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SHARJAH, UAE — Back in March 2018, Facebook was facing some scrutiny; a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with a lethal nerve agent on a quiet Sunday afternoon in a provincial English town; bushfires were destroying homes in an overheated Australia…
But meanwhile, in “the Gulf,” Dubai gains more high-rises, luxury hotels, fake islands, bling and glitz, while Abu Dhabi constructs museum buildings to rival, if not surpass, any anywhere else in the world (both places exploiting migrant labor). In Sharjah, the third largest economy in the United Arab Emirates, and where many of the migrant workers actually live, much has also been going on but in a distinctly different register. The Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) was established in 2009 to build on the ongoing legacies of the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993, and has established itself as a significant cultural shaper and enabler in the immediate region and beyond. With a local audience in mind as well as an international one, the Foundation organizes a year-round program of exhibitions, film screenings, residencies, and education projects, and supports production, research, and publications. Its Sharjah Biennial is now firmly one of the leading global art events, and the annual March Meeting is an important gathering point for discussion and networking.
For 2018, in-between Biennials 13 and 14, SAF’s spring exhibition program featured no less than six separate, significant exhibitions. One reflected the theme of the 2018 March Meeting, ‘Active Forms’, with a selection of works from the Foundation’s own collection. However, it is the five career-spanning surveys, of the work of Anna Boghiguian and Zineb Sedira, and especially Latif Al Ani, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, and Mona Saudi, that will inform and contribute to curatorial research and exhibition history.
The spring exhibitions opened early in March with ‘Poetry and Form’, Mona Saudi’s retrospective produced in collaboration with the Sharjah Art Museum. Born in 1945 in Amman, Jordan, and now living and working between Amman and Beirut, Saudi is one of the few women artists in the region of her generation to have a relatively successful career as an artist, and perhaps the only one as a carver of stone. Her work in stone, printmaking, and drawing is a reminder of the language of earlier twentieth century modernism, and although she has worked on larger commissions, the more intimate scale of her sculptures in Sharjah were formal articulations of the jades, marbles, basalts, granites, and limestones from her home area. These stones are the bedrock of the deserts and mountains of the Eastern Mediterranean and are still a common construction material. The artist has lovingly worked them into subtly balanced, abstracted forms, often derived from nature. The Arabic script that has been so integral to cultural expression in the Arab world, in both the meanings of the words and the aesthetics of the calligraphy, can be seen in her prints and drawings where she references the words of poets such as Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Saint-Jean Perse, as well as much earlier oral wordsmiths from the pre-Islamic period.
Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani’s images from the 1950s through the 1970s record an era and place that has since seen troubled times. Born in Karbala, central Iraq, in 1932, Al Ani first picked up a camera in a local photographic studio and began working as a photographer for the then British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC): “The IPC was a school for me in working seriously, having discipline, and order”, he has said. After the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party revolution in 1958, the IPC was nationalized and Al Ani moved on to found the photography department in the Ministry of Information (later Culture) in 1960. The Ministry published a magazine, New Iraq, in Arabic, Kurdish, English, French, and German, aimed at the diplomatic communities and international organizations working in Iraq. Al Ani travelled the country, photographing the ethnic diversity, traditions, and archaeological sites. In keeping with the government’s socialist agenda, he also documented the public parades and the modernization program, typified by his images of women working in factories, the dams and bridges, the new houses, offices, and apartment buildings.
Given the recent history, it is inevitable that Al Ani’s photographs emit a sense of time standing still. Vilém Flusser, in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983) said: “…it is wrong to look for ‘frozen events’ in images. Rather, they replace events by states of things and translate them into scenes.” But we do tend to see ‘frozen events’ in Al Ani’s images. Juxtaposing the remains of an ancient Mesopotamia with the modern ‘Iraq’ created by the colonial carving up of the region by the European powers post-World War I, the photographer captured rural poverty in the same space as tourist wealth and the westernization of the 1950s and ’60s. Al Ani has not practiced photography since 1979; circumstances have mitigated against it. During the 1970s, he worked for the Iraq News Agency but censorship and state surveillance under Saddam Hussein’s regime meant an increasing fear of taking a camera out in public; and 1980 also saw the outbreak of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war following Iraq’s invasion of its neighbor. The photographer has since devoted much of his time to preserving the very special archive that his work constitutes, although many of his negatives were lost in the chaos following the US-led invasion in 2003. The loss of his delight in taking pictures is symptomatic of this greater loss: “I just can’t see beauty anymore. It doesn’t seem possible…” he has said. Now in his eighties, and still living in Baghdad, Al Ani is thus a poignant part of the ‘states of things’ himself.
