A recurring theme that arose throughout the Sharjah Art Foundation's 2021 March Meeting (MM 21), which ran online from 12 to 21 March, was the sense of community that has been fostered across art worlds in Sharjah.
That continuing legacy was tracked across MM 21, titled Unravelling the Present, in its focus on the Sharjah Biennial's last 30 years, with a series of roundtables exploring the exhibition's trajectory from its founding in 1993 to its transformation a decade later and beyond.
In 2003, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, inspired by Okwui Enwezor's radically decentred documenta 11 in 2002, co-curated Sharjah Biennial 6 with Peter Lewis. SB6 opened—as Al-Qasimi recalled on a panel moderated by curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh with Lewis, Darat Al Funun founder Suha Shoman and former SAF director Jack Persekian—at the time U.S. troops entered Iraq.
It is the Sharjah Biennial's regional positioning that sets it apart, noted Shoman, who lauded the Biennial for propelling MENASA artists onto the international stage. 'We are in a conflict zone. We do not know what will happen tomorrow.'
That fact was expanded in a discussion moderated by NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore founding director Ute Meta Bauer titled 'Curating in the Age of Crises', featuring international curators including Ashkal Alwan founding director Christine Tohmé, who organised an arresting Sharjah Biennial 13 across Sharjah and Beirut, and Lubumbashi Biennale co-founder Sammy Baloji.
During his moderation, Abou El Fetouh pointed out that the Sharjah Biennial has functioned as a platform connecting artistic movements in the U.A.E. with others in the region and internationally. Particularly since 2003, which marked the first time the exhibition was staged in Sharjah's arts and heritage area, now the headquarters of the Sharjah Art Foundation, founded in 2009 to manage the Biennial and develop year-long programmes in between.
Among SAF's endeavours is the annual March Meeting, which this year feeds into the conceptual framework for Sharjah Biennial 15 in 2022, Thinking Historically in the Present, originally conceived by Enwezor, whose contributions to the discourses of postcolonial and decolonial artmaking and curating offered a through-line across MM 21.
Speaking on the third roundtable focusing on SB in retrospect, which included SB12 curator Eungie Joo, SB14 co-curator (alongside Claire Tancons and Zoe Butt) Omar Kholeif, and artists Otobong Nkanga and Amina Menia, John Akomfrah paid homage to Enwezor's 2002 documenta, which foregrounded historicity as 'a way of understanding and working' that used 'the question of the historical' as material, form, and content.
Enwezor's documenta gave artists a license to historicity, Akomfrah stated. A fact he connected with the postcolonial ethics of sociologist Stuart Hall, the subject of Akomfrah's three-channel video installation presented at SB11, The Unfinished Conversation (2012), through which questions of inscription—which Akomfrah said requires displacement, dethroning, and making space—could be taken seriously.
This idea of making space—of foregrounding, unearthing, evolving, and rewriting histories in the present—is a core characteristic of the Sharjah Biennial. That dynamic was especially palpable in SB11, curated in 2013 by Yuko Hasegawa, who spoke alongside 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale curator Anita Dube, Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation director Reem Fadda, and curator Alia Swastika in a discussion exploring the Sharjah Biennial in a regional context.
This idea of making space—of foregrounding, unearthing, evolving, and rewriting histories in the present—is a core characteristic of the Sharjah Biennial.
SB11, which re-mapped Sharjah Biennial within the sphere of the Global South while connecting the event to its multicultural locality, was a high stakes show. It took place after the fallout of SB10 in 2011, which opened as uprisings swept the Arab world, and was mired by protests and accusations of censorship after the removal of a work containing explicit content in a public space.
On SB11, Akomfrah singled out Otobong Nkanga's Taste of a Stone: Itiat Esa Ufok, in which a historic courtyard was transformed into a rock garden where images of architectural forms were printed on limestone, and a temporary park created by SUPERFLEX on Bank Street.
Located on a concrete island connecting the heritage and arts areas, SUPERFLEX's The Bank became an interface between the Biennial and its local communities, Akomfrah said—both a statement about the role art could play and how space could and should be used, which was an overarching inquiry of SB11 and editions that followed.
Akomfrah recalled a gathering of 'kindred spirits' for SB11. In response, moderator Aisha Stoby observed recurring mentions across MM 21 about 'this idea of public space as meeting space', which she interpreted as a reflection of the through-lines that have developed, merged, and connected through the arts in Sharjah.
