Sharjah Biennale: Do Art – and Biennales – Change the World?

2015 has been the year of art biennales that attempted to change the world – or at least make the art world have those difficult conversations it likes to avoid at its fancy gatherings. The biggest and the most talked about of these was, of course, the Venice Biennale, curated by superstar curator Okwui Enwezor, who made it a point to stress his desire to critique the politics of national identity, the exclusions that are inevitably tied to the creation of national histories, and capitalism itself as a prevalent, violent, and exclusionary force. Pavilions and events connected to the Venice Biennale were preoccupied with reflecting Enwezor’s overarching and ambitious critique, yet the flash and the elitism of the art world remained as much a part of Venice as in previous years; asked JJ Charlesworth on Artnet, “Could it be that in the partying and the networking, and all the talk of politics and capitalism, the real point for all these countries and non-countries is to be part of the new machinery of the global economic world order, of which art biennials have become the cultural window-dressing?” No matter how earnest Enwezor’s intentions may have been, art seems to be inevitably reeled in by that machinery, and the biennale has become the gutting table on which the artist – and all the striving that brought their work the attention of elite choice-makers – is eviscerated and displayed for the powerful buyer.

Given the pointedness of Charlesworth’s question, I wonder whether it is possible for exhibitions and biennales to extend an invitation to the global elite—who, after all, can financially support artists—and create spaces in which art and artists can challenge prevailing aesthetic, political, or social views? That is, can art remain a location for re-thinking, for both contemplation and action—and still ask questions that make us uncomfortable—in the era of the art fair and the biennale?

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being invited to the Sharjah Biennale. Straight afterwards, I flew to Joburg, and whilst there, I saw a more modest exhibition curated by Athi Mongezeleli Joja; and just at the beginning of November, I went to Recontres de Bamako: Biennale of African Photography (more on that later this week). None of these were on the scale of Venice, and the partying was definitely on a lower scale, but these biennales and exhibitions revolved around some similar concerns to those that Enwezor may have hoped to get the art world to consider. The Sharjah Biennale invited a group of art writers to its “March Meetings”—a series of presentations, lectures, panel discussions, and site visits designed by the curatorial team to cultivate critical conversations about the issues significant to the shaping of that year’s biennale. This year, the questions circled around the idea of what constitutes the nation—real, ephemeral, imagined and material. What does it mean to create national identity and belonging in the twenty-first century, and what are the consequences? More specifically, what does it mean to be a nation—or create belonging within a bordered identity—in a time when the nation state, and identity politics that often accompany the nation seem more fragile than ever, more passé, more distrusted? Is it possible to establish nation and identity, considering impermanence, decay, change, and environmental forces as stark as they are in a desert landscape? What about the impossibility of controlling the shape of how others—those within, and those outside—may see us? Establishing nationhood is as precarious as high-school popularity contests: if those who are powerful and instrumental to whether others recognise our sovereignty do not acknowledge us, we will inevitably have difficulty making our way through the world. And those within our borders, too, may not recognise us as legitimate: it’s difficult to encourage a unified identity when those within find the disciplinary measures taken in order to shape our identity too painful to accept. That leads us to the crucial question: is nation and identity—as nationalists and proponents of identity politics often claim—a coat that can shelter the many colours of its inhabitants, or a punitive and corrupt veil that is constraining and injurious even to those contained within its boundaries?

These are dangerous questions to ask in fragile political situations, where nation-building is underway at a manic rate in not just symbolic but material terms (witness the interminable construction projects at every turn, the ceaseless clanking of metal and concrete, the wiry, desiccated figures of imported labourers eating their meals using pieces of cardboard for plates), whilst the question of what will sustain this nation (where will the water come from for this new green vista, sprouting in the desert? What will happen when the oil wealth runs out?) cannot be far from anyone’s mind. Perhaps mania helps avoid contemplation. 

Thus, despite the lack of clear curatorial intention in the choice of works by Sharjah Biennale 2012 curator Eungie Joo, it was a delight to find several artworks that encouraged contemplation and thoughtful play. More than that, being in a location whose rising structures, irrigation systems, food preparation and toilet cleaning were dependent on visible (yet invisible) and precariously positioned migrant labour, juxtaposed by the presence of artworks that pointedly commented on the precarity of “civilisation” was disquieting and unsettling in the way that art should. Perhaps even more remarkable: that the Sharjah Art Foundation President Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, and the Al Qasimi family as a whole want to explore these ideas, even as they are positioned only twenty minutes from the Gulf state that unthinkingly builds to forget precarity.

