Birds, in their capacity as harbingers of disaster, made two memorable appearances in the 13th Sharjah Biennial, delivering urgent warnings of disturbance in the natural order. Australian ground-dwelling lyrebirds in French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s video Mimesis as Resistance (2013) have learned to mimic the sounds of car alarms and chainsaws. Parrots living in the Rio Abajo forest in Esperanza, Puerto Rico, narrate San Juan–based duo Allora & Calzadilla’s film The Great Silence (2014) through subtitles written from the parrots’ perspective by science fiction writer Ted Chiang. The parrots can’t understand how the humans at the nearby Arecibo Observatory can be so absorbed in listening for possible extraterrestrial signals yet so oblivious to the birds’ endangered habitat.
Titled “Tamawuj,” the Arabic word for the movement of waves or an undulating line, this edition of the Biennial unfolds as a yearlong conversation between Lebanese curator Christine Tohmé and interlocutors in four other participating cities—Dakar, Ramallah, Istanbul, and Beirut. Through exhibitions, public programs, workshops, and an online publishing platform, it renders visible these art communities’ relationships to their physical and social environments.
Act I, an exhibition of 74 works by international artists in Sharjah used these elemental relationships as metaphors for an ecology of art production in the Global South, particularly the Middle East and North Africa. (Act II, consisting of two exhibitions at Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Beirut Art Center, will open on October 19.)
As founding director of Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for the Plastic Arts, Tohmé brings her deep engagement in this regional art scene to the Sharjah chapter of the Biennial. Her conception of the exhibition advocates for a revival of community-based institutions and hybrid practices as an antidote to the globalization of contemporary art and its alienating effects. Shifting between environmental and cultural metaphors and foregrounding locally based knowledge, much of the art on view suggested ways out of restrictive artistic, social, and political monocultures.
London-based artist Uriel Orlow’s multicomponent Theatrum Botanicum (2016), for example, addresses the effects of colonialism on local traditions in South Africa. His plant dictionary, What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name (2016), retrieves folk remedies lost in the wake of European settlement, and his video The Crown Against Mafavuke (2016) documents the persistence of these systems of knowledge in contemporary South African culture despite colonial attempts to criminalize folk healers.
Many of the works in “Tamawuj” elicited empathetic responses, including that of Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade’s O Peixe (The Fish), 2016, with its scenes of fishermen caressing their dying catches, and Beirut-based Jordanian-British artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s immersive sound piece Saydnaya (the missing 19db), 2017, which initiates listeners into the terrifying sensory deprivation used in the Syrian prison system. Palestinian artist Nida Sinnokrot’s installation When Her Eyes Lifted (1998/1999), delves even more deeply into the relationship between art and audience by implicating viewers in the creation and eventual destruction of the work—a constellation of screens, projectors, and sensors translates visitors’ steps into scratches on the film’s emulsion, rendering its images increasingly illegible.
As art capitals from Baghdad to Beirut and Cairo, and from Damascus to Istanbul and Ramallah become ever more inhospitable to creative expression, and as European and American institutions become ever more receptive to art from the region, artists risk becoming disconnected from their local context and audience. This endangered cultural landscape is symbolically represented in Iraqi-Kurdish Walid Siti’s ghostly sculptural map Phantom Land (2017). The decorative dividers that carve up this fictional territory stand in for the forces curtailing physical and intellectual mobility in the Middle East, including arbitrarily drawn borders, proliferating military checkpoints, and growing visa restrictions. Without the generative flow of ideas and goods that historically sustained this culturally porous region, it has become a fossil resembling the intricate geometry of traditional mashrabiyah latticework.
Siti’s installation resurrects memories of vanishing trade routes and the cross-pollination they facilitated among distinct cultures in the Middle East, North Africa, and neighboring lands. A port town located on the Arabian Gulf, Sharjah today retains a role in that fluid cultural exchange. For a few days every March since 2008, the Sharjah Art Foundation has hosted March Meeting, a three-day symposium on art production and programming. Artists, writers, and curators from across the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region gather there to exchange ideas.
