Brendon Bell-Roberts travelled to Sharjah in the UAE in March to attend the 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennale (SB14)
Africa’s growing presence in the region was epitomised by artists Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh receiving this year’s Sharjah Biennale 14 Prize. The Biennale illustrates the importance of inclusion and dialogue with artists and markets on the fringe as the [art]world seeks new representations of history and the truth. The Sharjah Foundation’s ambitious programming celebrates the rich cultural diversity of the other in SB14, with this event resonating increasingly louder with global audiences. Here is what he found.
Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh, Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past, 2019. Multi-channel sound installation, sculpture and light installation, poetry. Dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artists.
Invited curators Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif, and Claire Tancons collectively conceived of Leaving the Echo Chamber as the framework for Sharjah Biennale 14 (SB14). Each contributes a rich and complementary input to the framework for SB14 and were selected by Hoor Al Qasimi, President and founding Director of Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) for their substantial work and research in the field. In her foreword to the Biennale Guidebook she elaborates further on the curatorial approach, “the ‘echo chamber’ encompasses the noise of mainstream media coverage, conspiracy theories, sensationalised storytelling, and social media feeds that reverberates within closed systems and networks that prevent people from engaging with each other in complex ways”. The three sub-themes that makeup Leaving the Echo Chamber are Zoe Butt’s Journey Beyond The Arrow, Omar Kholeif’s Making New Time and Claire Tancons’ Look For me All Around You.
Each curator sought, not to propose answers or solutions, but rather to offer opportunities to more closely examine how stories are told and from what perspectives they are communicated and historicised. Together, the three platforms encourage thinking about interconnectedness across time, culture, and geography. These three themes challenge the viewer, personally and physically, as one attempts to take in the more than 60 commissioned works that engage three emirates stretching from Sharjah, across Ajman, to Um Al Quwain. Al Mureijah Square, Calligraphy Square, Arts Square and the Sharjah Art Museum with its various galleries, heritage spaces, outdoor venues and cinema – together with the Kalba Ice Factory, Kalba Kindergarten and Al Hamriyah Studios – all playing host to the official week-long opening and related programming at March Meeting 2019. The Biennale included 3 days of talks, readings and performances – which supplemented the presentations of the more than 80 artists.
H.H. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and Sheka Hoor Al Qasimi view the exhibitions as part of the formal opening the Sharjah Biennale 14.
In the context of Leaving the Echo Chamber, Zoe Butt’s thematic contribution, Journey Beyond the Arrow, offers a deeper context to the movement of humanity and the tools that have enabled or hindered its’ survival. From spiritual ritual to cultural custom, technological process to the rule of law, all such practices employ objects and actions that continually move in voluntary and involuntary patterns of discovery, conquest, witness and exile across land and sea.
In her opening remarks at SB14 Butt stated “We’re always in a conversation with Empire”, this she explained is what she was interested in probing through her contribution to the curatorial aim, by linking narratives from Senegal to Vietnam, from Ghana to Indonesia – in the context of the Malay Archipelago and its role in an Arab world before the 15th century.
Tuân Andrew Nguyên, The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, 2019. 4-channel video installation: colour, 7.1 surround sound; inkjet on canvas, oil on canvas, graphite on paper, C-prints, sand, 28 minutes, dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation with additional production support from San Francisco Museum of Modern art. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York
Butt’s contribution, in particular, draws on the power of video in several impressive installations that are highly emotive and impactful, and illustrate her approach effectively. In the exhibition at Al Mureija Square, this is poignantly illustrated in Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019), a four-channel video installation offering echos from when Senegalese soldiers, or tirailleurs, were among the forces deployed to Indochina to combat the Vietnamese uprising against French rule. As narrators and actors, the voices of these descendants of the tirailleurs offer an acted personal account embodying a historical conscience that challenges understandings of decolonising societies.