The “March Meetings” workshops took place in May this year, due to some logistical issues. Writers and several artists were invited to the sessions, which began in the morning, and went on well into the afternoon. From the first session—which focused on Past Disquiet: an archival and documentary exhibition that excavates the history of The International Art Exhibition for Palestine (Beirut, 1978)—we were oriented towards thinking about the ways in which nationhood is formed collectively, through the recognition of neighbours and allies. That opening conversation between Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti highlighted the significant role that art exhibitions—especially those outside the framework of museums and institutions— played in international anti-imperialist solidarity movements of the 1970s, bestowing value on particular struggles for nationhood—in this case, the contested conceptual borders of Palestine.

The second day of the meetings began with Maxim Gvinjia, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia (a former Soviet colony), and currently its Ambassador in the UAE, in conversation with Egyptian artist Hassan Khan. The Republic of Abkhazia is only recognised by seven other nations (and three of those seven are also not recognised by most “legitimate” nations). Gvinjia admitted—whilst speaking about the precarity of his position as an ambassador of a country that is not recognised—that he just got fired from the position of Foreign Minister: “I’m doing this Mickey Mouse job for so many years that I don’t see anything else.” And yet, duty remains: although it “was never [his] ambition to be a politician; it’s always been a job.” He then jokingly emphasised the close relationship between the work of representing a nation’s face and theatrical performance, revealing that he “always wanted to be a superstar or a rockstar; I was even in a hip hop band.” Khan then pressed Gvinjia, asking whether what he is doing isn’t borne out of conviction, whether it did not require more emotional involvement that he was willing to bare. Would he call himself a “nationalist”, ushering the populace of Abkhazia back in time to an imagined location—rather than to a physical place—a time and vision of imagined unity aided, perhaps, by the expulsion (or voluntary departure due to the 13-month-long war that began in August 1992, depending on whose point of view) of Georgians, who were the largest ethnic group in pre-war Abkhazia. Khan was adamant that states are problematic—built on exclusions that create disastrous conditions. He pointed that it took mass mobilisation (which he distinguished from a mindless mob in the throes of “hysteria”) in Egypt to oust Mubarak, standing firm in the face of opposition from his powerful allies in the West; for Khan, “total revolution” cannot happen in a “year or a moment”—it is an on-going thing that has to be negotiated and fought for. Gvinjia only conceded, “all states and governments are temporary; sometimes the state survives in name, but the government changes.” He repeated a truism that many recognised: people wanted revolution, and they got it, but now they didn’t know what to do. Nationalism, he, concluded, was the “fast food that people liked”.

We saw a film, “Lost Letters To Max”, created and directed by Eric Baudelaire. The film followed Maxim Gvinjia, and references to the letters written by the two men to each other. As a sort of continuing performance of his work as an ambassador, Gvinjia then held “office hours” in the auditorium of the March Meetings spaces. What does a conversation between an artist and an “Anambassador” reveal? Seated on a gilt chair behind a heavy, polished desk, flanked by two flags, the Anambassador took questions about how Abkhazia manages the day to day operations, including getting visas for citizens wishing to travel—which seemed to be one of the most annoying consequences of being a non-nation. Here, He may host events, greet visitors, hold discussions and invite guests. The Anembassy is a performance (can it be anything else?); it is not official and it has no function in an operational sense. It will operate as a ritual that is both real (since Max was Foreign Minister) and a fiction, but a fiction meant in a very political sense: fiction as a territory of resistance for those who are given no space in the real.”

