Sharjah adds to its arts credentials: SAF plans museum, appoints chief curator

Dubai may have the commercial art spaces, but once again Sharjah has advanced its claim to be a regional powerhouse in contemporary art. This time it’s Sharjah Art Foundation’s announcement of a new modern art gallery for the Emirate, along with the appointment of a heavyweight in a new role to runs its collections and exhibitions strategy.

The individual in question is Dr Omar Kholeif (below), already well known in the region, who has been appointed to the newly created position of Director of Collections and Senior Curator. In that role he will “lead the foundation’s acquisition strategy and develop a year-round programme of exhibitions, as well as shape international partnerships, organise symposia and develop publications”. So probably not much time for loafing around then.

Kholeif must have been attracted by SAF’s commitment to another permanent exhibition site to go along with the elegant Al Mureijah Art Spaces cluster in the old town (shortlisted for the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture – the other UAE candidate with an arty CV is Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete) and the Hamriyah Studios complex in Al Hamriyah, opened in 2017 just up the coast on the other side of Ajman.

SAF Art Spaces at work

The new building is a 13,000 m2 development called Jurainah Art Space that will house the foundation’s growing collection – currently more than 1,000 works of contemporary and 20th century art, including an archive of every edition of the Sharjah Biennial (from 1993 on). SAF has been assiduously building a collection based on artists from the region along with the works it has commissioned for the Biennials, plus other work from around the world “engaged in ideas of interest to the people of the UAE”.

The collection already includes notable pieces by the likes of Susan Hefuna, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Wael Shawky, Emily Jacir, Hrair Sarkissian, Yayoi Kusama, Rokni Haerizadeh, Mona Hatoum and Hana Al Hani (above); and major works by 20th century names such as Hassan Sharif, Marwan and Rasheed Araeen.

Above: Hassan Sharif, Two Squares (1985). Top: Hani Al Ani, from A Typology of Houses series (2010)

It’s already a significant group of works, one that helps to place MENASA art in an international context – much as the Sharjah Biennial itself has. Hoor al Qasimi, who heads both SAF and SB, deserves all the applause she gets.

At Jurainah Art Space there will also be rotating exhibitions; and it is intended to function as an educational resource and “community gathering space”, so presumably there will be facilities both for research and more casual encounters. There will certainly be multipurpose rooms for meetings, presentations and symposia, along with the almost inevitable bookshop, restaurant and coffee bar.

The design is by Mona El-Mousfy, founder and MD of SpaceContinuum Design Studio and for ten years now a consultant to Sharjah Art Foundation. Along with architect Sharmeen Azam Inayat, at the time a member of Sharjah Art Foundation’s design team, she was responsible for the Sharjah Art Spaces development; and SpaceContinuum was also one of the collaborators in the sleek Rain Room Pavilion, designed for Sharjah Art Foundation with Shape Architecture.

The Rain Room Pavillion: sleek

So Mona El-Mousfy is a major figure in Sharjah’s design community – her other roles include advising the upcoming Sharjah Architecture Triennial, for instance – and she clearly understands the role, goals and intellectual territory of the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Jurainah Art Space will be located out by the University of Sharjah in the Al Jurainah area, a mixed community which could be developing as an additional arts hub: this is (more or less) where the Barjeel Foundation intends to build the Barjeel Museum for Modern Arab Art, currently the subject of a call for entries for the Rifat Chadirji Prize.

Jurainah Art Space is anticipated to open in 2022, and Kholeif must be licking his lips at the opportunities it will give him. In his new role, he will be the leading voice in SAF’s acquisition and exhibition programme strategies.

He has described the SAF’s storehouse of art as “increasingly one of the most important collections in the region” and acknowledged that it would be “a privilege and an honour to lead its continued development … Having the opportunity to create exhibitions for the foundation represents an exciting opportunity to build upon its ground-breaking work in fostering international exchange and collaboration”.

In the last ten years Omar Kholeif has written or edited at least 20 books on contemporary art and organised more than 100 exhibitions, special projects and commissions around the world – among them Making New Time, one of the principal exhibitions for Sharjah Biennial 14, where he was one of the three co-curators (with Zoe Butt and Claire Tancons).

This year he also curated Time, Forward, the V-A-C Foundation’s contribution to the 2019 Venice Biennale; it was composed entirely of newly-commissioned works from Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rosa Barba, Daria Irincheeva, Alexandra Sukhareva, Adam Linder, Haroon Mirza, Walid Raad and James Richards. (That closes on 20 October, if you can get to V–A–C Zattere in Venice before then …)

Time, and the way artists can affect our perception of it, is clearly a current interest. His most recent books were Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age (Sternberg Press, 2018) and The Artists Who Will Change the World (Thames and Hudson, 2018).

The latter feels like a very personal view – it’s a great compendium, and Hans Ulrich Obrist called it “an essential manual for the 21st century and beyond”, but it’s not entirely clear how or why the world will be changed by those listed in it. Good fun, though; and Goodbye World is highly recommended as a very readable look at how the internet and related technologies have changed art’s way of looking and our ways of seeing.

Later this year Kholeif’s endeavours will be seen at Abu Dhabi Art, where he’s the guest curator for this year’s Focus section. The theme will be “Drawing, Tracing, and Mapping”, which could be interesting …

His impressive CV also includes posts at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art; London’s Whitechapel Gallery; Space, London; Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester; and short-term teaching jobs at several universities – he recently served as a Visiting Tutor at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art.

You want more credentials? Kholeif is a Churchill Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the International Association of Art Critics. He has served on numerous juries, including those for the Film London Jarman Award and the Thoma Foundation Arts Writing Award in Digital Art. He has received awards and grants himself from several organisations, including the Graham Foundation for the Advanced Study in the Fine Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation. He holds MA degrees from the University of Glasgow and Royal College of Art, a PhD from the University of Reading, and another from the University of the Arts, Zurich.

A heavyweight, as we said. He should be good for the arts in Sharjah, for the Sharjah Arts Foundation, and for the regional arts ecosystem generally.

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