Ho Tzu Nyen, R for Resonance, 2019. From ‘Critical Dictionary of South East Asia’, 2012 – ongoing. Installation with VR 360-degree video, ambisonic sound through headphones, single-channel HD video projection, 5-channel sound, dimensions variable.Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
The core of Butt’s exhibition occupied the entire Calligraphy Square, adjacent to Al Mureijah Square, where some of the most potent video pieces on the Biennale stood out. The larger-than-life work by Ho Tzu Nyen, R is for Resonance (2019), transports one to a space of reflection in an immersive VR installation which examines the function of the gong in Southeast Asia – an instrument embodying sacred cosmology. Since the times of the South Asian Bronze Age the gong, which required substantial resources to produce, was favoured by the elite and those associated with empire and social stratification. Nyen’s work, while exploring the qualities of bronze itself, takes one on a journey narrating the alphabet as phonetic experiences which resonate to the core and makes one feel as if you are being vibrated through a physical echo chamber. R is for Resonance forms part of Nyen’s ongoing project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia (2012 – present) continuing his development of the Dictionary, while exploring this region, its complicated histories, imposed geography, and imperial rule by the Japanese.
Meiro Koizumi, The Angels of Testimony, 2019. 3-channel video installation: colour, sound; archival materials, duration and dimensions variable. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
One of the most gripping installations in Butt’s exhibition is the three-channel video by Japanese born Meiro Koizumi entitled The Angels of Testimony 2019, which recounts the personal experiences of a Japanese soldier who perpetrated war crimes in China during the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945). Working with eleven Japanese youth, between the ages of 17 and 26 years, Koizumi constructs performances that see the perpetrator – now a very elderly and somewhat delusional man – remembering and reliving his atrocities, remorseful and often in tears. Through this work, Koizumi traverses the gap between personal experience and collective obligation – processing an individual sense of guilt – within the country’s wider cultural DNA and thereby questioning ‘national’ responsibility.
Butt’s exhibition also continues almost 30 kilometres away, in the Sharjah Foundation’s Al Hamriyah Studios, accessed by passing through the emirate of Ajman, where notable works by Shiraz Bayjoo and Neo Muyanga stand out for their link, not only to the African continent but to what it means to be an African in a world of declining empire.
Shiraz Bayjoo, various works, 2012 – 2017. Acrylic and resin on wood, acrylic, resin, reclaimed furniture, HD Digital Super 16mm, stereo sound, acrylic on board, metal, giclee print on Hahnemühle, acrylic and resin on board, with reclaimed wooden frame, dimensions variable. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. UK Government Art Collection. Courtesy of UK Government Art Collection, Shiraz Bayjoo and Ed Cross Fine Art. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Shiraz Bayjoo’s considers the formation of collective identity and nationhood through the entangled legacies of migration and European colonialism – while his broader practice explores the social, political and historical conditions integral to Mauritian cultural identity and the wider Indian Ocean region. For SB14 Bayjoo explores Mauritius’ complicated relationship to modernity through the descendants of its different ethnic communities. French and British colonial rule; trade with Chinese and Arab merchants; slaves trafficked from India, East Africa and Madagascar all of which contributes to the modern day ethnicity of Mauritius. Bayjoo argues that claiming these ancestral connections has empowered local status and helped bury the impact of colonial power on cultural identities. In Ile de France (2015) – the French colonial name that replaced the Dutch name Mauritius – Bayjoo’s installation with non-narrative film, paintings, photographs and sculptures recall the islands encounters with its colonial pasts. He references many ruins, but the most personal reference is the focus on his grandmother’s house in Port Louis – with its potted tropical garden – which embodies the many layers of its former Creole residents, where Bayjoo’s lens captures sound and image of recurring colonial dominion.
Neo Muyanga, house of MAKEdbA, 2019. Interactive installation: 2 record players, sound, animated photograph, objects, furniture, lamps, dimensions variable; 15-minutes loop. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation.
Al Hamriyah Studios also played host to Neo Muyanga’s performance in memory of Miriam Makeba (1932-2008). In House of Makeba (2019), Muyanga honours Makeba’s role as a primary translator of what it meant to be an African in a world of the declining empire. Makeba lived in exile in ‘Muslim Africa’ due to her outspoken views on apartheid. She performed at the 1978 Pan-African Games in Algiers where her presence elevated the minority opinion of Guinea – her then host country – highlighting the fact that Maghreb countries should be included under the banner of Pan-African solidarity. Despite her significant contribution, Makeba has unfortunately been reduced to a footnote, which Muyanga’s performance sets to right.