The next set of discussions addressed what the curator called “the state of the state within an increasingly fragmented context and time”; the most educative part of this was arts director of the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah Khaled Hourani’s description of the two-year obstacle course he and his collaborators ran through in order to bring a Picasso to Palestine for the first time. Hourani described what it took to get Picasso’s “Buste de Femme” (which he jokingly said was a “rubbish” Picasso—some third-rate thing that the Netherlands allowed them to have after endless negotiations) to travel from the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands to the tiny International Academy of Art-Palestine in Ramallah. What was significant about this rubbish Picasso? That having it in Palestine, to allow Palestinians to be able to see a Picasso like any other people who would only complain about the museum’s entry price—this made a symbolic statement about Palestine’s nationhood. His narrative, and this exercise demonstrated the seminal role that particular artworks created by ubiquitously recognised artists—especially, perhaps, those European artists one associates immediately as a “thing” one must know about and see if one is interested in art—can play in publicising an occupied people’s struggle for recognition and normalcy. The impossibility of surmounting the obstacles would make any person give up, accept this denial of participation in ordinary things as part of occupation. One of the biggest hurdles Hourani and his collaborators faced was in getting the work insured; no insurance company usually associated with the transportation of artworks wanted to touch this one. Who did? A company that insures tuna fish—they accepted because, apparently, “it was easier to insure a Picasso than tuna.”

Transportation and checkpoints were another contentious issue: the painting cannot be exposed, yet at the checkpoint, the whole crate was required to be opened. When it arrived at Qalandia, in the no-man’s land between Israel and Palestine, where they could not see what was going on—no Palestinian guards could be there, and they could not contact the Israeli guards—they asked news media personnel and their cameras to act as guards. This odyssey eventually became a conceptual work, and a film, Picasso in Palestine, documenting the hurdles that Hourani—and Palestinians as a whole—face as they attempt to be recognised, to become a part of the world of normalcy and ordinariness. Tellingly, noted Hourani, at the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem, just 20km away, there are several Picassos—out of the view of most Palestinians. He added, with understated irony, “If we are an independent state, we wouldn’t care about getting Picasso in Palestine…[but] we are never mentioned when museums speak about showing work.” So by bringing some common artist’s work—and not even a beautiful work at that—at a more than ordinary cost (a quarter of a million dollars), one proves one’s existence, one’s right to enter that world of ordinary existence.

During the Present Future of Emancipation group discussion, the person who had, perhaps, taken some of the most dangerous actions in order to emancipate not only herself, but to help make way for other women, was the quietest in the group. This was Lala Rukh, artist and early feminist activist in Pakistan and founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Lahore, who was there with her young interlocutor, artist, writer and curator Mariah Lookman, representative of a new generation of women activists in Pakistan. There she was, in denim jeans and a t-shirt, at an energetic sixty-seven years, recounting anecdote after anecdote about what it was like to live under the Zia-ul-Huq regime’s violent, repressive, and censorious martial law, and what she and her women counterparts faced as they went out into the public sphere to demonstrate against Zia-ul-Haq’s Hadood ordinance and the Law of Evidence, both of which made it impossible for women to testify against abuse, because it was designed to question their competence to testify without having male witnesses to the crime. WAF was composed of women who had been working, as journalists, in theatre, as academics; their first demonstration was to make an outcry, at the airport, about the banning of the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team in 1981; another time, they had a public chaadar burning (about which there was a lot of disagreement, because WAF members had varying opinions about whether doing such a symbolically incendiary act would bring too much negative attention). Together with another organisation she belongs to, Simorgh collective, a women’s resource and publication centre, Lala Rukh also participated in carrying out studies into how schoolchildren were being impacted by changes to their curriculum, textbooks, the censorship enforced on popular media such as films and adverts. This study was eventually published: Re-inventing Women: the portrayal of women in the media-the Zia years”. As she said on a recent interview on Zubaan,

The kids that have come out of that [post Zia-ul-Haq] education have actually been quite religious. I mean, we were secular people but our children are religious, because they’ve been through that education system. Although some things have changed and a lot of contradictory things are taking place now…On the one hand, you have globalization and exposure to all kinds of media but on the other side, you also have the Taliban types. So they’re somewhere in the middle and some do see that this kind of religious extremism is not acceptable. But if you end up in an argument with any of these kids, they will defend religion to death.

All the while, she remained an artist; her drawings and photographic works are considered to be among pioneering works in the South Asian minimalist tradition.

