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Sharjah Biennial 15

The 15th Sharjah Biennial Opens in the UAE

On February 7 in the United Arab Emirates, art patrons from around the globe gathered to inaugurate the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial (SB15). Entitled “Thinking Historically in the Present” and on view through June 11, the major exhibition is hosted across five cities in the emirate of Sharjah, featuring art by over 150 artists and collectives from more than 70 countries.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of the Sharjah Art Foundation by Eliza Jordan.

Activating 19 venues—including former banks, schools, hospitals, and markets, as well as the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Art Foundation—are over 70 new works, as well as an array of performances and interactive presentations that take place in spaces like the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy, an abandoned cinema, and the renovated Kalba Ice Factory.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Kalba Kindergarten by Eliza Jordan.

For the 2023 iteration, SB15 recalls the framework of 2002’s Documenta11 in Kassel, Germany, curated by the late Nigerian curator, Okwui Enwezor. It reflects the artists’s wide-ranging perspectives on nationhood, tradition, race, gender, body, and imagination. Paintings, sculptures, installations, films, photographs, artifacts, and more are presented in striking dialogue with one another, encouraging the public to discuss the complex subjects of life—including migration, colonialism, war, and human rights—as it exists around the globe.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Hoor Al Qasimi giving remarks at the opening of SB15 by Eliza Jordan.

“Two decades ago, I experienced Okwui’s Documenta11 which, with its radical embrace of postcolonialism, transformed my curatorial perspective,” said Hoor Al Qasimi, the Biennial’s curator and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Director. “His idea of ‘thinking historically in the present’ is the conceptual framework for the Biennial, which we’ve sought to honor and elaborate on while also reflecting on the Foundation’s own past, present, and future as the Biennial marks its 30-year anniversary.”

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Dala Nasser’s installation by Eliza Jordan.

Alongside artists, curators, professors, collectors, gallerists, journalists, and more, Whitewall was in attendance early this month to explore this year’s biennial, traveling each day to a different location within the emirate to see exhibited works.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of downtown Sharjah by Eliza Jordan.

Throughout the week, we took buses from the Arts District in Sharjah to cities like Kalba, Khorfakkan, Al Hamriyah, and Al Dhaid to see films, dance performances, sculptures, light works, textile pieces, immersive installations, and more.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Isaac Julien’s installation by Eliza Jordan.

First, we grew acclimated to the Sharjah Art Foundation as our home base—a maze of historic and new towers that bend around galleries and squares, aimed at sparking conversation and creativity. Within its exhibition spaces—positioned in places like Calligraphy Square, Al Mureijah Square, Al Hisn (the city’s 200-year-old fort), and Bait Al Serkal (a former home and maternity hospital)—we found large-scale paintings and a multimedia installation by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons from her series “Liminal Circularity Part 1,”; a multi-channel film (featured in Whitewall‘s winter issue cover story) by Issac Julien named Once Again…(Statues Never Die); and gorgeous textiles like The Rhythm of Consent by the artist Diedrick Brackens.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Hajra Waheed, Hum II, 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation; supported by Canada Council for the Arts, Ottawa. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Shanavas Jamaluddin.

We also took in a large and soothing courtyard installation of clay pots by Carolina Caycedo named “Agua Pesada / Alma’ Althaqil”; a multi-media installation by Carrie Mae Weems named “The In Between,” a site-specific installation named “Red in Tooth” by Dala Nasser featuring hung textiles that trace the Al Wazzani River that blew in the wind, Wangechi Mutu‘s site-specific Mother Mound in the courtyard’s ground and resembling a women’s torso, and the truly unforgettable sound installation “Hum II” by Hajra Waheed that’s housed within a structure designed with the help of David Adjaye. The latter fetched the artist a prize at SB15’s gala later that week.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of a presentation at the Sharjah Art Museum by Eliza Jordan.

Across the street, The Sharjah Art Museum provided a cool respite, hosting monumental photography presentations by Imane Djamil, Pablo and Richard Bartholomew, Solmaz Daryani, and Ángela Ponce; moving paintings by Jawad Al Malhi, Kimathi Donkor, Fathi Afifi, Semsar Siahaan, and Thenhiwe Niki Nkosi; and sculptures, collages, quilts, and more by artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Natalie Ball, Varunika Saraf, and Malala Andrialavidrazana.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of The Flying Saucer by Eliza Jordan.

Later, we traveled through mountainous hills and deserts, alongside the Gulf of Oman, to spaces like Kalba Kindergarten (an abandoned school, now home to art), Khalid Bin Mohammed School (The Africa Institute), and The Flying Saucer (nominated for the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture last year).

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Kambui Olujimi’s installation by Eliza Jordan.

At The Flying Saucer, we got in line to experience the inner circle of the building’s layout, featuring a swath of works by the artist Kambui Olujimi in his presentation “In The Dark, We Lose Our Edges.” Sculpture, sound, painting, and a deep floor of blue sand joined together to examine colonial imagery through materials, colors, and textures—like ceramic busts and gold—reminiscent of industrial legacies.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, various works from ‘Efflorescence’, 2013–present. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market, Sharjah, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Shafeek Nalakath Kareem.

In the town’s Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market, too, we found ourselves drifting in the glow of neon flowers by Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, gained from their ongoing series since 2013, “Efflorescence,” which lit up old stalls—some filled with artworks, others empty.

Photo of the Kalba Ice Factory by Eliza Jordan.

In Kalba at the Kalba Ice Factory (recently retrofitted by the Lima, Peru-based architecture firm 51-1 Arquitectos), we poured ourselves into larger-than-life installations by Nari Ward, Ibrahim Mahama, Doris Salcedo, among others. They left a lasting impression through their use of materials, spatial designs, and ingenious structures.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Nari Ward, Duty Colossus, 2022. Commissioned by MASS MoCA, North Adams, USA, and Sharjah Art Foundation. Installation view: Sharjah Biennial 15, Kalba Ice Factory, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo by Motaz Mawid

Ward’s monumental Duty Colossus and Nu Colossus works stretched as far as the eyes could see, evoking an oversized wooden fishing entrapment and a local Sharjah dhow boat.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Photo of Ibrahim Mahama’s installation by Eliza Jordan.

Outside, Mahama’s In the Tale of Time/Purple Republic featured a colossal loom, with its seemingly crafted fabrics stretched and hung from above, showing hand-woven traditional fabrics underneath.

Sharjah Biennial 15 Doris Salcedo, Uprooted, 2020-2022. 804 dead trees and steel; 3000 x 650 x 500 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Juan Castro Photoholic.

And Salcedo’s installation, Uprooted, hauntingly featured a life-size structure shaped like a house, burned from the front to the back, of 804 dead trees and metal.

Photo by Eliza Jordan.

Wedged between rocky mountains, rolling desert dunes, and the sea, an endless well of imagination, deep reflection, and cultural dialogue filled SB15 with reckoning and hope. Our advice? Simply book your trip to Sharjah now.

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Sharjah Art Foundation’s director Hoor Al Qasimi curates the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, "Thinking Historically in the Present.”
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