Three images from Sharjah Biennale 15: A view of the creek in Sharjah City, the logo for the Sharjah Art Museum and an image of the courtyard of the Bait Al Serkal building.

Islamic Art Biennales Part 1: Sharjah Biennale 15

Islamic art describes the art produced in lands where the dominant religion is Islam or Islam is the religion of the rulers of the country or region. It also includes art explicitly created in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings). Remembering that Islam is a way of life in some 40 countries is helpful.

The first institution dedicated to Islamic Art I have been to is the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. That was during a holiday back in December 2018. Earlier this year, I applied to join a four-day learning journey in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in March 2023. I was overjoyed to have been accepted to participate to get a chance at experiencing more Islamic art. Having been a follower of architect and artist Sumayya Vally‘s Instagram page, where she mentioned it, I planned to ensure that I visited the first Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah while there. I then figured it would be an excellent opportunity to visit the Sharjah Biennale en route to Jeddah.

Sharjah Biennale

My biggest snafu was only having a few hours to experience the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennale (#SB15). Ideally, one should spend about a week visiting the 5 cities and towns across the emirate where 300 works by 150 artists and collectives are installed. Sharjah is a 40-minute taxi ride from Dubai, and I arrived at the Sharjah Art Museum. I only visited three locations near the museum, including the museum itself.

The theme for SB15 was Thinking Historically in the Present. It was conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator, specialising in art history. He lived in New York City and Munich. In 2014, he was ranked 24 in the ArtReview list of the 100 most influential people in the art world. As reported by ArtNews, “Enwezor’s greatest intervention with [the] exhibitions [he curated] was to view art history as global, showing that artists based in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were making just as significant contributions as ones in the U.S. and Europe. These shows also envisioned the field of art history as something flexible and, by its very nature, incomplete, and Enwezor—a passionate, ambitious curator with a no-nonsense sensibility—worked tirelessly to reshape it over and over again. Ultimately, he succeeded in making the discipline more inclusive.”

SB15 was curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Al Qasimi is a curator who established the Foundation in 2009 as a catalyst and advocate for the arts, not only in Sharjah, UAE but also in the region and worldwide. Al Qasimi’s passion for experimentation and innovation in the arts is very evident in the scope of the Foundation. Her passion for inclusion and her visionary leadership is evident in that her CV includes curating the second Lahore Biennale and co-curating the exhibition entitled The Khartoum School: The Making of the Modern Art Movement in Sudan (1945–Present) (2016–2017).

And the inclusivity (a theme important to Enwezor and Al Qasimi) in the presentations I visited was evident.

Storytelling through photography

The first-floor wing, which I encountered first, consisted mainly of photography works from various artists and covered a range of topics. Hiroji Kubota’s works covered a series of photographs: one on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan and the other on the Black Panthers in Chicago. All photos were taken between 1968 and 1970. Kubota’s work covers the end of segregation, the rise of Black Power and the anti-war movements in the United States.

As a South African, Omar Badsha’s works were instantly recognisable – mention of Griffiths Mxenge gave it away – before I even read the title or artist statement about the project. Once We Were Warriors covered the fight against segregation in South Africa with images taken between 1981 and 1999 so, pre- and post-democracy footage. Badsha’s images focused on the under-reported stories of women in the anti-apartheid movement.

The lapse of time and the impact of climate change was also another theme captured in a poignant series of photographs by Solmaz Daryani, entitled (hauntingly) The Eyes of Earth (Death of Lake Urmia), which chronicled the disappearance of the lake and the tourist activity around Lake Urmia in Iran, once the largest salt lake in West Asia. The subject matter is personal to Daryani, as her uncle ran a hotel on the lake. That business was decimated by the disappearance of tourists as the lake’s grandness evaporated, literally.

Another project that explores photography’s ability to tell a story is Pablo Bartholomew’s project from 1987 to 2015 titled Indian Emigres. The series of photographs explores the Indian community in America. As time passed, it did the same for Indian communities in France, Mauritius, England and Portugal. The enquiry is about the two worlds of the migrant Indian and how they relate: the inherited world and the adopted world, all of which are inspired by the migration undertaken by his parents because of invasion or political decisions; a story of exile and displacement.


Contemporary works from the Islamic art world

The upper floors contained artworks by artists from the Middle East, mainly paintings with some sculptures interspersed. I particularly enjoyed the landscapes painted by Sheika Sarah Al Qasimi and Abd al-Rahman Zainal, while the work entitled Time Passing by Patricia Millns of various plants under glass domes is a reminder of how beauty changes over time.