Lala rukh

The restraint evident in her artwork is the very opposite of her voluminous energy, political narratives and activism. It is as if, trapped in that wiry body full of energetic outbursts is a centre of meditative beauty. Her paintings, which we got to see at the gallery at The Sharjah Art Museum, were small jewels of silver, grey, and black: invitations to come close, to contemplate stillness. “River in an Ocean” (mixed media on photographic paper), for instance, is a meditation on the disappearance of self into the vastness of oneness with a great and all-absorbing other. In one variation (1993), the path of the river through the landscape and its entry into the ocean is unmistakable: directed and full of silvery purpose; in another, earlier iteration (1992), the speckles of the river’s energy are already part of the sea water, glistening in moonlight coming through cloud cover. Here, Lala rukh lets the individual self of the river be lost in the great body of the ocean.

***

After these discussions, we finally had time to see the artists’ work, which were in several locations in the city, mostly within a walking distance or a short taxi ride. After a grueling day of talks and debates, two Egyptian art journalists and I walked in the late afternoon heat—temperatures were hitting the 40s—promptly getting lost, of course, looking for the main exhibition spaces. At times, I acted as the emissary, asking Indian shopkeepers for directions, and at others, it was my Egyptian colleagues, Dina Kabil, Head cultural section at Al Ahram Weekly, and poet and journalist Zein Alabedin Khairy, who asked (their dialect of Arabic and that spoken in the Emirates are too different for clear communication, but inevitably, there were Egyptians there, too, minding the shops and small restaurants) for the way to one of the main exhibition spaces in the Arts Area. We were told: follow the city wall: high, thick, with beautifully carved gateways (all locked), and we will come to an open doorway. We were sticky with heat and thirst. We got water and juice from a shop, and were rallied when the shop owner said, yes, just a little more. That is where people are taking their kids to play cricket. And indeed, I’d read that one artist had created a cricket pitch on the grounds (Gary Simmons’s “Across the Chalk Line”), intended for it to be a “real use” space. So we knew we must be close.

When we did finally find the opening in the city wall that led to the tranquillity of the collection of galleries—low, cool, modernist-minimalist buildings that were a colour that matched the sand, with some intricate iron fixtures that harkened back to Sharjah’s heritage—we wound around the maze of buildings, looking at the little maps given to us and the direction boards that appeared here and there, searching out the buildings containing the works that each of us first wanted to see. Of course, we made many mistakes, and walked into the “wrong” building many times more than the “correct” one, revealing works that sometimes left an impression, and at others, made us wonder why the curator had included it.

Art Spaces-Interior

Whose work was at the top of my list? That of Ethiopian born artist Julie Mehretu. I waked in to one of the larger buildings, not realising that I’d finally found the right gallery, and spoke to the museum guard, asking about where her work might be. It turns out he was Nigerian; so we did a quick greeting based on our shared, imagined “African” identities. He walked me through a turn in the building, and there they were: enormous maps, complicated as cities riddled with our conscious actions, and the human unconscious driving that endless labour. Contemplating Mehretu’s massive canvases in real life is to be invited into journey that goes ever inward into the landscape of the subconscious. They are monumental in scale, with the power embodied by Richard Serra’s metal cenotaphs. But Mehretu’s paintings contain intricate, criss-cross of complex brushwork that draws the viewer closer, rather than demanding that we stand back and be imposed upon by the work. Close up, the scratches of paint on the canvas look like calligraphy marks, the black and amber hues layered over each other. But unlike calligraphy, which depends on creative leaps within a rule-based world, Mehretu’s brushwork draws attention to chaos, to how pointless human endeavour might be. Those marks could signify the disordered-orderedness of dense human habitation and human movement: we build material infrastructures that help us situate ourselves, we layer our lives with the solidity of our webs of social relationships, and then, we find them constraining and decide to do something completely other than what the structures ask us to do. In one of Mehretu’s canvasses, I saw the solid network of an established cityscape, dense and rich with generations of love and irritation. In another, I saw a flock taking off—a collective flight that one might think cannot happen without accident. Yet somehow, movement happens, despite the chaotic wingbeats.

Each time we stepped out of the air conditioning of a gallery and into the gravel crunch of pathways connecting the buildings, puzzling out which building this or the other artist’s work might be, the sun was setting progressively. So every few minutes, the light and the atmosphere surrounding the buildings shifted. The salt of the sea adjacent to the buildings was on our skins, and now we could taste the spray. The electric lights, housed in beautiful ironwork lamps came on, and everything around us was bathed in warm amber.

