Curating a postcolonial vision at Sharjah Biennial 15 with Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi

Curating a postcolonial vision at Sharjah Biennial 15: an interview with Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi
7 min read
10 March, 2023

It took four years for curator, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, to bring together Sharjah Biennial’s latest edition, which opened on February 7 and gathers 300 works from artists representing 70 countries.

Entitled Thinking Historically in the Present, Sharjah Biennial 15 embodies a platform to discuss postcolonial multitudes and solidarities, the strength of resistance to power, and the spirit of remembrance and reparations – themes that Nigerian curator, critic, and researcher Okwui Enwezor, who originally conceived this event before his untimely passing in 2019, had championed for decades.

Al Qasimi shared with The New Arab her earliest memory of Enwezor. The formative encounter set a new ambition for Sharjah’s art institution and influenced the way she would eventually envision her role in driving this vision forward.

"Sharjah Biennial 15 embodies a platform to discuss postcolonial multitudes and solidarities, the strength of resistance to power, and the spirit of remembrance and reparations"

“Something definitely moved me when I went to Documenta,” she recalls. Enwezor was the first non-European art director of Documenta 11 (2002), a major exhibition of contemporary art that interrogates the world in which we live, taking place every five years.

“Why can’t we do something with the Sharjah Biennial that can affect people who don’t have the privilege of going to Kassel in Germany,” she asked herself then, a question that would prove to be decisive as she took the reins of the Sharjah Biennial the following year in her early 20s.

Now at the helm of the Sharjah Biennial for the last 20 years, this experience encouraged Al Qasimi to reflect on the mission and identity of the Sharjah Biennial, investing in continuous, year-on-year conversations rather than focusing on short-lived art events.

A shift was needed. “You exhibited and then you went quiet for two years. Two years is a long time, especially for children. So how to keep a regular presence with the public?”

One way was for the institution to engage at the local level. “We have a presence in seven towns.” She smiles. The Art Foundation she leads renovates buildings, organises workshops and residencies, and works with the emirate’s children and youth through community programmes. “I really want people to feel like they own the place. They are the people who will inhabit them all the time – not the people flying in and out.”

Reflecting on her career, she takes pride in incubating local and global talents, and in the people who have grown with her over the years. “I look after the team,” she says, several of which she first met as children and are with the Foundation today.

To foster a multicultural discussion in which she aspires to be polyphonic and decentralised, Al Qasimi – a trained painter – sees her position as “an artist who curates” as opposed to a solitary, authoritative model of curating. “When people ask me whether I continue to practice, I tell them yes, with the Foundation. It’s my project, I see it in that way.”

The Biennial follows the concept of circularity. “We had exhibitions where curators say: you have to go this way. But sometimes, buildings don’t work that way. You may go up, then go down, and miss one part. And you see it in our spaces, where’s the beginning? It’s the one you chose. You make your own journey.”

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She embraces intuition and patience, relies on a wide network of artists, curators, gallerists, and friends, and has extensive travels to keep abreast of new works. “I see artworks that I would never forget,” she explains. Though she may have seen films or textile works years prior, she keeps them in mind, for the right time.

She shows me a picture of herself with Aboriginal artists in the Australian desert; they are now on show. “If I feel something I don’t ignore it. I trust those instincts because going to Documenta was an instinct and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Sharjah, an internationally-recognised hub for African and Asian cultural actors to converse, is also opening to narratives and voices from South America and beyond. Al Qasimi long expressed the importance of initiatives that are deliberately rooted.

“I set up the Africa Institute and again I didn’t do it out of nowhere.” She marks a pause. “There’s a purpose that it’s here.” In 1976, Sharjah hosted the first Symposium on African and Arab Relations which gathered 45 African and Arab intellectuals to discuss cultural friendship and historical linkages.

Now in its fifth year of operation, the Africa Institute, headed by the academic, critic, and curator Salah M. Hassan, is expanding the study of Africa and its diaspora to advance knowledge and understanding.

Similarly, when Al Qasimi became the first Emirati national to curate the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2015, she revived a history and anchored the show in a lineage, honouring the achievements of pioneering artists and cultural actors in the UAE, such as the Emirates Fine Art Society, a non-profit institution established in 1980 in Sharjah.

The contemporary art scene in the Gulf region has significantly evolved since the 1980s. She likes to tell visitors that the Sharjah Biennial is only one of several art festivals ongoing in Sharjah. “There’s a lot and sometimes it’s too much because we have to keep up,” she observes.

The first Islamic Arts Biennale opened in Jeddah last month and Art Dubai is around the corner.

“It’s good but also we need to slow down, that’s why I added an extra month to the Biennial,” she says. The Sharjah Biennial which traditionally starts in March was moved up to February and will close in June. It was initially scheduled for 2021.

“People went through so much and lost loved ones,” she says of the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving space to artists to recover and an opportunity for them to show multiple works in Sharjah also entailed borrowing from different collections and, while doing so, overcoming administrative and logistical hurdles. “It was worth the wait,” she assesses, even if the delay meant losing her budget last year.

“Fundraising is always a challenge but we have sponsors. People stepped up,” she notes. “This turnout is encouraging partners to continue supporting us.”

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As the Sharjah Biennial opening week closes, Al Qasimi already looks ahead. A catalogue to complete, with in-depth interviews of the artists, and more coming up on the local and international scene.

“Now is the exciting part for me,” she says, as visitors are meandering their way through Sharjah’s art museum, its heritage houses, old clinic, courthouse, and kindergarten. “I’m interested in people seeing the art in different ways.”

As it becomes evident when visiting the 19 venues of the Biennial, the postcolonial world presented in Sharjah is made up of various worlds. Yet there are commonalities, shared emotions, and experiences that bind individuals and communities together.

Enwezor had called the two components of this invisible fabric “a dislocation of belonging” and a “disjunction of time.”

The Biennial interrogates these fractures, which aren’t just about examining the past. “For sure, it’s still broken,” Al Qasimi affirms.

Yet she underscores “moments of recognition” and “moments of solidarity” in works and expressions that seek and find connections with one another, “from top to bottom, right and left.” In their common echo, we hear the daring notes of a different future.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis