Timeframe: Three decades of the Sharjah Biennial

Longest-running arts event in the UAE is preparing for its 15th staging this month

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The Sharjah Biennial has come a long way since it was launched in 1993.

It is the UAE’s longest-running art event and, over the past 30 years has grown into a sprawling, city-wide phenomenon bringing some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists to Sharjah.

The event this year will feature artworks from more than 150 artists and collectives, representing more than 70 countries.

While the first Sharjah Biennial underlined the beginning of the emirate’s long-running drive to becoming a regional arts hub, it was in 2003, when Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi took over as curator and artistic director, that the programming expanded to look at more contemporary and international artists. It also began featuring themes that seemed to have a finger on the pulse of topical issues.

For instance, its seventh edition, in 2005, revolved around issues of belonging and identity. It was curated by Palestinian-Armenian artist Jack Persekian, Canadian-American academic and artist Ken Lum, and Swiss-Iranian-American art expert Tirdad Zolghadr. In 2007 was held under the theme Still Life and explored ecology and the politics of change. The event was curated by contemporary Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem, English curator Jonathan Watkins, and art historian Eva Scharrer. It significantly expanded that year, being held at Sharjah Art Museum, Expo Centre Sharjah, Heritage Area and the American University of Sharjah, as well as several outdoor locations in the emirate.

The biennial grew exponentially after the establishment of the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009 as the institution made the event one of its core initiatives. Its exhibition programme for the ninth year was titled Provisions for the Future and was curated by art critic Isabel Carlos. Its performance and film programme, Past of the Coming Days, meanwhile, was curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, who last year was appointed as SAF’s director of performance and senior curator for the visual arts.

In 2011, the biennial explored the uprisings taking place in the Middle East at the time. Held under the theme, Plot for a Biennial, it was curated by British art historian Suzanne Cotter and Canadian-Lebanese art academic Rasha Salti, alongside Lebanese-Armenian artist Haig Aivazian.

Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, took over the curatorial helm in 2013. The event was held under the title Re:emerge: Towards a New Cultural Cartography. It featured more than 100 participants from 41 countries showing new commissions, music, films, performances and talks as well as the annual March Meeting. The event re-examined the westerncentrism of knowledge in modern times and explored the relationship between the Arab world, Asia, the Far East, North Africa and Latin America.

The 12th biennial in 2015 was curated by the US curator of contemporary art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Eungie Joo. The event was held under the title The past, the present, the possible, and it grew to include the city of Kalba on the Gulf of Oman as an exhibition site.

Tamawuj was the theme of the biennal's 13th run. The theme was derived from the Arabic noun, which is defined as a rising and falling in waves. The event was curated by Lebanese curator Christine Tohme, who is also the founder of Ashkal Alwan — the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts. It took place over five segments, running from October 2016 to January 2018. The event encompassed exhibitions in Sharjah, alongside projects in Beirut, Dakar, Ramallah and Istanbul. It also had an online publishing platform.

The 14th event, themed Leaving the Echo Chamber, explored the possibilities and purpose of producing art in the face of news that is derived from a monopoly of sources. It included more than 80 established and emerging artists as well as 60 new commissions. It was co-curated by Vietnamese art writer Zoe Butt, Egyptian art historian Omar Kholeif and Guadeloupe-born art critic Claire Tancons.

Updated: February 03, 2023, 6:01 PM