Then, as we stepped into Taro Shinoda’s contemplative installation, titled “Karesansui”, we heard the evening call to prayer: it was with this evocative and powerful call, inviting us into a state of mindfulness, that we went though the doorway to see the work. The museum guard responsible for minding this space was especially careful—making sure we stepped on permitted pathways, and did not disturb the sand. A rectangle of fine, white desert sand was circumscribed by a delineated border of rounded black pebbles; surrounding the black pebbles were pale grey pebbles on which visitors could walk. The first thing one notices as one steps in to this space is that there are two smallish conical indentations in the surface of the sand, undermining the perfect smoothness of the surface, but at the same time, drawing attention to perfection. Later, I learned that those conical indentations were ever expanding, because sand was trickling out progressively through 3.2 milimeter shutter holes into holding tanks one metre deep underneath. At one end of the sand rectangle, there was a small hut like structure – an engawa, or a shaded wooden platform—where one could, explained the guard, sit on the raised platform under the thatched roof of the hut, and contemplate. What to contemplate? Impermanence, of course.

static1.squarespace
Image via Tazuri

Later, Shinoda showed us the monitoring station built in the back—cameras revealing how the sand is—continuously and very, very slowly—trickling out through tiny openings under the bed of sand. He had to set this monitoring station up because at first, the sand kept clogging up the hole, and the process would stop. Shinoda’s artwork is meant to make the observer only have an elemental relationship to the object, and because of that, be moved to think on emptiness; being shown the engineering that went into the construction of a device was, perhaps, like seeing the Wizard of Oz’s backstage area. But instead of being demoralised by the fakery employed by a figure projecting power, here, I think that my Egyptian colleagues and I were delighted and even more impressed. What made Shinoda come up with this? He and other artists, when they first came to visit the site, were taken on a trip into the desert. He’d never seen anything like it, he said: vast stretches of rolling dunes. This artwork was his response, given the context of desert nations that are doing their best to build monuments both cultural and material to permanence. How did he make the sand in the pool so smooth? That problem posed real trouble for the perfectionist. He tried several methods, yet remained unsatisfied. Finally, someone told him about an Indian guest worker—a wizard who, using some sort of “magic” (a broom, actually), makes the sand perfectly smooth every two weeks. I asked, from several people, who this wizard was, but neither Shinoda nor others central to the Biennale knew his name.

On one of the last days, the artists, writers, journalists, and critics who had come for the March Meetings were taken to off-site exhibitions. First, to Egyptian artist Hassan Khan’s installation, which commented, wryly, on the attempt to construct nations on obsessive compulsive fantasies of symmetry and elegant design, and the disintegration of those dreams into unviable—and inelegant forms—of capitalism. His installation was exhibited in what was affectionately known as “The Flying Saucer”: itself an ode to capitalist dreams gone awry. It is a hexagonal building that was originally a French bakery, then a fried chicken shack that was eventually abandoned. On the roof, Khan set up two billboards with works by Andeel, an Egyptian cartoonist: an adult man is speaking on a mobile phone, whilst holding his young daughter’s hand. They walk in front of a ubiquitous cityscape (though one iconic skyscraper in the distance is unmistakably the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), under a blazing yellow sun and a blue sky pale with heat. The little girl is carrying a red monster—a toy that appears to be sluglike and immobile, but with a fierce set of dagger-like teeth set in a semi-circle in its gaping mouth. She is staring google-eyed at her father; her own, minimal-dash of a mouth shows her mute absorption of the scene. The adult human’s head and face has multiplied into three: He is a modern god of many heads, occupying as many positionalities as this location requires. Each speaks in a different language: Arabic, Urdu, and English. He asks, “Is there no respect at all?” in three languages. The answer, of course, to such a rhetorical question is “No.”

