Tamawuj, the Arabic title chosen by curator Christine Tohmé for the 13th Sharjah Biennial, is hard to disambiguate. It means ‘a rising and falling in waves; a flowing, swelling, surging, fluctuation; a wavy undulating appearance outline or form.’ An apt choice for a biennial that tries to liquefy the traditional format of a centralized event and instead provide multiple points of access. Lebanese-born Tohmé has used the means and premises of the Sharjah Art Foundation as a platform for international collaborations as well as programming off-site events in Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah and Beirut, where SH13 will end in mid October, with an officially designated ‘Act II’. It’s a timely decision, carried out against the backdrop of conflict, migrations and political upheavals all over the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, as well as on a global scale. As Tohmé notes: ‘We need to channel our thinking to flow in parallel to, and within, constraints rather than outside or against them.’
The biennial’s expansion occurs in a variety of ways: with a year-long educational programme (including paper and jewellery making, organic farming, water desalination and irrigation classes) in Sharjah; the commission of new art works and novels (by Iman Issa, Cristoph Keller, Metahaven and Karine Wehbé, amongst others); inside the addition of an impressive white cube on the coast of Sharjah at Al Hamriyah, and on a rich online platform (www.tamawuj.org) edited by Omar Berrada, Amal Issa, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, and Brian Kuan Wood.
If the structure of SH13 is supposed to be fluid, the four thematic keywords introduced by Tohmé – water, earth, crops and the culinary – crystalize in some of the 133 works scattered across the centre of Sharjah for ‘Act I’. These are clearly legible in works such as Lemos Auad’s installation A Moment of the Sky / Four Humours (2016/2017), consisting in a garden of medicinal plants; Uriel Orlow’s video The Crown Against Mafavuke (2016), which reconstructs a 1940 South African trial of a herbalist, accused of disrupting ‘scientific’ medical protocols because of his use of traditional remedies, and audio piece What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name (2016–17), a botanical dictionary whose definitions are based on nine indigenous South African languages; the performance Climavore (2017) by Cooking Sections, addressing climate change and the now obsolete seasonal cycle of food consumption by means of foods based on plants, fruits and grains growing in conditions of water scarcity, served on tables which replicate the pattern adopted by plants when congregating in arid environments).
In other works, however, the themes feel like an abstract frame forced upon individual positions, for instance, in Monika Sosnowska’s Façade (2013), a hanging steel sculpture of a crumpled architectural grid, or Oscar Murillo’s unnecessary monumental installation Condiciones aún por titular (Conditions yet not known), 2014–17, taking over the courtyard of Bait Al Serkal with excavations, sawn canvases, paintings and steel structures inspired by morgue tables, picturing the process of a personal archaeology. The most coherent section of the biennale unfolds in the spaces overlooking Calligraphy Square, gathering mostly videos and sound pieces, articulated around themes of violence, exploitation and obliteration (like the installations by Abu Hamdan and Eviner, more on those below). By contrast, in the monumental galleries of SAF at Al Mureijah Square, navigating the show proves more confusing, with mini group shows assembled mostly by means of formal affinities interspersed with isolated individual projects, like +/- 1791 (monument to the haitian revolution 1791), 2017, an outdoor installation by Johannesburg-based Dineo Seshee Bopape, who assembles, Voodoo-style, burned bricks, medicinal herbs, globes filled with petrol and seawater – all materials that can be used to fuel revolt as well as to heal malaise.
Of all the catchy academic jargon circulated during the opening panel discussions of the March Meeting, with an abundance of ‘fluidity’ and ‘temporality’, words like ‘subterranean’ and ‘latency’ were for me, the most revealing of Tohmé’s curatorial vision. The newly commissioned Underground Beuys (2017) by Istanbul-based İnci Eviner, for instance, is a captivating CGI video animation in which the artist reimagines concepts such as ‘justice, laughter, cloud, headscarf, family, woman, drum, soldier.’ Underground tunnels feature in Khalil Rabah’s Palestine after Palestine: New sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments, 2017, a large multimedia installation which sees the artist appropriating Western museum aesthetics to illustrate Palestinian history and ‘biodiversity’. Natasha Sadr Hagighian (with Ashkan Sepahvand) occupy the abandoned azure-tiled Sharjah planetarium with Carbon Theater Sharjah Edition 2017, a four-channel installation emitting soundscapes of various sites of energy extraction, from open air mines to industrial plants, including the terminal for LPG (liquid petroleum gas) of Sharjah National Oil Corporation – based in Hamriyah, next to the SAF’s new venue.
It’s evident that all references to, or critiques of, UAE-related contexts are latent and covert, and that the politics and restrictive and discriminatory legislation of the Emirates in general are the exhibition’s soft and blind spots. While Sharjah Arts Foundation continues to expand in the city’s ‘Heritage Area’ the presence of art in public spaces has decreased significantly in comparison to previous editions. One example, Beej (‘Seed’, in Urdu) by Vikram Divecha, is an imperceptible intervention carried out on a roundabout in the Al Naba’ah area: the artist asked two gardeners to plant and harvest seeds and vegetables brought back to Sharjah from their family farms in Lahore and Punjab. It’s difficult to judge if this signals a cautious lowering of volume in the public sphere, or a decision to do away with the spectacular, Insta-friendly mammoths cherished by the international art tourists on vernissage days.
As founder of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese association for Plastic Arts, Tohmé has a record of providing reflection upon complex, cultural identities and empowering productive ways to circumnavigate the limits of locality. When asked, during a panel together with her ‘interlocutors’ Kader Attia, Lara Khaldi and Zeynep Öz, how she responded to the fact that some members of the Gulf Labor Coalition were still denied entry to the UAE, she acknowledge the problem, but also reminded the audience that her confrontations with other travel bans and oppressive legislations occur on a daily basis, and that she can only do what is in her power, namely, to negotiate and persist.
Sharjah is an excellent place in which to question how such issues should come into play and should be tackled – especially when keeping in mind other lavishly-sponsored events in other parts of the world, possibly closer to the art circuit’s comfort zones. Perhaps one way of judging whether it succeeds or not is to look at its outcomes: a series of newly-commissioned works that will travel and reach other public spaces and engage in other arenas of debate. Here are my picks, in no particular order: