South African William Kentridge, both of whom showed videos. Kentridge took top honors for Zeno Writing, a somber black-and-white animation addressing war and nationalism. The video had previously appeared at Documenta 11, an exhibition Sheikha Hour credits as a major influence.

Dissenters pointed out that in his additional role as a juror, adjunct curator Berghuis voted for two artists he had put in the show, Lingyang and Ming. A local juror selected national colleague Kazem. And some suggested that Kentridge received kudos to enhance the biennial's prestige by associating it with an artist admired on the international art circuit, noting that the work itself is not among Kentridge's most successful efforts.

Backroom grousing about favoritism is not unique to this art event. But perhaps no other biennial is faced with a challenge as vexing as that of trying to represent contemporary art practices within this complex cultural context. In a region where maps are altered to omit Israel and museums avoid the display of nudes, many con temporary artists would find their work unwelcome under any circumstance. Given her station within the ruling family and her training as an artist in London, Sheikha Hoor was in many ways uniquely equipped to navigate this minefield. She was aided by the diplomacy of a curator who shared her concern that the exhibition should bring new art to Sharjah without raising the ire of the council enforcing sharia. Both Lewis and Sheikha Hoor appreciated that official censorship might undercut their vision for a truly international biennial in Sharjah. Aspiring to the models provided by Venice and Documenta, yet hemmed in by the realities of sharia, the organizers opted for a middle road. They selected work that avoided offense, and in some cases enlisted artists in the alteration of their own projects to meet local standards.

Censorship or Cultural Sensitivity?

Informed that their contributions could be shown only if altered, many artists complied with the request. Jalal Toufic, from Lebanon, removed one piece from a series dealing with the martyrdom of terrorists that might have been seen as insensitive to Shiite Muslims. Singapore's S. Chandrasekaran hung potentially offensive drawings of surrealistic body imagery so that they faced the wall but could be easily turned over for viewing.

Nobuho Nagasawa, a Japanese artist living in the United States, substituted a site-specific installation after a proposal involving a Muslim prayer rug was declined. The original piece would have addressed the gender-separated spaces of worship in orthodox Islam, a topic the curator thought best left to those more versed in the local culture. Nagasawa initially protested this decision, but then adapted the art work, maintaining its primary concern--gender politics and women's lives. The final installation was created with the assistance of teenage female art students. Filling nylon forms with salt, the students fashioned "eggs," onto which they anonymously transcribed their dreams and desires.

Still, they allowed Lingyang to protest the omission of the photographs. The offensive images were included in the galleries with the posters, albeit locked in a trunk marked in chalk with this phrase written by the artist in English and Mandarin: "The way to allow the works of Chen Lingyang to be exhibited in the Biennial is by locking them up in this Arabic traditional case."

Some people close to the selection process wondered if the prizes given to the two Chinese artists were not offered to mollify them, or the adjunct curator-cum-juror, over the censorship of their art. Certainly any observant viewer would notice that two of the five artists granted awards were also among those to have work altered or removed.

At least one artist was incensed by the curatorial insistence on deferring to local sensitivities. Within hours of the biennial's opening. French artist Philippe Terrier-Hermann found his installation closed. The offending art work, a video titled The Romans, showed a man and a woman, decked out in haute couture and engaged in flirtation in the sumptuously romantic atmosphere of Rome's Villa Medici. The seductive interlude ends in a rough, forced kiss. The code of sharia prohibits public displays of affection, and a couple kissing in public might well provoke a scandal.

At the same time, seduction is a familiar staple of popular culture here, and the general theme of Terrier-Hermann's video can be seen on regional television, whether in Hollywood films, Indian soap operas or Pakistani music videos. In the case of The Romans, Terrier-Hermann contends that a government official abruptly stopped his DVD, took it out of the player and scratched it. For his part, curator Lewis contends that the artist had described to him an art work that was different from the delivered product. The curator further implied that Terrier-Hermann might have seen this as an opportunity to garner publicity by creating a scandal. Given that The Romans was a known quantity, having been previously published (as a book of stills), this may be a case in which a harried curator installed a work he had not checked out. In either case, this tempest in a teapot was much discussed by visiting artists, and will no doubt be kept in mind as the Seventh Sharjah Biennial is planned.