There are too many works in Butt’s exhibition to mention in detail. Worth noting however are New Zealand born Lisa Reihana’s Nomads of the Sea (2019) – a rich cinematic tableau based on imagined narratives and factual research that examines the culture of Māori and South Pacific Islander peoples. Zambian born Anawana Haloba’s A Dragon King in Sleepy Pride Rock (2019) – an installation based on Haloba’s journeys along the TAZARA Railway which addresses China’s ‘inroads’ into the developing world. Chinese born Qiu Zhijie’s Various Works (2015-2019) trace the wide-ranging connections across geography, history and culture. A selection of Zhijie’s maps – Map of Games: Used to Being a Loser (2016), Map of Human Emotions: Both Despair and Hope Are Extinct Volcano (2016) and Map of Fate: Heaven’s Movement is Ever Vigorous (2016) – chart the phsycogeographies of the human condition and survey the connections between historical Chinese and Arab exchanges and encounters.
Lubaina Himid, Memorial to Zong, 1991. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 121.92 x 4.5 cm. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
These artists deal with history or a time that resonates with them on a very personal level. On a panel discussion convened by Omar Kholeif and entitled What does it mean to make new time?, Butt chose to twist the concept by saying that there cannot be any new time; instead, we are in a space that we are continually excavating in the context of leaving the echo chamber. Butt commented during the panel discussion that her act of taking the time to observe artists in their studios; how they go about creating their work and the tools they use; absorbing the positive and negative; paying attention to the little things – the finer gestures – are all some of the very personal experiences that have guided her curatorial approach.
Omar Kholeif stated during his short opening address: “I am not going to say very much because I think that the works speak for themselves… ”. I would argue that it is possibly Kholeif’s curatorial contribution Making New Time that helps to cement SB14’s Leaving the Echo Chamber together. Kholeif challenges that his exhibition is a provocation that ultimately implores viewers to consider their complicity in a world that is forever slipping away. Kholeif’s Making New Time examines today’s experience of accelerating time amid seismic technological, social, and political change. Artists on his platform encourage consideration of how both new technology and histories of material culture augment the limits of perception and belief that inevitably shape an understanding of reality.
Forming part of Kholeif’s exhibition in the Sharjah Art Museum, the recurring thematic of redressing historical narratives is evidenced in Zanzibarian born Lubaina Himid’s work. The work approaches questions of identity through the celebration of Black creativity and political agency. Himid challenges institutional narratives that have systematically overlooked and erased the legacy of slavery and the foundational contributions to society made by the African diaspora. For SB14 Himid presents six works in a range of mediums, including painting and installation. Man in a Stationery Drawer (2017-2018) and Man in a Jumper Drawer (2018) both depict portraits of men inside a drawer, commenting on the invisibility of black men in art and society. Himid’s body of work ‘Revenge’, and in particular Memorial to Zong (1992) commemorates a slave ship and the people thrown overboard in a massacre, which allowed the captain to make an insurance claim against their bodies.
Alfredo Jaar, 33 womem, 2014-2019. 33 framed pigment prints, 198 light projectors, 198 tripods. Dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist.
Kholeif presents Chilean born artist Alfredo Jaar’s 33 Women (2014-2019) as part of the exhibition at Al Mureijah Square. This extends Jaar’s ongoing project foregrounding the work of extraordinary women. Jaar’s project pays homage to the efforts of these women whose outstanding civic contributions and service as exemplary leaders in their respective fields – including human rights, sexual violence, censorship and ethnic persecution – remain largely under-recognised and disregarded.
Candice Breitz, Digest. 2019. Multi-channel video installation, wooden shelves, videotape, polypropylene boxes, paper, acrylic paint 300 units: 20.3 x 12 x 2.7 cm each. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; Kaufmann Repetto, Milan and KOW, Berlin.
Also presented in the Al Mureijah Square exhibition is South African-born Candice Breitz’s Digest (2019), a multi-channel video installation consisting of 300 videotapes that have been permanently interred and sealed within as many polypropylene boxes. Each of these boxes features a verb drawn from the title of the film that was in circulation during the height of the era of home video. This era set in motion a revolution, predicting a future in which moving images would be easily accessible, affordable and infinitely reproducible – where viewers would be freely available to tamper with and intervene in the viewing experience – which ultimately eroded the experience that cinemas had offered. Breitz’s work eludes to the disembodied and virtual future of the moving image and echos the profound disembodiment that digital culture would bring to cultural consumption in general. Digest is accompanied by a disclaimer, which warrants reading if you can source the official SB14 Guidebook.
