For the annual Art in America Guide, published in print in January, the editors spoke to five directors of notable museums and institutions—Adriano Pedrosa of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo; Ibrahim Mahama of the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; Sharmini Pereira of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka; Hoor Al Qasimi of the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi—about their work in and around the Global South.
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi founded the Sharjah Art Foundation, where she now serves as director, in 2009. The organization—with its closely watched Sharjah Biennial, commitment to regional artists and audiences, and rigorous evolving program—has become a model for institution-building in the Global South. Below, the Emirati royal shares her vision for the Foundation and talks about curating this year’s edition of the biennial.
Growing up in Sharjah, I witnessed a lot of cultural activities. But when I saw Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta in 2002, it inspired my commitment to relentless experimenting. I want to cultivate a space where creators, thinkers, and young people can come together. With everything we do, we start small, and then grow from feedback we get from the public and from artists. For example, Focal Point, which started as a booth at the Sharjah International Book Fair, has become a huge event of its own. It began with the desire to share artists’s books and other work by small publishers, and now it draws huge crowds, including whole families, and causes traffic jams.
I run the Foundation with public money, so the local community is always my first thought. I want to be sensitive to the needs of people here, because they are my audience all year round; the international art world comes and goes, but its members aren’t stakeholders in the same way. The organization collaborates with other institutions; right now, we are presenting a show by Sudanese painter Kamala Ibrahim Ishag at the Serpentine in London [through January 29]. A lot of institutions in the West have robust systems of patronage and support for the arts, but we don’t really have that here, so my work is about supporting the artists. I don’t care who wants to put their name on a commission or if it gets shown in Venice before it comes here. Institutions should be working together and sharing the credit and resources. I’ve emphasized collaboration throughout my presidency of the International Biennial Association: we should commission works together, without fussing over who shows it first.
Now we’re in full install mode for the biennial, which will take place in five cities in Sharjah. The Foundation grew out of the biennial, but I realized that our year-round commitments weren’t always obvious to biennial visitors. We host workshops and courses in seven towns in Sharjah, and I want those towns to be a visible part of what we’re doing. I’m always striving to decenter the biennial. Some people might say “oh, such and such is too far.” I find that frustrating: too far for whom? There are people who live there! We’re also renovating several buildings throughout the emirate and showing work there. I’ve banned the word “off-site” in our office; there is no such thing.
In addition to the fair, biennial, and exhibitions, we host residencies for artists, curators, and musicians. Our newest initiative is a performance festival, Perform Sharjah. I got Air Arabia to sponsor the curatorial residency, because I wanted it to be regional, but I asked myself, what is our region? So I looked at the flight map of Air Arabia, which is a budget airline, and I decided, well, that’s a region! We have an annual photography show that’s in its 10th edition now, as well as an architecture triennial. We decided to build the Africa Institute on the basis of recommendations made by the African-Arab Symposium in 1976. I’m lucky to have had support from my father and from the government of Sharjah to do all this. I don’t really experience pushback or censorship. For me, my community is most important. If I was just acting for myself, I could go open a gallery in New York or London, or whatever. I’ve been working for the Foundation and its predecessor for 20 years now, and my dad asked me what I’m going to do to celebrate. I said: the biennial!
Banner images, left to right: Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: Blues for the Martyrs (detail), 2022, oil on canvas, 623 by 934 feet; Tahila Mintz: Ancestral Gratitude Bridge, 2022, video; Al Qasimi [illustration by Denise Nestor]; Carolina Caycedo, Aluminum Intensive (detail), 2022; Nusra Latif Qureshi, The Ideal Floral Background (detail), 2013.