Empire is all around us: we were so inspired by our visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in March – at the invitation of the 14th Sharjah Biennale (SB14) and 13th edition of Art Dubai – that we take as the theme for this issue from SB14’s title Leaving the Echo Chamber. Curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons the platform’s curatorial approach is topically relevant; underpinning current contemporary practice. The curators collectively interrogate, question and challenge the theme in the context of our entangled histories, perceived truths, geography and time, as they navigate the real and imagined construct of the echo chamber.
Now in its 14th year, the Biennale convened by Sharjah Foundation, was packed with a programme delivered during the week-long March Meeting. This included exhibitions, talks, performances, screenings, and numerous functions for invited visitors and international media. With 60 major artist commissions and more than 80 participating artists – SB14 made an impact that is garnering much international attention while keeping with their mandate to build awareness around contemporary art in the region, and engaging with the other from emerging geographies including the Americas, Africa, Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean Islands. In our Biennale feature Echos of Empire, Space & Time we look at the African and diasporic participation at SB14, and how the institutional support from the UAE is helping to centre the other in the [art]world.
Sharjah Foundation entrenched its commitment to these emerging regions by further establishing the Africa Institute and re-launching Africa Hall. The Institute hosted ‘Global Africa: African and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century’, adjacent to the Biennale venues. The conference was co-organised by Hoor Al Qasimi (President of The Africa Institute and Sharjah Art Foundation), Salah M. Hassan (Director of The Africa Institute and Cornell University) and Carina E. Ray (Brandeis University). Global Africa brought together prominent academics to the three-day programme, which presented nine-panel discussions. Premesh Lalu, Professor of History and the Director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa participated in the conference and here shares his thoughts in his piece ‘Towards an Aesthetic Education in African Studies’.
Staying with the UAE, we look at Art Dubai’s Global South focus and speak to Pablo del Val about the trajectory of the fair over the past twelve years. We interview Murtaza Vali, curator of ‘CRUDE’ at Jameel Art Centre; travel to Lisbon where we attended ARCOLisboa and report back on the growing presence of Africa at this international art fair; Ashraf Jamal reviews South African painter Robyn Penn’s latest painting exhibition at the Barnard Gallery (Cape Town); Tracy Murinik writes about a new artists collective Artybollocks who present their first show; and we cover Robert Slingsby’s exhibition at CIRCA Everard Read (Johannesburg) on the people of the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia.
The power that the first world still exerts over the emerging is clearly referenced in Valerie Kabov’s piece. In ‘When can we talk about the art? A Case for Venice’, she evaluates Africa’s representation at the Venice Biennale, arguably the most critical art platform in the world. Kabov notes the challenges facing first-time participation and what it takes to make it in Venice, where Empire rules supreme and spaces are in demand.
We travel to Morocco where we were hosted by the Montresso* Foundation in Marrakesh. In partnership with the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair programme, the Foundation presented ‘In Discipline #2’, an ongoing residency programme and exhibition. The in-residence artists’ studios and an impressive museum and exhibition venue are set in the Jardin Rouge with unobstructed views of the Atlas Mountains. This year’s edition of ‘In Discipline #2’ showcased works by the five invited artists from Côte d’ Ivoire and was curated by Yacouba Konaté, illustrating the lingering effects and the omnipresent cloud of Empire.
While in Marrakesh we also caught up with Hassan Hajjaj and talked to him about his ‘Mi Casa Su Casa’ residency project at the Comptoir des Mines Galerie, where a group exhibition featuring young Moroccan photographers, and his work, was on display. ‘Mi Casa Su Casa’ is an ongoing project that Hajjaj has been driving to mentor and expose young Moroccan photographers work.
The hangover of colonialism, the entrenched systems and legacy of Empire are far-reaching and touch every aspect of contemporary culture today. The work showcased in the exhibitions, biennales, art fairs, talks and conferences covered in these pages, is just one of the ways artists are dealing with their own personal relationship to Empire – and collectively are committed to redressing the inequalities of the past – and writing new histories that are true and inclusive.
We hope you enjoy the issue and hope it inspires you to think a little about what Empire means to society and those close to you.