Flying Saucer, exterior

Inside the Flying Saucer, panels of coloured glass filtered the heat and light of early summer, making it appear as though we were inside a jewelbox—though the plastic nature of these jewels was accentuated by the kitsch structure. An 8-minute video, The Slapper and The Cap of Invisibility, playing on loop featured a slapstick comedy—two men in a nonsensical argument, pointlessly going back and forth—containing tropes recognisable to any who watched Egyptian TV. Next to the video, two sculptures: “Dryscrapers And Buttshakers”. One, a sleek, minimal column of crystalline clarity (the “Dryscraper”), its cascade of smooth ridges reflecting a multitude of colours filtering through the plastic panels set over the glass windows surrounding the hexagonal building. The second sculpture (the “Buttshaker”) is less elegant and eye-catching; in fact, whilst we were drawn to the glimmering column, we avoided the other—a blob of clear plastic, roughly made of irregular discs gathered in a circle. It’s the shape that a child might give to a hastily drawn daisy with too many petals. Through these juxtaposed structures and the loud, cackling, arguing men in the adjacent video, Khan examines our desires for permanence and perfection, the cold structures that reflect our ideas of what the pinnacle of capitalism will appear to be, as well as the imperfect discards of capitalism. In between these two—the epitome and its antithesis—are confusion, anxiety, and irony.

Hassan Khan-Dryscrapers and Buttshakers

After this, we set off to see Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas’ installation at the Kalba Ice Factory, an hour’s bus ride through the desert and rolling mountains on perfectly constructed, gleaming black tarmac. Villar Rojas is known for his impressive, large-scale, site-specific sculptural installations that transform their immediate environments. At Kalba, his work didn’t disappoint: in a building that used to be an ice factory—again, in disuse—he used a mix of cement and local clay to make rectangular structures resembling high-rises and skyscrapers.

Villar Rojas 1

But these structures were destined to decay, even as we watched: inserted into the beautiful topography of coloured clay and cement were bits of date palms and still-identifiable husks of coconut. There were bird skulls and shells from the gulf of Oman nearby that his workers and collaborators had brought in. Some of the lower structures even had seeds scattered on them, which germinated when rain came through the open roof, producing sprouting plants—which inevitably  died when the rains stopped, their plans unable to come to fruition. All these vegetable objects were strategically imbedded into the cement and clay, and as they decayed, they left lovely womb-like spaces, indentations, and pock-marks. In one moment, one sees the permanence and solidity of these towers and the beauty of their imposing monumentality; in the next, the vibrant, life-supporting platforms they provided ran out of sustainability, and all one sees are the ephemeral dreams and anxieties on which they were constructed.

Outside, the temperatures were at their noonday highest, even though it was not yet midsummer (a hotel employee told me that recently, a law asking construction firms to give workers a respite when the temperatures hit 50C was passed. But he wasn’t sure that this rule was followed, in reality. The temperatures reach their absolute impossible, and the radio announcers will declare that it’s pushing from 48C to 49 C—he made a insistent, shoving motion with his foot to accentuate his narrative—but it’s almost never declared to be 50C. How is this possible, he asks, rhetorically). I walked past small gatherings of workers, sitting in the back of small structures adjacent to the art spaces, built to shelter them and provide a space for them to cook meals. Some of their faces and bodies looked distinctly like a home that my family left behind some forty years prior: the date palms they sat under were different, but they could have been island fishermen under coconut palms, facing not the Gulf of Oman’s rising and falling tides, but those of the Indian Ocean. When I spoke to them, it turned out one of them is Sri Lankan. Of my family’s ethnic group (his coastal Sinhala sounds so different from what is spoken in my family that I had a little trouble keeping up). The other, a Tamil man from Tamil Nadu. They have been here, at this location, from the beginning of Villar Rojas’ project. They mention that a worker was injured in the making of Villar Rojas’ structures. But…they do not know what has happened to him. At home, the different clans to which these men belong (who also claim me, at times that are convenient or lucrative to them) are warring. Here, like all precarious groups, they are in it together—and perhaps this is a cliché. They have cooked a small meal and eaten—after helping prepare a sumptuous meal for us, waiting inside a café next to the art spaces: large langoustines and other delicacies, presented to us not by these men, but beautiful Filipina women and Filipino men.

