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Beyond bureau de change robbery, Nkanga, Ogboh prizewinning efforts define Sharjah landscape


President and director of SAF, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi; HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi presenting Sharjah Biennial Prize to Otobong Nkanga PHOTO: SAF

Whoever visits Sharjah Biennial 14, in UAE, which opened March 7, 2019 and showing till June 10, 2019, will not miss the prize winning installations by Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh.

Sharjah, the same city where five Nigerians were caught for alleged robbery, is home to the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), which is one of the most visited art spaces in the world.

Themed, ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’, the 2019 Sharjah Biennial has on display artworks, including projects and commissions from over 80 artists selected across the globe.

Apart from Nkanga and Ogboh, another Nigerian artist, Leo Asemota’s work sculpture and drawing is also on display.

Perhaps, while the five Nigerians plotted to carry out their robbery operation on a bureau de change shop in Sharjah, the artists Nkanga and Ogboh were receiving the Sharjah Biennial’s most prestigious art prize.

Shortly after the biennial opened in March, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, member, Federal Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ruler of Sharjah formally gave the two artists the prize.

Mohamed Bourouissa, Shezad Dawood, Phan Thảo Nguyên and Qiu Zhijie also received special mentions for their projects. The jurors were Octavio Zaya, Homi Bhabha and Solange Farkas.

The Sharjah Biennial Prize was established in 1993 by the organisers and is currently being awarded by SAF. A jury appointed by the foundation selects recipients.

The winning installations, ‘Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past’ (2019), it’s a sight-specific project, which highlights certain trajectory of the host city.

Mounted in a ruin converted to art space at Bait Al Aboudi and the surrounding grounds in Al Mureijah Square, the visual and sound installations include, oval craters bordered by sand mounds. Filled with water brought in from the sea, the craters are spiced with salt. And generating what appears like a scientific experiment in the laboratory, the artists keep traces of saline just as the water evaporates.

The installations’ dual concepts come with sound generated in creative alignment to visual components. The sound contents are more instructive in what is described as representing “Emirati ‘rain song’ performed by children in Sharjah.”

However, Nkanga and Ogboh seem to treat visitors to the site differently: seeing the installations at night is absolutely not the same during the day. An informal visit to the installations during a dinner at SAF ground presented a different view entirely. The poetic coalescence of content, sound and light provided contrasting view compared with the image you get during daytime.

For Asemota, his works presented in installation format and titled, ‘The Intrinsic Tendency of The Ens Sign’ (2019) celebrates Edo people’s cultural value. Articulated in drawings, photographs and sculptures it narrates the yearly Igue rites while also revisiting the British invasion and conquest that led to the infamous looting of the former Kingdom of Benin’s cultural objects.

There is more in critical appreciation to the work, so suggests the accompanying texts of the exhibition: “Expanding on this triangulation of culture, history and reason, Asemota travelled to Benin City to observe the Igue rite and its subtleties as a stimulus for ideas that could push his project further. The Intrinsic Tendency of The Ens Sign (2019) is a multimedia installation. Evolving over the duration of the biennial, the ‘live’ artwork will start with drawings and sculptures presented on pedestals reminiscent of the richly embellished carved wooden agba ceremonial stools from the Kingdom of Benin. Following the presentation of these works will be a filmed performance by The Handmaiden, described by the artist as a creative being and the central figure in The Ens Project.”

Based in Antwerp, Belgium, Nkanga is no stranger to the Sharjah Biennial space. In 2013, she showed at the 11th edition of the event with performance and installation titled, ‘Taste of a Stone: Itiat Esa Ufok’.

Curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons, Leaving the Echo Chamber highlights the invasion of people’s lives by all sorts of communication contents and gadgets.

“It encompasses the noise of mainstream media coverage, conspiracy theories, sensationalised storytelling and social media feeds that reverberates within closed systems and networks that prevent people from interacing with one another in complex ways,” stated Hoor Al-Qasimi, President of SAF. “Although the biennial does not propose answers or solutions, it does offer opportunities to closely examine how stories are told and from what perspectives they are communicated and historicised.”

As a fast growing tour destination, Sharjah, also from September last year started adding new concept to the city’s contents. Still under the leadership of Al-Qasimi, the new addition, The Africa Institute, in March, organised a conference themed, ‘Global Africa: African and African Diaspora Studies in the 21st Century’. Held at Africa Hall, over 20 presentations from scholars were dissected.

The Africa Hall was also relaunched late last year with performances by Youssou N’Dour, among other African artistes and a symposium on geographical forms of abstraction, convened by Al-Qasimi, Okwui Enwezor and Salah M. Hassan, The Africa Hall, according to Al-Qasimi, was originally built in 1970s, but the purpose were not realised then.

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