Sharjah Biennial takes the conservative option

Waiting for the world in 2022 – SAF’s Bait Obaid Al Shamsi in Sharjah’s Arts Square

Sharjah Art Foundation has postponed the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial again. Already delayed from 2021, SB15 had been rescheduled for March 2022; it will now open in February 2023.

Hoor Al Qasimi, director of both SAF and the Sharjah Biennial, said the Foundation thought next year was too soon to open up. “Reflecting on the relentless devastation of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, as well as the uneven access to vaccines and restrictions to travel still in place, SAF has made the decision to open Sharjah Biennial 15 in 2023.

“Our goal is to give artists and our audiences the necessary time to tend to what is most urgent around them. We hope to be able to gather in Sharjah once again with renewed energy and appreciation for the way art can bring complex questions into focus.”

Many other art events and institutions obviously feel differently, but then the Biennial isn’t a commercial operation and doesn’t demand as much high net worth footfall as the art fairs and galleries. The impact of new Covid-19 variants is still unclear, too, particularly in terms of the efficacy of existing vaccinations; the Indian subcontinent still looks vulnerable, and some Western epidemiologists are anticipating further lockdowns and travel restrictions – and the latter would seriously impact the value of an event which welcomes artists, curators and art professionals from around the world.

Whenever it does happen, SB15 continues to look like a strong event. Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor (right) and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, SB15 has the theme Thinking Historically in the Present; that reflects the visionary work of the charismatic Nigerian curator, who helped place non-western art on an equal footing with the long-established narrative of European and North American art and influenced the evolution of institutions around the world (including the Sharjah Biennial).

As an illustration of this way of thinking, the SB15 Working Group which is collaborating on the curating with Hoor Al Qasimi includes some very impressive names. There’s independent curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh, Cairo-born and Brussels-based (and curator of visual arts for Expo2020); Ute Meta Bauer from Germany (via stints in senior roles at the RCA and MIT), the founding director of Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore; the Igbo-Nigerian artist, art historian and curator Chika Okeke-Agulu, who specialises in African art and the African diaspora; Salah M. Hassan, art historian and director of the Africa Institute in Sharjah; and independent critic and curator Octavio Zaya, born in the Canary Islands, living in New York, and co-editor Hassan of Nka, the influential journal of contemporary African art founded by Enwezor.

That’s a mighty collection of input sources. You want more? Al Qasimi and the Working Group are overseeing the development and implementation of the Biennial with an Advisory Committee that includes Sir David Adjaye (the British-based architect of Ghanaian descent who has won international acclaim for his diverse designs, innovative use of materials, and appreciation of African values) and Christine Tohmé (curator of SB13, and founding director of Beirut’s artists association Ashkal Alwan – the role of which she has described as “cultivating friendships and networks of solidarity“).

Enwezor saw the contemporary art exhibition as a way to engage with history, politics and society in our global present. In particular, he had envisioned the invitation to curate this Sharjah Biennial as an opportunity to reflect on the role of non-Western institutions (like SAF and the Biennial) in the production of contemporary art responsive to our times.

He had planned to invite 30 artists to create major commissions for SB15 – 2021 would have been the biennial’s 30th year – and the full list of the artists has now been released. “These commissioned artists build on Enwezor’s vision that transformed how we understand and engage with contemporary art and its institutions,” said Al Qasimi in her statement. “Although he worked with many of these artists, I felt it was important to include other voices that bring his proposal into our immediate present and leverage the critical role that he believed the Sharjah Biennial could play in this endeavour.”

Here’s the full list:

  • John Akomfrah
  • Kader Attia
  • Sammy Baloji
  • María Magdalena Campos-Pons
  • Carolina Caycedo
  • Destiny Deacon
  • Manthia Diawara
  • Coco Fusco
  • Hassan Hajjaj
  • Mona Hatoum
  • Lubaina Himid
  • Isaac Julien
  • Amar Kanwar
  • Bouchra Khalili
  • Mohammed Ibrahim Mahama
  • Kerry James Marshall
  • Steve McQueen
  • Almagul Menlibayeva
  • Aline Motta
  • Wangechi Mutu
  • Philippe Parreno
  • Doris Salcedo
  • Berni Searle
  • Yinka Shonibare
  • Vivan Sundaram
  • Fatimah Tuggar
  • Hajra Waheed
  • Barbara Walker
  • Nari Ward
  • Carrie Mae Weems

In a sense SB15 has already begun, in that the March Meeting – the Foundation’s annual convening of artists, curators and art practitioners to explore critical issues in contemporary art through panels, lectures and performances – was held this year. Enwezor regarded it as a fundamental part of the Biennial’s work; March Meeting 2021: Unravelling the Present examined the 30-year history of the Sharjah Biennial and the future of the biennial model, and all the talks and panels are available online.

There will of course be a 2022 edition of March Meeting in the lead up to SB15.

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