Kalba, worker's quarters

On my last morning, I went on my own to see a closer off-site installation. To get to the warehouses at Port Khalid, one walks along the concrete border that guides the estuary of the Sharjah Creek flowing into the sea, and at a small signpost, one waits for a boat to take one to the other side. The boat arrives every fifteen minutes; I didn’t have to wait long on the dock before a small, open boat with a noisy motor pulled up. By that time, several people had lined up. We all boarded the boat, they nimbly and elegantly, despite its rocking in the wake of passing boats, and I with more fear. Those experienced to this routine sat immediately on the side that would not be hit by the heat of the sun when the boat turned towards the opposite shore. We paid out the equivalent of a dollar. After fifteen minutes, the boat reached the other shore, and I asked directions, vaguely describing something to do with art. No one knew. They had construction sites to hurry to. I saw a signpost—and followed it, staying on the shaded side of a row of date palms. Under one, two men were asleep. Eventually, after a ten-minute walk, I saw another signpost on the sun-side of the path. Large lorries kicked up dust on the road, and the other side was a quiet blaze. Even at 9:30 in the morning, crossing that 20 metres to the other side of the road meant sweat leapt out of every pore.

Warehouses Port Khalid-Boat trip2

Warehouses, Port Khalid

Two separate installations: the first, in a derelict building with an open front, where the wall had been either knocked down or never completed, an installation by the curator’s brother, Michael Joo: Locale Inscribed (Walking in the desert with Eisa towards the sun, looking down). In the adjacent room, where it was even more closed and stuffy because no air could circulate in that space, the inevitable blue-shirted, black trousered security guard sat on a plastic chair. He was mopping his face with a sopping cloth. I greeted him. He was from Nigeria, from the north of the country, near Kano. I looked at the installation, then asked if I could walk up the stairs near the guard’s station. Upstairs, more signs of a building once in use, though it was not clear for what. A deep layer of dust and sand covered everything, including the occasional broken chair or desk. Dirty prayer mats lined one room. I asked the guard: how is it for you, staying here hour after hour, as the heat becomes unbearable, with only a cloth to mop his face? His only answer: “It is our duty.”

The installation next door, Asuncion Molinos-Gordo’s WAM (World Agricultural Museum, which she originally made in Cairo in 2010, was housed in a smaller, closed building that was air-conditioned. Molinos-Gordo’s multifasceted installation could be mistaken for an educational museum for children, documenting the ways in which farmers first created seed banks, and how, in the late twentieth century, multinational companies enforced draconian copyrights of genetically modified seeds. But Molinos-Gordo positions what look like classroom displays—a little handmade-looking, a little educational-textbook-kitschy—without a direct critique, so one had to know the problematic ways in which multinationals, under the banner of “feeding the world”, have edged out and destroyed farmers and their livelihoods (and many farmers to suicide), and made the global population dependent on seed that cannot be grown without the chemicals produced by the same company. Wandering through the small, closed rooms (perhaps this building once served as offices for petty officials who minded the nearby warehouses’ business), the air conditioning was a welcome relief. The guard here was from Chennai, and was delighted that I’d visited his city, and that I thought well of it. He suffered visibly less than his Nigerian counterpart at the warehouse. I don’t think he and the other guard at the warehouse took turns, either, working shifts in one building, then the other, sharing their suffering. But during my visit, there was a respite, for a few minutes. We took a selfie.

Warehouses, Port Khalid-Molinos-Gordo

The few conversations I had with construction workers, the coffee-makers, and the security guards were both deep and banal, with that level of intimacy one can only have with complete strangers from whom nothing is expected. Yet, there is the possibility of breaking a long-held emotional fast. In the end, I knew that the labour conditions here are not too different from that of labour conditions one might find for similar immigrant workers here in the US. There is no way to pretend that there are terrifying labour conditions in the Gulf states for certain pools of workers, but I know I must look at in a global context of near-indentured and indentured labour, especially in the industries of construction, agriculture, and maintenance (food preparation, cleaning). What is largely invisible to the consuming public in the US is highly visible here.