Fellow South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere was presented in Arts Square, Bait Al Serkal, where Kholeif’s exhibition occupied the entire venue. In My Apologies to Time (2016), Wa Lehulere converts old primary school desks into a series of birdhouses connected with steel pipes. The inclusion of a stuffed African Grey parrot recalls the bird’s ability to mimic human speech and the calls of other animals, while Wa Lehulere draws parallels between the parrot’s predominantly work in performance to acknowledge the presence of people and histories that often only register in fleeting or immaterial forms.
Of this platform of migrant images and fugitive forms, Tancons adds: “Composed of multiple scores drawn from the many scales of Sharjah as a city, emirate, and peninsular territory, these after-images and after-forms circumnavigate global history, meeting through the confluence of the Gulfs of Mexico and Oman and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in a call-and-response between the Americas and the Emirates.”
Aline Baiana, various works, 2019. Multimedia installations, dimensions variable. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation with additional production support from Lafayette Anticipations-Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris. Courtesy of the artist. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Leaving the exhibitions at Al Mureijah Square, outside Bait Abdul Raheem Jasem, Brazilian born Aline Baiana’s two works Alliance for a sunny world or the Rainbow serpent flows in free rivers (2109), and Jannah Dam or The second murder of Adonis (2019) dominate and mediates the territory between Al Mureijah Square, the surrounding neighbourhood and Calligraphy Square nearby. Her works draw parallels between the construction of hydropower plants on the Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil, and the Abraham River that runs through the Adonis Valley in Lebanon. Each of Baiana’s works for SB14 represents one of these rivers which are connected by a traditional Emerati irrigation system called a falaj, channel, which uses gravity to distribute water.
Mohamed Bourouissa, Blida-Joinville. 2018 – 2019. Site-specific installation, wooden structure, plants, drawings, high-quality video, 3D animation, sound, Dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and co-produced by Institute Français, UAE, with the support of Institute Français, Paris, with additional support from kamel mennour, Paris and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist, kamel mennour, Paris/London and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.
Tancons’ programme kicked off with a visit to Algerian born Mohammad Bourouissa’s sight-specific and video installations – all presented at a disused kindergarten in Kalba. Blida-Joinville (2019) plots a physical and psychological exploration of society through the consideration of architecture and rational thought – a conversation about two institutions and their histories. Bourouissa constructed a three-dimensional wooden structure based on the plans for the Psychiatric Hospital Frantz Fanon in Blida, Algeria imposing it on the disused kindergarten in Kalba. The two institutions are brought together in a discussion through philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Plants interspersed in open-air sections of the kindergarten recall the memory of Bourlem Mohamed, a patient of the Fanon hospital who developed a gardening method as a form of therapy. The video installation encompasses the project through the plotting of the construction within the kindergarten, and interviews with Mohamed, and interspersed with beguiling 3D animations, all set within this dusty, overgrown and disused site.
Tancons explains of her curatorial aim, “From the Sharjah exclave of Kalba, which lies on the Gulf of Oman coast, is an important nature reserve and mangrove swamp – and the closest point to the Indian Ocean. From here one can begin to narrate the history of migration and slavery that took place – and which formed an integral part of my focus in the conception of Look for Me All Around You – which of course has taken shape in many of the works that are on display.” Three African artists Mohau Modisakeng, Tracey Rose and Meshac Gaba stand out with performance pieces that directly address issues of displacement, segregation, diaspora and Africa’s place in the world.
Mohau Modisaking, Land of Zanj, 2019. Performance view: Sharjah Biennial 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Forming part of the programme at Kalba was South African born Mohau Modisakeng’s Land of Zanj (2019) – a choreographed processional performance along the coast of the Gulf of Oman on the beach of Kalba – draws links between the experiences of displacement within South Africa’s history of racial segregation and those of formerly enslaved diasporic Africans. Modisakeng’s broader practice approaches the body as a bearer of collective memory invoking historical mechanisms of violence which grapple with the tensions and contradictions of inequality, exploitation, slavery and race. Land of Zanj, named after the island of Zanzibar or Azania, is an ancient term used to describe the southeast coast of Africa. In the context of the Indian Ocean as the backdrop, Modisakeng mediates the migration and memories of historical confluence between the Arabian Peninsula and the Swahili Coast, which includes the modern states of Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. An ensemble of over twenty dancers and musicians was led by Modisakeng and encompassed two acts. The first was performed in a space within the Kalba Ice Factory where the procession interacted with a wooden rowboat, oars and metal wind chimes, all the time accompanied by traditional music. For the second act, Modisakeng led the performance – which included Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni – through a large carved wooden door along the beach where the energy and movements that Modisakeng conducted seemed to encompass the ebb and flow of the waters that formed the backdrop to these emotive acts. The two processional interactions recall the material history of the Swahili Coast, a convergence of sailors, merchants and commodities such as ivory, gold, spices and African slaves which effectively expanded Tancons’ curatorial vision.
