This year’s March Meeting (MM), ‘Active Forms’, formed the framework for six concurrent exhibitions of modern and contemporary Arab art organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). The theme was prominently signposted, yet its meaning was not directly addressed in MM panels or the exhibitions’ curatorial statements—only loosely referred to in the MM guide as ‘acts of organizing’ considered fundamental to artistic and cultural production.1 While organising is a form of action and integral to the production of art and culture, is it distinctly an active form? For an artist, curator or art historian, the latter evokes ideas of dynamic aesthetics, such as oppositional relationships within media that create a sense of friction or movement. Viewed via this broader lens, SAF’s spring exhibitions offered multiple ways to consider art’s traction through formal relationships, as well as its purchase with wider cultural spheres.
A similar quest for purchase has been high on SAF’s agenda since its formal establishment in 2009. To date, the foundation has built a myriad of arts infrastructure that includes the Sharjah Biennale (est. 1993), the annual March Meeting (est. 2008), a collection, outdoor cinema, and as of 2013, six white cube gallery spaces. The complex occupies much of Sharjah’s old city, whose buildings and walls have been restored and integrated into the foundation’s offices and venues (Bait Al Serkal, the former nineteenth-century home of the British Commissioner for the Arabian Gulf, for instance, was the location of a major survey of Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian, co-curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev). Navigating the Foundation’s labyrinthine locale while visiting the exhibitions was an architecturally awakening experience, where tripping over doorsills—a characteristic of Middle Eastern architecture—became a recurring riff.
The potential for dialogue between art and site in this context is great, and was fully realised in SAF’s presentation of John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015). Akomfrah’s video installation is a feat of production and the imagination, which succeeds in weaving disparate elements into a seamless narrative. In the work, we see footage of slave ships, the hunting and gutting of whales, panning shots of fossils, coral, pastoral and oceanic landscapes, accompanied by spoken excerpts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’s poem ‘Whale Nation’ (1988). The uniting theme of these references is the sea, a place as much of expectation as exploitation, where migrants have historically been subjected to the harsh realities of colonial and maritime labor and violence. Projected at night in a roofless enclave, the work had a profound effect, its evocation of geological time reflected by the black expanse of Sharjah’s nocturnal sky.
Another highlight among SAF’s spring exhibitions was Zineb Sedira’s Air Affairs and Maritime Nonsense. Here, Sedira’s key works were presented, among them Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers) (2010), a video that synthesises her research on photographer Mohammed Kouaci and her interviews with Kouaci’s wife, Safia; and her photographic series Sugar Silo (2014), Sugar Routes and Sugar Surface (both 2013), which show sugar stockpiled, awaiting deportation, and empty storage sites that have been marked by its presence respectively. It is difficult not to be touched by the integrity of Sedira’s art, a feeling that manifests in works like Mother Tongue (2002), where we see Sedira engage in an intimate conversation with her mother and daughter in Arabic, French and English, and an estranged dialogue between her mother and daughter. The videos and their modest format (displayed on cathode ray tube monitors) are refreshingly honest, and evince no ostensible judgment about migrant generations and their differences; only that with time, all memories and languages fade if unrecalled.
Nowadays Sidera is invested in valourising the work of her peers and inspirations. In one room these formed the subject of two works—Laughter in Hell (2018) and The Forgotten [Condemned] Journalists of Algeria’s Black Decade (both 2018)—which examine the dark humour of media and comic book literature produced during the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002). The sardonic humour of these works was given a new lease of life in large-scale wall vinyls showing sequences from select comic books, and recordings of interviews with living Algerian journalists and comic artists reflecting on their and others’ experiences of ‘the black decade’. A lighter shade of humour coloured Sedira’s titular work for the exhibition, Air Affairs (2018), an informal installation of maps, photographs and archival materials, which trace her journey along the route of the now defunct British Imperial Airways. While the colonial jibes were visible in her hyperbolic approach (repeated photographs of Sedira dressed in 1930s Western garb at airport terminals, for instance), the tone of the critique was familiar and somewhat underserviced by the work’s slapstick tone.
Contrasting these contemporary presentations were two monographic exhibitions. The first, Mona Saudi’s Poetry and Form, comprised sculptures made from Jordanian limestone, travertine, Lebanese stone and black marble. Born in 1945 in Amman and trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Saudi saw in stone a means of expressing key tenets of modernism, such as geometry and symmetry, which are reflected in her sculptures’ circular and interlocking motifs. Saudi’s sculptures are a revelation for anyone unfamiliar with Arab modernism, the naturally vivid hues of the stones reverberating under scores of cross-hatched lines etched by Saudi across their surfaces. The second exhibition, Latif Al Ani’s Life Through The Lens: 1953 – 1979, was a collaboration between SAF and the Arab Image Foundation presenting digital reproductions of the Iraqi photographer’s silver gelatin photographs of factory workers, farmers, laborers and Iraqi women. These photographs, often revealing their subjects in candid positions and situations, were exhibited alongside Al Ani’s commissioned photographs of Iraqi political dignitaries and events. In the exhibition, the two groups of photographs were shrewdly separated, allowing viewers to distinguish their different subjects and agendas.
It was this kind of display that highlighted the care of SAF’s curators in contextualising modern and contemporary art from the region. While highlighting the aesthetic qualities of works, the curators also took account of political influences and sensitivities which have, and continue to shape the production of art—particularly in the Middle East. The immaculate presentations of the exhibitions and their extensive research are no doubt bolstered by resources that art institutions elsewhere could only dream of. An easy cynicism could be applied to this scenario—‘anyone with this much money could curate this well’—yet there is strong evidence to support the contrary: of money-rich institutions curating simplistic, populist and unimaginative exhibitions. It was therefore inspiring to see important works of recent times—Naeem Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), commissioned for Documenta 14, and Halil Altindere’s Wonderland (2017), which was shown at MoMA PS1 in 2015—presented in ‘Active Forms’, a group exhibition of works from the foundation’s collection. Both these works address marginalised subjects requiring rehabilitation, whether the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement on intellectual and cultural thought in Bangladesh (Mohaiemen), or the Romani communities being driven out of Istanbul’s Sulukule’s neighbourhood as a result of urban redevelopment projects (Altindere). If SAF’s spring exhibitions were a benchmark for the kind of institution it aspires to be, then there is surely real traction in its role as ‘a catalyst for collaboration and exchange within the Middle East and beyond’.2
1. ‘March Meeting: Active Forms’, Programme Guide, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2018, p.2.
2. ‘Sharjah Art Foundation: Mission and History’, http://sharjahart.org/sharjah-art-foundation/about/mission-and-history.