The March Meeting is the animating force behind the 2017 Sharjah Biennial. At this year’s Meeting, Tohmé placed Sharjah itself at the center of her curatorial vision, calling the emirate an “idea factory” for creatives (the “ants of the arts ecosystem”) who return home “carrying back dormant seeds to a new environment where they wait for the necessary conditions to sprout.” With this metaphor, she connected the need to support homegrown institutions with their potential to effect political and societal change, even as she subtly revived the notion of care and cultivation embedded in the Latin roots of the word “curator.”
The seed metaphor recurs throughout the exhibition. International collective Futurefarmers’ Seed Mast (2017) is a fragment of a boat’s wooden mast that stands in for the collective’s project of transporting ancient seeds back to their origins. This reverse migration echoes the exhibition’s aim to revive the MENASA cultural landscape through knowledge embedded in its own geography and history.
The idea of cultivation is most overt in the works of two UAE-based artists, both of whom take the figure of the gardener as their starting point. Dubai-based artist Hind Mezaina’s Dubai Gardens (2017) draws attention to the UAE’s man-made green spaces through a captivating installation of blue-tinted cyanotype prints of plants found in UAE public gardens. These are presented in dialogue with a text by architect and writer Todd Reisz. In his anecdote about driving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai after a rain and sighting “a fragile coat of green” over the desert before it returns to its “masquerade of lifelessness,” Reisz echoes Tohmé’s idea of dormant seeds waiting to sprout.
Gardeners appear at work in Dubai-based Indian artist Vikram Divecha’s Beej (2017), part of an ongoing exploration of how public space in the UAE is negotiated by municipalities and residents. In Beej, the Urdu word for “seed,” Divecha engaged Pakistani gardeners to bring back seeds from their home country and plant them in a Sharjah roundabout. In Sharjah, Pakistani immigrant workers appropriate these grassy sanctuaries as resting places. Here, the gardeners become part of the ongoing exchange of labor and culture between the Gulf region and South Asia.
Berlin-based Fehras Publishing Practices drew attention to what is lost or problematized when art is seen outside the context in which it was made. Their Bilingual Camel (2017), a camel-shaped shelf structure holding Arabic-English bilingual art books, warns of the homogenizing effects of global art discourse. The figure of the camel, which has always been identified with the Middle East and historically served as a vehicle for intraregional mobility, has here been perverted into “Trojan Camel,” a vehicle for the contamination of its own culture. Taken together with Futurefarmers’ Seed Mast, it articulates the Biennial’s claim to its own definition of contemporary art, one that doesn’t require an abandonment of cultural, historical, and geographical specificity.
Which raises the question: How can cultural production be seen and understood on its own terms? Papua New Guinea–born artist Taloi Havini’s Beroana (shell money), 2015/2017, a sculptural installation made of replicas of indigenous shell currency from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, reminds viewers that Bougainville’s colonial government banned the use of the beroana in “transactions with white people.” Nevertheless, a vast quantity of shell money can be found in European museum collections, its original meaning and value stifled.
Are the new museums sprouting up all over the Middle East in the past decade the answer? Palestinian conceptual artist Khalil Rabah questions the suitability of European-style arts institutions to the Arab cultural landscape. An extension of a long-running project to imagine a museum for a state that still struggles to be recognized and for a people who have been alienated from their “natural history,” Rabah’s Palestine after Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments (2017) offers a futile exercise in museology. Declaring the whole project “cubist in its impossibility,” the artist presents an architectural plan for a site named The Lowest Point on Earth Memorial Park; a model for the Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garden that includes a tunnel; and a Botanical Department in Area C, Fields of Gold, represented by an installation of gilded barbed-wire spools.
Chapters in the four other cities participating in the Sharjah Biennial each responded to a different key word. Attia launched the first off-site project on the subject of water in Dakar in January; curator Zeynep Oz led a program dedicated to crops in Istanbul in May; curator Lara Khalidi responded to the idea of earth in Ramallah on August 10; in October, in Beirut, Ashkal Alwan will present a program addressing the theme of the culinary. The unlikelihood of a viewer’s seeing “Tamawuj” in its entirety may be intentional—and itself a kind of metaphor, insofar as it creates for visitors a kinship with many of the exhibiting artists, whose mobility has recently been restricted.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 134 under the title “‘13th Sharjah Biennial: Tamawuj.’”