Tracey Rose, Any Way the Wind Blows, 2018–2019. Visual script, multimedia performance installation, dimensions variable. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of Dan Gunn Gallery, London and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Staged in the Sharjah Ladies Club ice rink, Any Way The Wind Blows (2019) was fellow South African Tracey Rose’s commissioned performative installation that examined the history the of East African and Indian Ocean slave trade – and the Atlantic slave trade – through the ghost of Jamaican-born political leader, intellectual and orator Marcus Garvey. Rose is best known for her performance work, which embodies a feminist perspective. For her contribution to SB14, she explores the figure of the Moor, the notion of black masculinity, and the similarities and differences between the slave trade in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In Rose’s true irreverent-style a Russian ice-skating team was commissioned to traverse the ice-rink, shouting and chanting, while Rose, dressed as an elephant sitting in an ark, instructs the skaters on their actions while referencing a long list in her hands. The work builds on an earlier work The Good Ship Jesus vs The Black Star line hitching a ride on the Alibama (2017), in which she examines the Atlantic slave trade through a conversation between a West coast African man and an African American man. Rose references in its title a song by rock band Queen – whose lead singer, Freddie Mercury, was from Zanzibar. Any Way the Wind Blows continues Rose’s investigation of the power of the scattered African diaspora, while she explores her own heritage as a royal descendent whose paternal family were taken into slavery on a sugar plantation in Mauritius.
Meschac Gaba, Perruques Architectures Émirats Arabes Unis, 2019. Performance and installation, wigs made of artificial hair and metal; dimensions variable. Installation view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation with the support of Gallery In Situ-fabienne leclerc, Paris. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery In Situ-fabienne leclerc, Paris. Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation.
Beninese born Meshac Gaba’s Perruques Architectures Émirats Arabes Unis (2019), took the form of both procession and installation. Gaba’s work playfully addresses questions of representation through serious engagement with the politics of display and conventions of spectatorship – building on his long-time fascination with cityscapes, architectural vernacular and urbanisation as global processes. His hand-braided wigs in the shape of skyscraper buildings started in New York in 2004, where he was reflecting on the city’s density, vertical growth and intricate work of the African hair salons in Harlem. For his SB14 work, Gaba travelled to five of the seven United Arab Emirates visiting over 30 buildings in the production of thirteen wigs that characterise a range of civil society sectors, including culture, education, religion, finance, government, and leisure. The procession of the thirteen performers was led by Gaba through Sharjah’s Art Square, the historic Souq Al Shanasiyah and Souq Saqr – with the wigs finally being exhibited in two shop spaces in Bait Obaid Al Shamsi for the duration of the Biennale. The creation of the wigs enabled Gaba to gain a better understanding of the UAE, its rapid transformations and the gravitational pull the country exerts on the world.
The Filipino Superwoman Band, 2019. Performance by Eisa Jocson. Performance view: Sharjah Biennale 14: ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
While I have chosen to focus primarily on Tancons’ inclusion of artists from the African continent, it is in no way meant to diminish the scope and diversity of presentations by artists from other regions like that of Manila-born Eisa Jocson who presented various works that focus on the Overseas Filipino Musician (OFM). A highly entertaining performance by The Filipino Superwoman Band, together with Bunny Cadag and Catherine Go – whose repertoire was built around the 1989 single Superwoman by American R&B singer Karyn White – brought the Saturday evening to a close.
Sharjah Biennale 14’s ambitious presentation requires a great commitment of time, at least a week, in order to navigate the entire geography of the exhibitions presented – the amount of time it would take to explore each individual presentation requires even more investment by the viewer. It is a little sad that very few will probably have the time and resources required to fully experience SB14, especially in light of all the work the curators, artists, and extensive teams behind the Sharjah Foundation have put into the Biennale.
Luckily, Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons’ curatorial contributions and texts will be published by the Sharjah Foundation in three separate volumes and I would strongly recommend you source these three publications to further explore and enjoy this worthy cultural production.
Brendon Bell-Roberts is Editor-in-Chief of ART AFRICA.