The New York Times

Middle East
March 9th, 2011
At Sharjah Biennial, Interpretation of a Region Defined by Rebellion

Vinita Bharadwaj

DUBAI — At first glance, the painting “Blessing Upon the Land of My Love,” by the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, looks like the scene of a massacre.

A canvas of red drips and splotches, it covers the floor and steps of a tranquil courtyard inside Bait Al Serkal, a heritage building and former hospital in the emirate of Sharjah. On closer examination, however, the floor is also decorated with foliage typical of the Basohli Hills in Kashmir, painted by Mr. Qureshi in the modern miniature style for which he is best known.

The site-specific project is one of more than 65 works specially commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial for its 10th edition starting Wednesday — an eight-week program of visual art, film, choreography, music, video and publishing, built around an enigmatic theme: “Plot for a Biennial.”

Jointly curated by Suzanne Cotter, the British curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, and Rasha Salti, the Lebanese creative director of ArteEast in New York, in association with the Lebanese artist Haig Aivazian, “Plot” is scripted around a constellation of keywords like treason, necessity, insurrection, affiliation, corruption, devotion, disclosure and translation.

“Based on the theme, I was interested in the architecture’s space and my own vocabulary as an artist,” Mr. Qureshi said of his painting. “In this courtyard, I saw a quietness and sadness. The courtyard, that was central to the region’s architecture and historically a peaceful enclave in homes, has now been replaced with violence in the Middle East and Pakistan.”

Ms. Cotter said: “Arriving at the ‘Plot’s’ lexicon was a conversational process. We thought of the urgent things pressing for representation through an artistic medium. We wrote down words that were meaningful to us and the contemporary artistic context, but at the same time wanted to explore the framework for a biennial and the times we live in.”

Established in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial long predates the Gulf region’s many art fairs and high-profile museum projects. Early editions focused on local and classical art forms, but in 2003 it stepped boldly into contemporary arts and has since become a major fixture on the Middle East’s contemporary art calendar. In 2009 it attracted more than 75,000 visitors.

While the Gulf’s rulers have clearly turned to art to project a political message of culture and stability, Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which organizes the biennial, says there has never been any pressure to conform to a preferred perspective or toe a propaganda line.

“If anything, we’ve been told to steer clear of market and commercial influences,” Mr. Persekian said.

Sharjah, one of the seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates, eschews the flamboyance of its better-known neighbor Dubai and lacks the financial clout of the federal capital, Abu Dhabi. Instead, it has positioned itself as the federation’s cultural center since the early 1980s.

“There’s a vibrant local cultural movement in Sharjah. The ruler is a keen patron of the arts and playwright,” Mr. Persekian said, referring to the emir, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi. “The emirate has several museums, an active fine arts society, theater society and an annual book fair.”

The emirate also has a strong focus on Islamic values, strict laws prohibiting the sale and possession of alcohol, and a “decency and public conduct” code — all of which, taken together, have given it a reputation as one of the most conservatively Islamic states in the federation.

Yet over the years, the biennial has managed to escape being a strictly Islamic art platform, engaging audiences with works that are powerful in their content, sometimes political in their message and broad in their appeal.

“I think its standing in the international art scene and biennial circuit has increased since its foray into the contemporary arts,” Ms. Cotter said.

For this edition, more than 90 artists from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, South Asia and the United States have contributed to installations and performances that will be spread throughout the emirate’s open spaces, historic venues and city streets — even its cricket stadium.

Its biggest challenge, however, is to bring in local audiences.

“One of the intriguing aspects of curating for the Sharjah Biennial was identifying the audience,” said Ms. Salti, the co-curator. “We had fragments of information about the demographic, but nothing clearly defined.”

That, said Mr. Persekian, was why it had been imperative for artists to visit Sharjah ahead of the exhibition, to put their projects and ideas into context.

“They needed,” he said, “to take into account the demographics, the particularities of Sharjah and the historical emphasis on culture and art that has always been independent in nature.”

An example is the Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah, who said that only when he visited the Sharjah Art Museum, one of the venues of the biennial, did he know, instantly, where he wanted his installation, “Art Exhibition,” to be displayed.

“They had to be centered between the museum’s permanent Orientalist collection and another biennial project,” he said of his 50 photorealist paintings, which explore the historiography of modern art in Palestine.

The installation draws on archive material to delve into questions about modern Palestinian art — its protagonists, platforms and documentation. In order to achieve this act of museographical simulation, he selected 50 photographs of exhibitions of Palestinian art that took place in different places around the world, from 1961 to the present.

Amid the tumult of Arab revolution and rebellion that provides the backdrop to this biennial, “art, exhibitions and biennials have never been more important to the region,” Mr. Rabah said.

“Art should be a priority at every moment. It’s necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy,” he said. “It should play a vital role in changing the political discourse and not be put aside until things get better. We must engage and communicate with people.”

To foster an essential dialogue between the artists and their audiences, the biennial has designed a circuit built around a series of encounters. Throughout the designated biennial sites, commissioned works have been placed in such a way as to bring them face to face with visitors and residents.

One of the more uplifting of these works is “Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument,” by the Lebanese film and visual artists Joana Hadijithomas and Khalil Joreige.

A “rocket” made of iron and marble, standing 8 meters, or about 26 feet, is a reconstruction of Cedar IV, one of nine launch vehicles produced by the Lebanese Rocket Society between 1960 and 1967. Lebanon’s nascent space program is now long forgotten, but at the time it was a cause for national celebration whenever a Cedar rocket flew.

For the biennial, Ms. Hadijithomas and Mr. Joreige have built a mock rocket that induces a sense of time warp crossed with multiple ambiguities — is it a rocket, for example, or could it be a missile?

Mr. Joreige says the piece is not intended to romanticize nostalgia.

“It is the documentation of an anecdote that didn’t lead to anything,” he said. “But it makes one laugh about the possibility of a Lebanese space program. We question the purpose of a monument, the meaning of a monument, by producing a piece that reminds us of the way we were.

“Feel free to interpret it as you like.”