With over four decades of work on show in Sharjah, another artist immersed in the ‘states of things’ is Anna Boghiguian. Boghiguian’s gregarious work spans continents and histories in sketchbooks, collages, objects, and expansive installations. Inspired by her own journeys and reading, in particular the poets Constantine Cavafy and Rabindranath Tagore, she meanders like them through the places and spaces of human existence. The multi-room installation The Salt Traders roams around the salt trade, one of the earliest commodities to generate economic exchange (and value) and foster sea trade routes and migratory patterns. The raw qualities of Boghiguian’s work belie its multiplicity and cosmopolitan sources, which reflect the artist’s own life history: born in the megapolis of Cairo (where she still lives) to Armenian exiles, studying political science in Egypt, and art and music in Montreal, her sense of nomadism and her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity are never boxed in or circumscribed by any superficial ‘theories’ or ‘ideas’. The human world provides enough inexhaustible material.
Dealing less obviously with that world but whose work also has a refreshing raw quality was the fourth survey exhibition of the work of Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. Ibrahim lives and works in the city of his birth, the port city of Khor Fakkan on Sharjah’s Gulf of Oman coast. He has been described as a ‘land artist’, and acknowledges the connection he felt with the ideas of Robert Smithson when he was introduced to them, along with his discovery of Duchamp, Klee, and Kandinsky. But Ibrahim is also shaped by where he lives, his studies in psychology, and the rise of institutional support for making and exhibiting art in the region. The materials he has worked with for over three decades are elemental and local – rock, copper wire, local earth, and clay – as, too, is his use of waste paper and discarded plastic bottles. His drawings and paintings on canvas, paper, or walls are filled with rhythmic mark-making and forms suggestive of the symbols that can be found carved into or painted on the rocks of the desert near his home, forms of communication lost in modernity.
‘Zineb Sedira: Air Affairs and Maritime Nonsense’ was a retrospective for the Paris-born artist who has been based in London since the mid-1980s. In photography and video, sculpture and installation, Sedira’s work has dealt with the experiences of migration and exile, often personal to the artist herself whose parents were Algerian immigrants in France. But she also engages with the broader framework: the forces of global capitalism and the colonial legacies that lead to the movement of people and goods. Boats have frequently been a metaphor in her work for the sea journeys migrants make. In “Sunken Stories” (2018), a new work produced especially for Sharjah, broken models of the small wooden dhows or sambuks that are still used for cargo journeys across the Arabian Sea, and have been for centuries, are fixed in clear resin blocks. The vulnerability and small-scale of the models echoing the actual boats, they hint at the journeys and lost lives of those who risk everything to attempt sea crossings in search of new lives. A sense of nostalgia, or perhaps it is more of a melancholy, can haunt many of Sedira’s filmic and photographic scenes: the melancholy of ruins, of decay, as in the photographs in “Haunted Houses” (2006). These images of abandoned colonial buildings built by the French during their occupation of Algeria, however, are emblems of the destructive nature of that colonial encounter and its particularly violent ending. The artist avoids any nostalgia, however, in two new installations: “Laughter in Hell” and “The Forgotten (Condemned) Journalists of Algeria’s Black Decade” (both 2018). The Black Decade, from roughly 1990–2000, is defined by the Algerian Civil War, with its estimated 200,000 deaths. Supported by SAF’s production program, the artist has researched and presented in a museum-style documentary exhibition the work of journalists and cartoonists in Algeria in those ten years, about 100 of whom were killed. The cartoonists’ humor was witty and ironic (and sometimes eerily contemporary), and the simple listing of names of those who died is sobering.
