How the Sharjah Biennial 15 is subverting art world legacies

In 2018, one of the most influential curators of our times, Okwui Enwezor, agreed to curate the Sharjah Biennial 15. The following year, Enwezor sadly passed away, leaving Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi with his blessing to curate in his stead. 

‘Okwui had originally wanted to do a museum show combined with 30 new commissions, and he put together a list of key works from the “Postcolonial Constellation” [works of art selected by Enwezor to illustrate the geopolitics in the aftermath of mass colonialism in the last 400 years], so I took that as my starting point,’ Al Qasimi explained to Wallpaper*. 

Enwezor’s legacy is a post-colonial, even a post-national, approach in which he brought together artists to express their ideas outside the framework of the Western art world. Sharjah Biennial 15 brings together the participating artists in celebration of Enwezor’s vision. 

Nari Ward, Duty Colossus, 2022. Commissioned by MASS MoCA, North Adams, USA, and Sharjah Art Foundation

(Image credit: Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo : Motaz Mawid)

Al Qasimi has seized the curatorial baton following a global pandemic and within that, a social justice revolution. Postponing for two years also meant that this posthumous collaboration coincided with the 30-year anniversary of the biennial and Al Qasimi’s 20-year anniversary as director. The result, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present, is a coming together of the art world’s Global South and its diaspora, with over 170 artists and more than 300 artworks in venues across Sharjah – a once-in-a-generation event whose impact will be felt for years to come.

Representing viewpoints from all corners of the globe, the biennial presents major works from heavyweights, while also platforming new voices. From architectural interventions referencing migrant workers’ rights to post-internet interpretations of journeys taken by refugees, the scope of this show is enormous. 

The preservation of the historic architecture of Sharjah is a key remit of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Venues for the biennial combine the city’s old fruit market with new gallery spaces and cinemas across the region, including the newly completed Kalba Ice Factory site, which hosts stunning monumental sculptures, among them work by Doris Salcedo, who, alongside Bouchra Khalili and Hajra Waheed, was named winner of the Sharjah Biennial Prize.

Hajra Waheed, Hum II, 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation; supported by Canada Council for the Arts, Ottawa. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, 2023

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photography: Motaz Mawid)

The bumper list of 29 newly commissioned works includes a huge, site-specific installation by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, a film and VR experience by Cao Fei, a feature-length film by Coco Fusco, and installations by emerging artists Mandla, and Hajra Waheed.

Also of note were some striking pieces by John Akomfrah, who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2024. The artist, writer and filmmaker debuted his newly commissioned five-channel film work Arcadia, 2023, which dispels ideas of nationalism through history, climate, nature and the passing of time in a monumental installation fitting for such a subject. Here, we see the human, the animal and the fabric of our ecosystem narrated through symbolic tableaux and expansive images of the Earth from space. 

Ibrahim Mahama, A Tale of Time/ Purple Republic, 2023. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Kalba Ice Factory, 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation

(Image credit: Motaz Mawid)

Isaac Julien’s Once Again (Statues Never Die), 2022, addresses issues of collecting through the lens of Black, queer art historian Alain Locke, born in 1885, and his interaction with Albert C Barnes’ collection of African art. Drawing enormous queues at the biennial opening, the piece highlights Julien’s unique eye for beauty and his ability to distil complexity. 

Taking on the mantle of Enwezor’s ideas, artists tackle rights, identity, history, displacement and building a life in the face of adversity using a variety of methods and voices across the 19 biennial venues. The Living and the Dead Ensemble, a multidisciplinary collective from Haiti, present The Wake, 2021, at The Africa Institute. The three-channel video work uses poetry, movement and video-editing inspired by a night of earthquakes, protest and rebirth in which marginalised communities are summoned to unite. 

Mona Hatoum, Quarters, 2017. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah, 2023

(Image credit: Shanavas Jamaluddin. Mona Hatoum, Quarters, 2017. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

‘In the cosmogony of the Black Caribbean, inherited from the world of the plantation where a day is a long succession of constraints, forced labour and violence, the night is a space to catch one’s breath,’ reads a statement from the ensemble. ‘A place for the re-composition of forces for a community of exhausted bodies, a place for reparations, cultural reinvention, of preparation for combats to come.’ 

Revolutionary Enclosures (Until the Apricots), a multi-faceted new collaborative work by artist and architect Dima Srouji and philosopher Jasbir Puar, addressed these themes through memories of the 2000 Second Intifada uprising in Palestine recalled by many experiencing the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. Speaking to her contemporaries, Srouji realised that the experience of Covid lockdown brought back repressed memories of their experiences in 2000. The five-part installation includes personal letters, brass bus tickets to evoke the end of periodic lockdowns and wallpaper decorated with exploded bullets that, at a glance, look like flowers.

Though unwieldy at times, the Sharjah Biennial 15 is a remarkable and ambitious framing of creativity beyond the framework of the Western art world. 

(Image credit: Dima Srouji and Jasbir Puar )

‘Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present’ runs until 11 June 2023. (opens in new tab)

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Written by Sharecaster

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