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Fresh depths, familiar textures… thinking historically at Sharjah Biennial 15

By By Tajudeen Sowole, who just returned from Sharjah, UAE
19 March 2023   |   3:45 am
Expanded beyond its traditional city venues, Sharjah Biennial 15, in UAE, which has its theme linked to late curator, Okwui Enwezor, featured quite a number of artists of African descent. Over 150 artists from more than 70 countries showed at the event.

‘Decolonised Structures (2022), by Yinka Shonibare

Expanded beyond its traditional city venues, Sharjah Biennial 15, in UAE, which has its theme linked to late curator, Okwui Enwezor, featured quite a number of artists of African descent. Over 150 artists from more than 70 countries showed at the event.

The 15th Sharjah Biennial themed, Thinking Historically in the Present, was said to have been conceived by Enwezor before his death in 2019. Now curated by the Sharjah Art Foundation’s (SAF) Director, Hoor Al Qasimi, the 30-year-old biennial opened its 15th edition on February 7, showing till June 11, 2023. Some widely known artists showed little surprises and freshness, while others created depths of critical content, mostly in installations.

During a tour of the Sharjah 15 Biennial, Dutch artist, Patricia Kaersenchout’s tapestry, titled, Of Palimpsest and Erasures (2022), celebrated the unsung and, perhaps, “undocumented” African women of the transatlantic trade in slave era. The massive piece welcomed guests at the entrance of Al Hamriya Studio, in a diptych that germinates bunch of bananas and women with children at farm. Both farm scenes, sandwiched by green monochrome of drawings of plants, highlighted women as industrious parts of the obnoxious era of man’s inhumanity against man.

Quite a number of other artists’ works in installations and multidimensional mediums shown at the Hamriya space prepared visitors for the depth of presentations ahead. For example, few steps into the venue, Mary Sibande’s installation, A Retrogress: Scene 1 (2002), presented enough for critical engagement within the postcolonial and decolonization framework.

Opposite the Hamriya Studio, seven artists’ works were mounted inside another facility known as Old Al Diwan Al Amiri.

From sculptures to paintings, drawings and video installations, the twin venues of the Biennial at the Sharjah city outskirt escalated the curatorial spread of the event.

Imposing at the immediate entrance of the Al Amiri were some familiar textures from Yinka Shonibare CBE. Yes, the artist’s signature couldn’t be mistaken for someone else’s, even in phosphorous moment. But one hoped that something fresh should be in the offering, as guests were herded through the statues.

The British-Nigerian artist’s display of seven reduced-life-sized statues, Decolonised Structures, tells the story of British colonisers arrogance, in Africa and Asia. More of interest were the diversity of fashion that came with each identity of the past and robed in Dutch wax fabric.

And quite of common weapons, among the colonisers, were objects depicted by Shonibare, such as scrolls and swords as signs of authoritarian mentality.

However, the need to be more aggressively fresh, particularly, showing in a biennial, was missing in Shonibare’s Decolonised Structures; too familiar for critical appreciation. The excitement of large-scale gatherings such as biennials, traditionally, is to generate energies of surprises. For Sharjah Biennial 15, Shonibare’s Decolonised Structures lacked any freshness or surprise.

A historic space known as The Flying Saucer, right in Sharjah city displayed the busts-like works by Peruvian-American, Kambui Olujimi, which were mounted on a blueish sand-filled floor. Wrapped with walls of gold colour mural drawings, Olujimi’s works radiated significant rays of critical contents. It also offered a slight interactive moment in keeping the “innocence” of the blue sand as visitors were asked to wear an opaque cover over their shoes “not to stain the sands.”

Perhaps, there was no better space than The Flying Saucer, among the nine venues of the Sharjah 15 Biennial that deserved to complement the energies of visual radicalism in Olujimi’s works. An architectural masterpiece that beamed creativity to the city centre, The Flying Saucer has its development dating back to the 1970s, taking different roofings through history. But those decades of history notwithstanding, the star-shaped Flying Saucer seemed to have sustained its main design identity from 1980s to 2020, so explained some pictures on display at the basement of the building.

A cone-shaped sound installation by Hajra Waheed, among 15 works, shown at Al Mureijah Square asserted the beauty of experimental art that is, traditionally, generated at art biennial events. Waheed’s Hum II (2023), came rhythmic multi voices in descending and rising tones, against the background of a conical structure, providing amazing poetic-eco energy.

Deservedly, Waheed’s sound installation Hum II, was among the Sharjah Biennial 15 prize winners. Other winners included Bouchra Khalili who received the Prize for The Circle (2023), and Doris Salcedo who was given the Prize for Uprooted (2023). Other recipients included Lee Kai Chung, Gabriela Golder, Amar Kanwar, Tania El Khoury, Ibrahim Mahama, Joiri Minaya and Varunika Saraf who received Honourable Mentions.

Telling the transatlantic slave trade story – from the perspective of a direct descendant of the victims – in visual culture rendition is not exactly common. Afro-Cuban artist, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ installations of large-size paintings, floor spot-like lighting and boxed sands, Murmullo Familiar (Family Whisper), presented such uncommon visual narration.

Campos-Pons’ efforts at loading the canvas with many contents, perhaps, led to the artist’s struggle in filling the walls with huge size paintings. It wasn’t exactly clear if the large size of paintings really energised the installation, in any way. Perhaps, being a commissioned installation – not exactly sight-specific – the huge sizes of the paintings was meant to add as much critical contribution to the entire body of work. It was doubtful if ‘large is art’ perspective was actually needed for Campos-Pons to communicate her thoughts.

Indeed, without the large sizes of the paintings, the body of work in floor installations of sands and lights would still pass the message. So, what has huge size of the paintings got to do with the SAF-commissioned installations by Campos-Pons?

Another SAF-commissioned installation, My Mother’s Memories, a Buried Mound (2023), by Wangechi Mutu, celebrated the resilience of Kenyan women against British colonisers. Mutu is arguable, one of the top artists to have emerged on the contemporary art from Africa scene in the last two decades.

Installations from Magdalena Campos-Pons’ Murmullo Familiar (Family Whisper), shown at Sharjah Biennial 15, in UAE.

In her Sharjah Biennial work of both site-specific and separate sculpture series, Mutu, no doubt had so much space to ventilate history. While the main work mounted inside the courtyard of a 19th century Bait Al Serkal, converted venue radiated quite a ray of critical appreciation, the sculpture Buried Bride also emitted poetic memory of ‘lost in battle’ women of courage.

In the Sharjah Biennial 15 curatorial note, Qasimi tracked how Enwezor inspired her career through Documenta 11, in Kasel, Germany, in 2002, curated by the late curator. “When I became director of Sharjah Biennial, Enwezor ‘s example was a formative influence on the institutional trajectory we mapped out for this platform,” Qasimi stated. On the theme of the 2023 Sharjah Biennial, Qasimi disclosed that the phrase ‘thinking historically in the present’ first came from Enwezor in 2005.

And when the yearly March Meeting of SAF started inside the hall of Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts, during the the tour of the biennial, Qasimi’s conversation with select members of International Biennial Association (IBA) highlighted Enwezor’s role in global curatorial practice.

The conversation flagged off the Talk’s theme, The Postcolonial Constellation: Art, Culture, Politics after 1960. When the Art Talk continued at Africa Hall, over 50 speakers participated in the March Meeting that lasted for four days.

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