A transformed biennial model
with Hoor Al Qasimi
A platform for local, regional and international art practitioners, scholars and audiences to gather in the name of contemporary art exchanges, biennials can serve as sites to nurture and invigorate communities with new perspectives. Also an unparalleled opportunity for artists to advance their practices (because it calls for ambitious experimentation), the gatherings can drive the advancement of contemporary art.
Positioning Sharjah Biennial, in particular, Hoor Al Qasimi says it “functions as a hub for the global south, allowing for the circulation of people and ideas while serving as a critical alternative to entrenched institutional thought.” A curator with a practice rooted in supporting experimentation, innovation and gathering for the sake of contemporary art, Al Qasimi established the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009. Giving credit to the late Okwui Enwezor, who conceptualised the curatorial thesis, Al Qasimi points to the ways Enwezor transformed the biennial model when he directed the second Johannesburg Biennial in 1997. “By doing away with many of the conventions of biennials at that time—including the national pavilion format, the appointment of a single curator, confining the biennial to a single, centralised venue or location and typically Eurocentric approaches—he opened the door for biennials to be more global, inclusive and open networks of exchange,” adds Al Qasimi.
An opportunity to advance a deliberate viewing of history as it unfolds and manifests itself in the present, Al Qasimi told FNB Art Joburg how “Rather than practicing erasure or approaching history as something that needs to be resolved, Sharjah Biennial 15 engages the present with the forces of our collective pasts, thus reframing it,” explains Al Qasimi.
Beyond its function for existing practitioners, one of the biennial’s important pillars is generating public interest and engagement in the them through a keen focus on outdoor public art and absorbing installations.
In Farah Al Qasim’s film, Um Al Dhabi (Mother of Fog), the ghost of a pirate who died in a siege befriends two young women. Presented on parallel screens, in a radio active green room engulfing audiences, the film uses the ghost protagonist to offer insight into piracy practice as a form of resistance when the path to justice is slippery and the past is an inescapable constant.
Filling a courtyard in Sharjah, Wangechi Mutu’s Mother Mound takes on a figure kin to those of Makonde body moulds. Depicting an expectant belly, the hill serves a dual function. Matrilineal, the Makonde people in Tanzania consider this body mask figuration a means to honour the recently deceased. For Mutu, the life-size expectant hill is a tribute to the resilience of the women who fought against the British army in Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion.
A sound-based installation, Hajrah Waheed’s Hum is a hummed medley of eight protest songs from the African and Asian continent. Discarding the songs’ lyrics, the soundscape of humming choirs occupy the empty space, filling it with a sound that can almost be seen and felt. Distinct yet subtle, undeniable and infectious, Hum reminds us of the emancipatory potential of vocal practices. A hushed, almost censored act, Waheed’s Hum reminds audiences how silencing cannot hinder resistance.
Enthralling, immersive city-wide activations like the Sharjah Biennial require negotiation. Negotiations encourage a mindful navigation of the spaces. In turn, mindful navigations create awareness. Although it is often private and unsaid, inclusive meeting the audience where they are, that awareness results in an autonomous, sincere engagement.
This review is a part of a series.