Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Thinking Historically in the Present’ reflects on the vision of the late Okwui Enwezor. More than 70 new works activate 19 venues across 5 cities and towns in Sharjah.

Sharjah Biennial 15 this year welcomes visitors to various cities on the west and east coast of the emirate of Sharjah and additional locations in between, “It not only provides a unique experience for international visitors but rather it is a way to expand the ongoing work Sharjah Art Foundation is doing with those communities,” says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation and curator of Sharjah Biennial 15.

John Akomfrah, Arcadia, 2023. Al Mureijah Square. © Suzette Bell-Roberts

This approach introduces local-to-global dialogues in these communities while remaining sensitive to the communities and their histories. It is this approach and the legacy of the 30 years of the Sharjah Biennial that was a significant factor in the late Okwui Enwezor accepting the invitation by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi to curate Sharjah Biennial 15. Suzette and Brendon Bell-Roberts were there and share some of their highlights.

Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present (SB15) reflects on Enwezor’s visionary work, which transformed contemporary art and established an ambitious intellectual project that has influenced the evolution of institutions and biennials around the world.

Kambui Olujimi, In The Dark, We Lose Our Edges, 2023. The Flying Saucer. © Suzette Bell-Roberts

Hoor Al Qasimi interprets and re-envisions the titular proposal by the late thinker to critically centre the past within the contemporary moment. Al Qasimi develops the concept of ‘thinking historically in the present’ by adopting a working methodology that privileges the role of intuition and incidence. Acknowledging the effect Enwezor’s documenta 11 had in transforming her curatorial consciousness, she also builds upon her own long-term relationship with the Biennial, as visitor, artist, curator, and eventually, as director of the Foundation, an institution that came into being as a result of the Biennial, a fact Enwezor appreciably recognised.

SB15 will thus position Sharjah’s own lived past within the transcultural universe of thought furthered by over 300 works by over 150 artists and collectives, which will be installed in 5 cities and towns across the emirate. Participating artists have been consciously evolving practices that critique monolithic understandings of nationhood, tradition, race, gender, body and imagination, which inform the Biennial’s intersectional thematic. Enwezor’s proposition of the ‘postcolonial constellation’ and its pluriverse of key concepts form one point of departure as SB15 enables nuanced conversations around postcolonial subjectivity, the body as a repository of memories, processes of creolisation and hybridisation, the restitution of museumised objects, the racialising gaze, transgenerational continuities, global modernisms, indigeneity and decolonisation.

Ibrahim Mahama, A Tale of Time/Purple Republic, 2023. Old Al Dhaid Clinic. © Suzette Bell-Roberts

The 30th anniversary edition serves as a vantage point for the Biennial to reflect upon its cultural heritage and historical influence, the artistic possibilities it has enabled, and its role in linking Sharjah to transnational intellectual and artistic discourses. It is a moment for the Foundation to consider its institutional trajectory within its unique geopolitical location while continuing its expanding commitment to communities across the United Arab Emirates. The Biennial will engage audiences through ongoing learning activities and community outreach as well as a diverse programme of performance, music and film.

SB15 locates itself in continuity with past editions of the Biennial as well as the 2021 and 2022 iterations of March Meeting – the Foundation’s annual convening of artists, curators and arts practitioners exploring critical issues in contemporary art – which served as a collective prelude. March Meeting 2021: Unravelling the Present examined the 30-year history of Sharjah Biennial and the future of the biennial model, while March Meeting 2022: The Afterlives of the Postcolonial discussed the legacies of colonialism as well as emerging issues that have impacted recent global cultural, aesthetic and artistic practices. March Meeting 2023, taking place from 9 to 12 March, will continue the exploration of the SB15 themes while the exhibition is on view.

Carrie Mae Weems, The In Between, 2022-2023. Calligraphy Square. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Kimathi Donkor. Sharjah Art Museum, First Floor, Left Wing. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Yinka Shonibare, Decolonised Structures. Old Al Diwan Al Amiri. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Hassan Hajjaj, Gnawa Capoeira Brothahood, 2022. Bait Al Serkal, First Floor. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Mary Sibande, A reversed retrogress, scene 1, 2013. Al Hamriyah Studios. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Shiraz Bayjoo. Bait Obaid Al Shamsi. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Roméo Mivekannin. Calligraphy Square. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Wangechi Mutu, Buried Bride II, 2023. Bait Al Serkal, First Floor. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Murmullo Familiar [Family Whisper], 2021–2023. Al Mureijah Square. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Dr Destiny Deacon, Bait Blak (2022–2023). Al Mureijah Square. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Nari Ward, Nu Colossus, 2011. Kalba Ice Factory. © Suzette Bell-Roberts
Mandla, As British as a Watermelon, 2019. Khalid Bin Mohammed School (The Africa Institute). © Suzette Bell-Roberts

The Sharjah Biennial 15 is open to the public until 11 June 2023. For more information, please visit Sharjah Art Foundation.

Brendon Bell-Roberts is Co-founder and Editor-in-chief of ART AFRICA magazine.

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