As Abou El Fetouh summarised, these connections are encouraged by a conceptual framework that considers modes of post-Western, postcolonial togetherness, with the March Meeting becoming an instrumental space for people from across the world to share ideas, notes, and positions.
2021's March Meeting was no different, with roundtables like 'Biennials and Postcoloniality', which included art historian Thembinkosi Goniwe, Havana Biennial 13 vice director and Havana National Museum of Fine Arts curator Margarita Gonzalez Lorente, MAXXI artistic director Hou Hanru, and art historian Iftikhar Dadi; and 'The Biennial Nation', a talk moderated by artist Coco Fusco with curators Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Catherine David, Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa, Gabi Ngcobo, and Octavio Zaya.
A series of short presentations offered case studies that included an overview of biennials in Pakistan by Sadia Kamran and a focus on censorship at the 2019 Karachi Biennial, and Chiara Cartuccia's assessment of 'Art Biennials and the Mediterranean Conundrum'.
Keynote speakers included decolonial feminist Françoise Vergès, who talked about how artistic communities might act in solidarity with women's struggles worldwide, and Adrian Lahoud, dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art in London, who introduced projects from the first Sharjah Architecture Triennial, Rights of Future Generations, which he curated, through the prism of climate change, decolonisation, and international human rights law.
Priests and Programmers, for instance, a collaboration between composers Vivian Wang and Dewa Alit, artist collective U5, architects Li Tavor, Alessandro Bosshard, and Matthew van der Ploeg, with Adam Jasper at ETH Zürich, tracks the struggle by Balinese farmers against the Suharto regime in the 1970s, which introduced rice varieties with greater yields that disrupted a centuries-old tradition of communal land management.
Princeton University professor Chika Okeke-Agulu's keynote 'On Restitution and the Art Industry', which addressed the violence of colonial dispossession and expropriation, departed from the 2020 Christie's sale of two Igbo sculptures allegedly 'looted' from Nigeria during the 1960s civil war, and the Edo Museum of West African Art, a collaboration between the British Museum and Nigerian authorities that will show looted bronzes on loan from European museums.
Throughout MM 21, there was a strong sense of that license to historicity, which Akomfrah attributed to Okwui Enwezor, as in 'Global Modernism/New Scholarship', a roundtable with scholars Elizabeth W. Giorgis, Alex Dika Seggerman, and Sadia Shirazi introducing new perspectives on art histories from Ethiopia to Egypt.
Giorgis, associate professor at the University of Addis Ababa, alongside intellectual Surafel Wondimu Abebe, also participated in the breakout session that followed Manthia Diawara's keynote address, chaired by The Africa Institute founding director Salah Hassan.
In his talk, Diawara explored philosopher Édouard Glissant's conception of opacity—'that which provokes, ignites, sustains, and maintains diversity' both in the collective and individual, Diawara summarised—as a response to Frantz Fanon's notion of de-opacification, translated in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) as 'lifting the veil of existence' in the context of an emerging, postcolonial nationalism.
Diawara positioned Glissant's theorisation of relation as a development that both draws on Fanon's ideas and challenges them, particularly with regards to nationalism's limitations in the face of a creolised reality that, to quote Diawara, 'see[s] the whole world as a confluence of differences that no longer waits for the permission of Europe to get together.' (A description that succinctly frames the ethos of March Meeting and, in turn, the Sharjah Biennial.)
In a captivating discussion, Giorgis and Abebe pushed Diawara on his reading of Glissant's proposal for one world in relation contra Fanon's advocation for national culture as tied to struggles for independence.
'How, for instance, does an Ethiopian connect or relate to the Martinican, when our languages, our cultures, our experiences are so different?' Giorgis asked. 'What is this mechanism that will help us connect with each other? That will bring our relational difference, so to speak, to light?'
Finally, Giorgis pressed, how do we build new nations beyond nationalistic and nativist paradigms, while nurturing transnational solidarities that bring forth the relationalities that compose the world?
These questions seem to anchor Enwezor's research into 'postcolonial constellations' for SB15, which will be realised by Al-Qasimi as curator in conjunction with the SB15 Working Group and Advisory Committee: an unravelling of the present through an unfolding of intersecting histories that could move vital questions forward. —[O]