Shallow as my conversations were, what insight one can get from the security guard, the builder, the maintenance worker—each of whom live with and experience the Biennale’s artwork every day, but are rarely acknowledged as caretaker of a nation’s heritage, or, in Sharjah’s case, its attempt to position itself, opposite a sister-Emirate that has dedicated itself to self-construction through hyper-materialism, as a site of cultural and intellectual production. Some of these labourers helped actually co-create that art—maintaining the iconic smoothness of Shinoda’s sand, and building the monumental pillars designed by the Argentinian artist, for instance. But at Kalba, when I asked after the “other constructors” of Villar Rojas’ pillars (reportedly, twelve men helped Villar Rojas construct his monumental pillars), the curator bristled at the question: “That’s a stretch of the imagination,” Joo said, to call the construction workers co-creators. She is clearly of the school that worships the artist alone as master and creator, wherein the labour that accompanies that of “master” is made invisible. Strange that the very constructs Joo purportedly wanted to question in theory during the March Meeting discussions, or conceptually address through artworks, was not something she wanted to apply to the practicalities of building and maintaining artworks. It’s funny how one can subscribe to the philosophy of monument construction (whether it be physical buildings or an artist’s or a curator’s ego) as a means of ensuring one’s self-worth—so much so that a question about the construction of material objects is perceived to be threatening enough that it needs to be slapped away. Given that the artworks in question were, in fact, meant to begin a conversation about impermanence, her reaction bordered on the absurd.

When one attends exhibition spaces like that of the Sharjah Biennale, and experiences the political, philosophical, and aesthetic messages that biennales or even smaller, but politically significant exhibitions are attempting to project, it’s impossible not to think about the role that art, and the shaping of art play in shaping the nation. Despite the popular belief that art exhibitions and biennales—and the curators who fashion them, as well as the artists who are invited to them—remain critical of dominant narratives within those locations, many are actually instrumental to fashioning national identities and the ideologies of nation states. Curators and artists alike are more likely to reflect the face of their community and its values, even though they may simultaneously ask us to question certain portions of those values. Curators and artists are liable to being co-opted to create “heritage”, to signal togetherness after a long battle, to confirm solidarity between ordinary people despite political differences. Art can be harnessed as capital to coin legitimacy for nations, powerful leaders, and power itself—and curators, perhaps more than the invited artists themselves—play a crucial part in this political game.

Still, not everyone in the Emirates is blind to the complications that are part of everyday reality here—and difficult conversations about these realities are permitted. In another gallery in Sharjah, the Maraya Art Centre, an exhibition curated by Murtaza Vali—himself Gulf-raised as a kid in a family of Indian descent, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “Accented” highlighted a very different approach to questions one cannot avoid in the Gulf, with each artist engaging directly with migrancy, the lack of belonging one feels as part of the generations born there with no right to live and work in the Emirates, of always being out of place. Here, the majority of the population is “accented” and marked as different, other—in the very location they and their families helped build. In one small, easily overlooked piece, “Shaping Resistance”, the artist listed each person who contributed his labour in alphabetical order: Tariq Mahmood Muhammad Riaz Ahmed, Sajad Hussain Bughio, Muhammad Shabbir Ahmad Din, Vikram Divecha, Shahid Ahmad Bashir Mahmood, Mohammed Mostafa Mohammed Junu Mia. The artist’s name was just one in the list. For this project, the artist gained permission from the Sharjah Municipality to conduct a two-month collaboration with Pakistani gardeners responsible for maintaining the park hedges at the Al Majaz Waterfront, where the middle classes of Sharjah enjoy leisure time with their families. Divecha and his collaborators then subtly disrupted the formal and precisely manicured order of park shrubbery by shaping hedges into playful and irregular shapes: conical shapes here, a wave like formation there. First, the gardener-collaborators drew sketches that they identified as “khubsoorat” (Urdu for “beautiful”). Ideas for hedge designs were culled from this pool of sketches. In the gardens, through which I walked with Valli later, I saw modest bursts of playful self-expression permitted to otherwise invisible laboring hands—evident in shrubbery that was already growing over to erase that moment of visibility. At Maraya Art Centre, what I was seeing were some of the notebooks with sketchesa bird, some vegetation, a boat and a flag emblazoned with an easily recognisable sliver of moon, denoting a state that wants to illustrate its devotion to Islam. One person contributed small pieces of paper with writing, and these roughly torn rectangles were arranged in a small circle of petals.

After the previous day’s experience at Kalba, how revolutionary that small gesture seemed.

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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