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Sharjah Biennial: Shaping the Nation Through Art

A version of this article was originally published by Africa is a Country.

By M. Neelika Jayawardane

2015 has been the year of art biennials attempting to change the world—or at least force the art world to have the difficult conversations it likes to avoid at its fancy gatherings. Yet art is inevitably reeled in by the machinery of capitalism and the practices of elite consumer culture, with biennial and art fairs becoming 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. Is it possible for exhibitions and biennials 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 biennial? 

Earlier this year, I was invited to the United Arab Emirates to attend the “March Meetings,” organized by the Emirate of Sharjah’s Sharjah Biennial. These meetings are 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 biennial. When one attends exhibition spaces like that of the Sharjah Biennial, and experiences the political, philosophical, and aesthetic messages that biennials (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 a nation. Despite the popular belief that art exhibitions and biennials—and the curators who organize them, as well as the artists invited to them—remain critical of dominant narratives within those locations, many are actually instrumental in fashioning national identities and the ideologies of nation states. Curators and artists alike are more likely to reflect their community and its values, even though they may simultaneously ask us to question certain aspects 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.

This year at the March Meetings, 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 21st 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? 

These are risky questions to ask in fragile political situations. Thus 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 “civilization” was disquieting 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.

Three installations addressed these questions about impermanence and precarity that accompany nation-building projects, especially in the context of desert nations that are madly engaged in building monuments—both cultural and material—to permanence. The first, Taro Shinoda’s contemplative installation in the Art Spaces, titled “Karesansui”. When Shinoda and the other artists first came to visit the site, they were taken on a trip into the desert. He’d never seen anything like it, he said: vast stretches of rolling sand dunes. “Karesansui” was his response: a flawless sheet of sand, draining out through two invisible holes in the understructure, leaving two equally flawless conical indentations in the bed of sand. How did he make the sand in the pool so smooth? That problem posed real trouble there 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 who he was from several people, but neither Shinoda nor others central to the Biennial knew his name. 

The second instillation, Egyptian artist Hassan Khan’s installation 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. 

Inside the Flying Saucer, panels of colored glass filtered the heat and light of early summer, making it appear as though we were inside a jewel box—though the plastic nature of these jewels was accentuated by the kitsch structure. One, a sleek, minimal column of crystalline clarity (the “Dryscraper”), its cascade of smooth ridges reflecting a multitude of colors 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. 

Finally, Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas’ installation was set up 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. 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 the still-identifiable husk of a 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 were 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 pockmarks. 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.

Passing conversations with security guard, builders, and maintenance workers, each of whom live with and experience the artwork every day often provided me with incredible insight into the art. However, they are rarely acknowledged as caretakers of a nation’s heritage, or, in Sharjah’s case, its attempt to position itself as a site of cultural and intellectual production opposite a sister-Emirate that has dedicated itself to self-construction through hyper-materialism. Some of these unnamed and unacknowledged labourers helped actually build that art—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,” she 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 the “master” is made invisible. It was disconcerting to note that the very constructs that this curator purportedly wanted to question during the March Meeting discussions, theoretically or conceptually through artworks, was not something she wanted to apply to the practicalities of building and maintaining artworks. Philosophically, the art world can appear to be committed to questioning monument construction as a means of ensuring one’s self-worth; but ask a question that probes at creative ownership, and one may fracture an artist’s or curator’s ego. 

In another gallery in Sharjah, the Maraya Art Centre, “Accented”—an exhibition curated by Murtaza Vali (himself Gulf-raised in a family of Indian descent, before living in Brooklyn, New York)—highlighted a very different approach to questions one cannot avoid in the Gulf. Each artist engaged directly with issues connected to 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—accented and marked as different, other—in a location they and their families helped build. In one small, easily overlooked piece, “Shaping Resistance”, the artist of the piece listed each person who contributed her/his labour in alphabetical order. His name was just one in the list: Tariq Mahmood Muhammad Riaz Ahmed, Sajad Hussein Bughio, Muhammad Shabbir Ahmad Din, Vikram Divecha, Shahid Ahmad Bashir Mahmood, Mohammed Mostafa Mohammed Junu Mia. Each had placed a notebook with sketches—a bird, some vegetation, a boat and a flag with the 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. 

*****

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M. Neelika Jayawardane is associate professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego and an honorary research associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She is a senior editor and contributor to Africa is a Country, a web magazine of African political and cultural affairs

[Photos courtesy of M. Neelika Jayawardane] 

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