Review: The Sharjah Biennial Leaves the Echo Chamber of Western Art to Focus on the ‘Global South’

This year's edition of the show presents more than 70 artists.

Processional performance with Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni Mohau Modisakeng, Land of Zani (2019). Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Processional performance with Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni Mohau Modisakeng, Land of Zani (2019). Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

Under the direction of the formidably qualified and energetic Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, the Sharjah Biennial and its associated events have become cultural and intellectual lodestars. The impact of the biennial and the discussions it has generated are felt far beyond this sandy emirate between the Gulf of Persia and the Gulf of Oman. The title of this year’s exhibition, “Leaving the Echo Chamber,” seems to be a statement of first principles: this biennial fosters dialogues between artists from across the Global South and honors plural Modernist traditions.

What does that look like on the ground? For a visitor steeped in the preoccupations of the Euro-American art world, it’s disconcerting. Under the curatorial leadership of Omar Kholeif, Claire Tancons, and Zoe Butt, more than 70 artists and groups are participating in the biennial. More often than not, the narratives of colony, migration, slavery, and guilt explored in these work are not the ones those of us in Europe and North America are accustomed to. Neither are the art traditions they draw on.

 

A Legacy of Beauty and Violence

One of the largest displays in the biennial is Khadim Ali’s Flowers of Evil, which explores the normalization of violence in Afghanistan. The sprawling, multi-part work includes documentary and archival displays, painted works in the Persian miniaturist tradition, embroidered wall hangings, woven rugs, a sound installation, a large-scale public mural, and a metal sculpture. Between them, the works reflect craft techniques from Isfahan in Iran, Bamiyan and Kabul in Afghanistan, and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. The installation evokes a status quo in which the devastating weaponry of modern warfare has been drawn into ancient myths of military glory.

Khadim Ali, Standing Flames (2019) from “Flowers of Evil.” Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

Meiro Koizumi’s The Angels of Testimony explores guilt as individual and collective phenomena. Three videos blend across a single screen, centering on an interview with an elderly veteran of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). To either side, there is footage of young people reciting memorized accounts of his war crimes in public. The work is just devastating: in the center of the screen, we watch a very old man contorted with grief and guilt. Tears, snot, and drool cascade down his face as he contemplates the horrors he has witnessed and perpetrated. And they are horrors: mass shootings, the callous stabbing of a body with a bayonet, beheadings, grotesque sexual abuse. By memorizing and performing his testimony, a new generation embodies a collective historical burden, one that is rarely voiced.

Installation view of Phan Thảo Nguyên, Mute Grain (2019). Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

A view from the perspective of the occupied comes courtesy of Phan Thảo Nguyên’s Mute Grain. Past a gallery hung with the artist’s paintings on silk, a black-and-white video weaves history, fable, archival imagery, animation, and performance to tell the story of a terrible famine in North Vietnam (then French Indochina) during the 1940–45 Japanese occupation. The film is delicately done and very beautiful, mixing accounts of appalling privation and bereavement with the legend of a young boy kept alive by the ghost of his sister. The work received special mention from the jury of this year’s Sharjah Biennial Prize.

 

History and Myth

Works that address actual events by blending in fantastical elements provide the biennial with some of its most exciting art. Shezad Dawood’s Encroachments is a highly sophisticated virtual reality artwork—hands down the best VR art work this critic has experienced, and I’ve seen a few—that takes us through US-Pakistan relations. Starting with the stocked shelves of Lahore’s historic Urdu bookstore, Ferozsons, Encroachments takes a trip to the Richard Neutra-designed US Embassy in Karachi (a relic of the Cold War), stopping along the way to visit as an arcade for a game of Space Invaders. From the soundtrack to the books on the shelves, a huge amount of care has gone into Encroachments, but the work wears its painstaking research lightly, which results in a satisfying, engaging, and intriguing work.

Wael Shawky, an artist better known for video, is showing The Gulf Project Camp, a storyboard fable rooted in the recent history of the Arabian Peninsula, its religion, migration patterns, and petroleum politics. The drawings—shown against pink, sparkly walls—are lovely things, melding Shawky’s quirky fantasy universe with elements of early cartography, Islamic painting traditions, and straight-up political Surrealism.

Installation view, Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017). Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

As Michael Rakowitz’s The Ballad of Special Ops Cody suggests, myth and history are often so close as to be inseparable. This animated video was inspired by a real incident from 2005, in which fuzzy photographs of a captured North American soldier with a gun to his head were—after arousing genuine panic—discovered to have been mocked up using a lifelike doll sold on a US air base in Iraq. In the video, the pose-able doll (Cody) visits Mesopotamian temple statues at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. His ballad expresses his and the statues’ statuses as symbolic totems far from home: pawns in a much larger game.

 

The Power of Performance

The opening days of the biennial included a great quantity of performance, often set among modern ruins including an abandoned airplane and an old ice factory in Kalba on the Gulf of Oman. Like their settings, many of the works were spectacular and photogenic: Isabel Lewis danced in a tower of dust as prestige automobiles peeled round her in a circle. Along the waterfront, Mohau Modisakeng’s troupe of black-clad performers from South Africa led a procession along the waterfront honoring the Swahili Coast’s troubled history with the Arabian Gulf.

Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni Mohau Modisakeng, Land of Zani (2019). Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

Elements of both will remain in position until June (and Modisakeng’s performance will be repeated) but few other works from the live program will be, which seems to go against the biennial’s free-to-all ethos of cultural sharing.

As a fully paid-up member of the Euro-American echo chamber, god knows how many references, stories, and resonances I failed to see in my three days at the biennial. But perhaps that’s what leaving the echo chamber involves: a few tentative steps towards understanding the full extent of one’s true cultural illiteracy.

Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber, Sharjah, UAE, through June 10


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