The message of the 15th Sharjah Biennial is not subtle. In numerous artworks across the show, titled “Thinking Historically in the Present,” the past is shown to enact itself relentlessly upon the present, instigating innumerable insults against humanity: racism, forced migration, climate destruction, capitalism. Those who deny this reality, the artworks argue, benefit from the status quo, while the ignorant haven’t been paying attention to the right art.
The show’s title is a phrase coined by the late, highly esteemed curator Okwui Enwezor during a conversation about postcolonial scars. Though Enwezor was originally tapped to curate the Biennial, he gave the position to Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, amid his failing health. (Enwezor died in March 2019, at 55.) Her hotly anticipated iteration, postponed by two years, doesn’t insult the viewer by arguing that art will solve these issues. Instead, she, like Enwezor, invited artists across the Global South to probe the effectiveness of how we transmit experience—starting with biennials and art institutions.
“What are the results of these deliberate and political actions in art?” Al Qasimi asks in her curatorial statement. “The answer,” she continues, “lies in the works presented by the artists of the biennial who engage in the politics of underrepresentation and the auto-archive.”
The Biennial includes some 130 artists, almost all of whom hail from or have family roots in previously colonized countries. Midcareer and emergent stars, such as Cao Fei, Joiri Minaya, Gabriela Golder, Hyesoo Park, and Lee Kai Chung outnumber the long-established, including Kerry James Marshall (represented by an unexpected outdoor ground mosaic), Mona Hatoum, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, David Hammons, John Akomfrah, and Amar Kanwar. Al Qasimi calls Enwezor’s watershed 2003 Documenta her lodestar, and has continued one of its defining innovations, the restructuring of biennials into series of happenings rather than national groupings. The art is spread across 16 venues scattered around Sharjah, including a vegetable and fruit market, the Sharjah Art Museum, and a disused kindergarten.
The show is light on painting (it’s a lot of perfectly fine figuration), photography, and conventional sculpture. The strength of the performances was uneven, with two of the best including Tania El Khoury and Abdulrahim Salem, the latter of whom staged a hypnotic live painting session set to an Emirati sea chantey.
In line with the trends of the last decade or two of international biennials, the emphasis is on installation and video with a documentary base. Erkan Özgen’s video installation Wonderland (2016) features an interview with Muhammed, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee who fled the Islamic State occupation to southeastern Turkey with his family in 2014. Muhammed is hearing-impaired and he gestures the story of their escape, his agitated expression and edged silence cutting something like shame through the viewer. Özgen’s work is in the kindergarten, a drafty, peeling space pointedly aligned with themes of innocence passed. Installed nearby are photographs by Pipo Nguyen-duy in which school children play in what looks like the Vietnam countryside. Some nap on felled trees; it would be sweet save for the assault rifles tucked under their arms.
One of the more stylish entries is Isaac Julien’s five-channel black-and-white installation Once Again … (Statues Never Die), from 2022, which addresses the debate around decolonizing the museum through an imagined correspondence between the Black queer philosopher and critic Alain Locke and Albert Barnes, an arts educator and influential collector of African art.
The two men volley erudite observations on the restless relationship between Black art and the institution, with intermissions for archival footage of African artifacts held in the British Museum and the poetry of Langston Hughes. As if that doesn’t sound like a robust enough display, a mock museum of real artifacts and contemporary works indebted to African art tradition accompanies the installation, like a series of resin figurines by Matthew Angelo Harrison.
There are some exhibitions you can walk through quickly and be satisfied with the gist. This isn’t one of them. This show rewards long viewing, given both its sprawl (two venues, Khorfakkan and the Kalba Ice Factory, are more than an hour’s drive from Sharjah’s city center) and the generous space afforded each artist. Moza Almatrooshi, an artist interested in agricultural practices and climate consciousness, converted multiple shop spaces at the market into micro-terrariums (there was a live beehive apparently installed nearby too).
Hajra Waheed, who won the 2023 Sharjah Biennial Prize along with Doris Salcedo and Bouchra Khalili, built a conical sound chamber that plays a polyphony of seven songs popularized at women-led protests. Meaning here is transmitted via the mood. The piece is worth visiting first in a group, then at a late, lonely hour.
Khalili, meanwhile, occupies a large gallery with the newly commissioned The Circle (2023). It’s a constellation of archival footage, interviews, photography, objects, and text that examines the legacy of the Arab Workers Movement, a radical political organization founded by North African migrants in 1970s France. They formed agitprop theater troupes—they called it “theatrical newspaper”—to teach immigrant communities about their rights.
The whole thing is an exercise in historiography, the success of which, Khalili notes, relies on the strength of eyewitnesses. You can call it responsible retconning, which originally proposed that history “flows fundamentally from the future into the past.”
These works feel like personal triumphs for the artists, but it is unclear what the victory is for the biennial model, which has attempted to apply itself to the advancement of global modernity since at least the 1970s. The Sharjah Biennial has made this iteration a reflection point, where it takes stock of its efforts, most of which involve better activating its city. Luckily, that task addresses another budding issue: with most biennials of late being preoccupied by post-colonial anxiety and defiance, what saves the art in one show from seeming interchangeable with another?
The Sharjah Biennial’s best venues, like the labyrinth cluster of old medical clinics, makes the experiencing of the art inextricable from the site. You scour the map and open odd doors in case something of value is waiting past the shadows. (“Did you see—?” was overheard, and “Go back, don’t miss—”). It felt invigorating, disorienting, and logical: Ibrahim Mahama, who deals with global trade in relation to his native Ghana, presented two site-specific installations that explore the legacy of the body on the goods it occupies or manufactures. The stirring Parliament of the Ghost (2023) is an assemblage of found objects including reclaimed wheelchairs arranged as an empty audience.
The clinics are to the east of coastal Sharjah, where the desert cedes to a rocky terrain and the shoreline of Oman eventually comes into sight. You can actually see Oman from the Kalba Ice Factory, like some silent encouragement of cross-cultural solidarity.
History of the sort unfolding day-to-day is already edging toward the inevitable: the end of the biennial as an end-all measure of worth, and the redirection of energy into developing underserved art infrastructures. Is the end nigh? To that question, Al Qasimi quotes Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga: “With every shell we find in the desert, we bear witness how radical landscapes change in gradual, almost imperceptible ways.”