The landings between floors contained various sculptures, and the material used in the sculptures by Dr Abeer Issa of burnt natural clay with metallic glaze accentuated the delicate features of the statue. Another set of works by Mohammed Al Astad of metal objects wrapped in canvas and buried at Taraif City beach in Abu Dhabi and retrieved two weeks later to display unique motifs from the rust which forms on the canvas and an audio-visual work documents Alustath’s process to create the individual works.


Portraits of life and the world (dis)order

I returned to the ground floor and explored the southern wing. The first work I spent a long time on was Rolling Figures 2.0 (2022) by Malagasy artist Malala Andrialavidrazana. The collage contains world atlases containing details of nineteenth-century conquests and the key fauna from each country while subverting the signifiers of economic dominance and challenging the icons of territory.

I also enjoyed works by Jawad Al Malhi reflecting the social fabric of life in Palestine East Jerusalem and Mame-Diarra Niang’s Same Guent Guil (2021), a set of “non-portraits” viz. blurred subjects. There was also Obaid Suroor’s project entitled Postcolonial (2020), which comprised mixed media landscapes of traditional Emirati architecture painted on traditional Emirati fabrics.

Vaunika Saraf’s 76 textile panels entitled We, The People (2018-2022), which are embroidered visualisations (archival and imagined) of protests, are set on the map of India. Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s project entitled Heroes (2021 – ongoing) is a series of paintings which pay homage to well-known and unsung heroes of the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. I spotted Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Chris Hani and wondered who the other heroes represented were.


Around the world through sculptural and audio-visual works

The next stop was Bait Al Serkal. The building was once the personal residence of the British Commissioner for the Arabian Gulf and later became the home to members of the ruling Al Qasimi family, as well as Sharjah’s first maternity hospital in the 1960s. With a history like that, the walls undoubtedly have many stories to tell if they could talk! The venue contained many video and sculptural works, some interacting with the building or the light inside and outside to create new images.

The Americas

The Willing by Helina Mateferia amplifies the work of BIPOC women activists. It was a work that invited the viewer to join this coalition of the willing to advocate for furthering this important work by framing themselves through a mirror to join the other activists – I certainly did! The most identifiable were the likes of Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and others who defied racial oppression and patriarchy in the U.S. through their activism.

Two works covered the themes of cross-cultural infusions in one’s background. Hassan Hajjaj’s video entitled Gnawa Capoeira Brotherhood (2023) covers Gnawa, a communal performance of religious songs, rhythms, dance and poetry that draws from traditional Yoruba deities called orisha, as well as Sufi-Islamic beliefs. I found it very interesting, having first formally learnt of Orisha during ArtX Lagos. The other culture outlined in the documentary is Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form disguised in dance and music.

Aline Motta’s Water is a Time Machine (2023) is a dialogue between her mother’s memories and keepsakes and the short story “Father against Mother” by Brazilian essayist Machado de Assis which depicts the depths of slavery in Brazil.

Africa and the Middle East

On the upper floor, I discovered the works by Zohra Opoku (with their influences from Ghana, such as gold and Batik cloth, for example) and Bahar Behbani’s Gardens of Desire, which was a sculptural work inspired by the gardens in Iran, often cited to be amongst the most beautiful in the arab world.

All of these works surrounded the work My Mother’s Memories, a Mound of Buried Brides (2023) by Wangechi Mutu – a stone sculpture in the courtyard, while wooden panels depicting painful scenes were in the passages around the square yard. The work reflects on the resilience of women who fought in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya as it was on the precipice of independence – an all-too-familiar and essential piece for many countries which had been colonised.


Last stop, and not wanting to leave

The last stop of my short tour was Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, a creekside heritage house. The location was the personal residence of pearl merchant Obaid bin Hamad Al Shamsi until the 1970s.

I managed to visit the four exhibition spaces of the works of Shiraz Bayjoo, Naiza Khan, Raheleh Filsoofi and Hoda Afshar. Filsoofi’s installation Only Sounds Remain provides a sample of ceramic vessels, out of which sounds emanate when the vessel lids are lifted. The exhibition also comprises a video and sounds from the artist’s childhood in Iran.

So, in the end, it was more about the inclusion of artists from around the world, sharing stories from the Islamic world and beyond than it was about Islamic art. Many of those stories will resonate with anyone because they are a human experience. As mentioned, I was kicking myself that I could only spend such a short time seeing what was on offer. I plan to attend SB16 and enjoy the complete programme of venues next time and see more of the emirate.

SB15 runs until 11 June 2023. If you visited SB15, please share your thoughts in the comments – we would love to hear about your experience!

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