The Active Forms exhibition, curated by Reem Shadid, complemented the March Meeting with its themes of individual or collaborative ways and means of active resistance, and featured works from SAF’s growing collection of works by artists who have been either commissioned or supported by SAF or shown in the Biennials. Resistance can take many forms. Self-taught Palestinian artist Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara’s works are a personal act of resistance to all the many injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian people and land. Zarara’s painted reliefs made from sawdust and glue visualize memories of village life in the pre-Nakba Palestine he was exiled from as a teenager in 1948. A refugee in Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and Jordan, he has continued to create scenes and images of collective Palestinian resistance, as well as in response to other liberation struggles — Chile and South Africa, for example. Zarara is part of the Palestinian cultural and visual art history that is still waiting to be written in its entirety. “Active Forms” also included work by a younger generation of Palestinian artists using their own language, mediums, and metaphors. Raeda Saadeh’s gesture of vacuuming the sandy Palestinian hills in her video “Vacuum” (2017) symbolically transposes an act of domestic housekeeping to emphasize the land as home, while the concrete slabs and doors strapped tightly on top of a mattress in Hazem Harb’s “In Transit” (2013) point to the sense of constraint and the destruction in the artist’s Gaza homeland.
Legacies of other 20th century histories, specifically after the collapse of the USSR in western Asia, are material for Halil Altindere and Almagul Menlibayeva. Altindere’s multimedia “Space Refugee Project” (2016) was inspired by the story of the Soviet-trained Syrian cosmonaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris who has been living as a refugee in Istanbul since 2012. The pathos of the story of his training for a cosmic future with the Soviet space program, his country’s pride in their astronaut, his one visit to the Soviet space station in 1987, and the subsequent breaking up of the national narratives of both the USSR and Syria is then given an ironic twist with the idea that other planets should be considered as a destination for Syrian, and maybe all refugees. Almagul Menlibayeva’s 5-channel video work “Kurchatov 22” (2012) gives voice and visible form to unsuspecting people who also suffered from a damaging legacy of the Soviet era. The work focuses on a 18,500 km2 area in what is now Kazakhstan that was subjected to the Soviet nuclear testing program for forty years, with total disregard for the indigenous community and the Russians who were sent to work there. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, the site was abandoned and the details of what took place there are still not openly known, but the effects on health and life expectancy are a real and ongoing legacy. Menlibayeva blends interviews and documentary film footage with aesthetically beautiful staged and performed images that add another layer of visual power to a disturbing history that could easily slip away into oblivion.
The aesthetic power of the images in John Akomfrah’s films, whether filmed, staged or sampled, is also integral to the layers of subject and meaning in his work. The destructive practices of the whaling industry are ostensibly the subject of the three screens of Vertigo Sea (2015), but the work is also a visual hymn to the seas and sealife of the planet as well as a reminder of other devastating colonial legacies and histories enabled by ocean journeys that operated unchecked and unrecorded in that off-land space. As it was for the slave trade, the open sea is still a space of unofficial, untold and unmarked journeys.
The spring exhibition program in Sharjah, particularly the retrospectives for Latif Al Ani, Mona Saudi, and Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, artists mostly unknown and under-represented in the wider global context, are an indicator of the growing impact and significance of the curatorial research, and the support for production, being undertaken and produced in the Gulf. Complementing the exhibitions was the three-day 2018 March Meeting with its theme of ‘Active Forms’ (17–19 March), in which issues of resistance in artists’ individual practices and in organizing collective acts of writing and publishing, performance, music, and architecture, were addressed. A story that will be told in Part II of this report.
Sharjah Art Foundation’s 2018 Spring exhibitions were in the Al Mureijah Square galleries and spaces, Bait Al Serkal, the Old Sharjah Planetarium, and various other venues in Sharjah from March 16–June 16, with Mona Saudi’s Poetry and Form at the Sharjah Art Museum from March 7–June 7. Anna Boghiguian’s retrospective was originally curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marianna Vecellio for the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin (September–December 2017), and co-curated with Hoor Al Qasimi in Sharjah.