Political Art, Within Limits

While art concerning sexuality and the body was curtailed, political commentary was much in evidence. Several artists weighed in on terrorism, the war in Iraq, Palestine and Arab identity. There was no art critical of Arab politics or culture.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, a Danish artist living in Great Britain, appears in his video as an intense figure staring at a night sky during a London rush hour. Despite the familiar cacophony of traffic, he seems to be waiting for something dramatic to happen. Suddenly it does: a crackling light shoots into view, spells the artist's initials across the sky with the sweet alacrity of Tinkerbell distributing pixie dust, and descends to the street in a horrific blast.

This stunningly abrupt and unexpected staged act recalled the post-Sept. 11 dread of terrorism. That day's events were documented, by chance, in a video by Wolfgang Staehle. For an exhibition at New York's Postmasters Gallery in September 2001, Staehle trained a Webcam on Lower Manhattan and projected a live feed onto the gallery's walls. On the morning of 9/11, every few seconds the camera uploaded fresh images of the destruction of the World Trade Center. At Sharjah, Staehle's video record of that day was prominently displayed on the museum's main floor, replaying the terrible images in real time.

Art about the war had an obvious immediacy; indeed, some artists had created work in direct response to current events. Zain Mustafa of Pakistan had attended an antiwar rally in the U.S., where he asked protestors to inscribe messages on white cotton kurtas. Informed that these shirts would be on view in the Middle East, protestors expressed their opposition to the war and their compassion for its potential casualties. At the biennial, the kurtas were hung sleeve to sleeve on a clothesline, with the largest garment at one end and a shirt for a small child at the other. A rectangle of fabric torn from the torso of each kurta hung loosely down, implying bodily violence.

Madeleine Strindberg of Germany created medium-sized paintings that juxtapose depictions of massive silver military tanks with mules bearing riders or rocket launchers set against backgrounds of garish yellow and orange. Nearby on the floor, a large box was filled with lemons and oranges, their skins lacerated by razors, possibly in reference to war's civilian casualties. Taraneh Hemami, an Iranian whose work documents the individuals and families of the Persian Diaspora, makes photo-based panels from found imagery, glass and mirrors. Usually hung in groups, the pictures in this show were strewn amid a pile of rubble, as if the room had been newly bombed. Lights reflected by mirrors cast a shower of delicate refractions on adjacent walls. A shovel was propped nearby, ostensibly poised for recovery efforts.

Rula Halawani documented scenes from the Israeli occupation of Ramallah in black-and-white photographs printed as negatives. The effect was distracting, as were strident texts displayed nearby that unnecessarily mediated the imagery. German photojournalist Kai Wiedenhofer more effectively conveyed conditions within the Occupied Territories, often revealing intense feeling concentrated in quiet gestures: a child's glance at passing soldiers, a young man's apprehension as he is taken into custody, a woman searching ruins for the remains of her possessions.

Rashid Masharawi's film Shahrazad was commissioned for the biennial and won an award. The video depicts an elderly woman, humming and knitting as she rocks in a chair. Though water leaks from the ceiling, her window shows a clear sky marked only by a fluttering Israeli flag. The woman's patient wait seems to offer a poetic metaphor for the political issue of a home for Palestinians, an issue of concern to the artist, who was born in the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and currently resides in Ramallah.

Local and Global

The biennial included some extraordinary video projects. In addition to those mentioned above, a sequence of cliffhanger moments--of the literal variety--taken from films was presented by Derek Ogbourne of Great Britain. One hand grasps at another, only to slip and grab at a ledge, only to slip again, suspending cinematic apprehension for a maddening 25 minutes. Beth Derbyshire, also of Great Britain, conducted a deaf choir singing and signing "God Save the Queen."
Grady T. Turner