Since 2013, Sharjah Art Foundation has been promoting the work of photographers in the GCC through an annual exhibition called Vantage Point Sharjah. Each year, photographers of all skill levels are invited to submit images based on a theme. Previously, these have included “Portraits and People”, “Architecture and Urban Landscape”, and “Still Life”.
This year, for Vantage Point Sharjah 6, the theme is “Performance”. According to the catalogue, “the performance process can be embodied in a gesture, movement or action, or it can be documented through the traces of a past presence or time”. If that all sounds a bit nebulous – and Sharjah Art Foundation wouldn’t be the first gallery guilty of this – the exhibition, which is running until September 8, is surprisingly coherent. Inevitably, the quality of the work is variable, but a definite pattern does emerge. Whether it is a domestic scene we are looking at, or something more absurd and radical, the sensation of energy is insistent and invigorating.
In Kamran Farooqui's black and white photo The Apology of Socrates, which the Dubai photographer took during a performance of the play at the American University of Sharjah, a great gown flaps disobediently above an actor's head.
We can’t quite tell whether he is pulling it on or throwing it off, but what would have been a fleeting moment on stage here becomes a permanent, urgent gesture.
This dynamism is more explicit still in the extraordinary series Lightbreakers, by Ali Haji, a journalist living in Bahrain, in which the movement of break dancers is traced by light streams. It is as if a trail of phosphorescence is following the human form, which writhes with abandon. The sensation of freedom is overwhelming.
Even the more sedate photographs, such as Hanadi Nasser Al Suwaidi's The Machine, have a kinetic quality. The Sharjah photography enthusiast has presented a single track mark made by a vehicle in the dirt. It's a quiet image, shot at sunrise, but it nevertheless implores the viewer to keep moving.
“No one understands your dreams as much as you do,” the caption reads. “Do what you believe because in the end it is your own life.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition, however, is a series of ethereal, large-scale photographs by Afra Bin Dhaher, an artist from Dubai who has also had her work displayed in Berlin, Istanbul and New York. Women wrapped in swathes of pastel cloth recline in a variety of poses. But there is something amiss – Bin Dhaher has presented these women vertically, rather than horizontally, which gives the impression that they are somehow floating in space. The movement is serene, nothing like the jagged actions of the break dancers.
The variety and overall quality of the photography at Vantage Point Sharjah 6 vindicates this ongoing project. “We have long recognised the role art can play in the life of a community,” says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation.
“For the first iteration of this photography exhibition, we asked photographers to explore the theme ‘Life and Landscapes of Sharjah’. The open call for submissions was announced in the summer of 2013, and the first exhibition took place that autumn. We had a great response from both professional photographers and amateurs with a passion for photography.
“There was a visible growing enthusiasm for photography as an artistic medium, and the exhibition offered viewers an opportunity to enjoy the work of local photographers.”
Vantage Point Sharjah, which was originally only open to people in the UAE, but which now accepts submissions from across the GCC, continues to grow year on year but the mission – to develop photography in the region – remains the same. The more successful the exhibition becomes, the higher the calibre of work it will attract.
But perhaps most importantly, Vantage Point Sharjah appears to be inspiring young people to engage with photography. You only have to flick through the catalogue for Vantage Point Sharjah 6 to see that much of the work on display is by people under the age of 40. Laila El-Taweel, an art student at the University of Jordan, was born in 1995. Alaa Amin, who is from Egypt but lives in Sharjah, was born in 1997.
Sharjah Art Foundation should be applauded for displaying their provocative work, which is sure to galvanise other young people to pick up a camera.
"Interest in photography in the UAE continues to grow every year," says Sheikha Hoor. "Increasing numbers of UAE residents are taking up photography, educational institutions are offering a wider selection of courses, and more arts organisations are exhibiting photographic works.
“We at Sharjah Art Foundation are contributing to this growth, not only through Vantage Point Sharjah, with its diverse artists and audiences, but also with our own educational offerings and other exhibitions throughout the year.”
I’m excited to find out what they do next.
Vantage Point Sharjah 6 is at Sharjah Art Foundation until September 8. For more details, visit www.sharjahart.org