Now in its tenth edition, this year for the second time it was held simultaneously with the fair in Dubai, a well-conceived convergence that has contributed to it being fully appreciated on the international art circuit, attracting an international audience of art globe-trotters to the Emirates. It has however maintained, and in this edition reinforced, the focus on the macro-region that includes the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Asia and this is precisely what makes it interesting; Sharjah is one of the few biennials where you find not only the omnipresent "must-have" artists, but also an extremely distinctive selection that aims to take stock of a specific panorama. Its strong point therefore is that it identifies and brings to light artists that are still little-known to an international audience.
This edition was curated by Suzanne Cotter, curator of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim and by Rasha Salti, the creative director of the New York not-for-profit organisation ArteEast, with the help of Haig Aivazian and was presented in various locations within a large area but all accessible on foot.
One only has to think of Rokni Haerizadeh who draws on media iconography relative to the tense public life of his native country, Iran, and carries out an operation that bears the marks of a long tradition in the history of expression in both east and west; attributing animal physiognomy to the protagonists of news images and in doing so reveals the animal—the otherness—that is part of us, or conversely, expressing man becoming animal to indicate his aggressive charge: a charge that can flare up into violence. Rokni Haerizadeh now lives in the Arab Emirates and claims that it would not be easy for him to return to Iran and he would certainly not be able to show his work there. He is not the only artist who can express himself only where he is a foreigner. A number of others are in the same situation, including Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani who together with Almagul Menlibayeva made the video installation Ride the Caspian, a kind of dialogue on power based on two mythological figures, the fox-woman and the bird-woman, and on symbols belonging to the culture of ancient Persia and Kazakhstan.
The work of Bouchra Khalili meanwhile, regards the whole world; she asked a number of illegal immigrants to trace on a map the journey from their native country to the one they reached and to describe it in their own language. The result is eight videos illustrating the tortuous travels of people with no documents and therefore no rights. What emerges is a unique and original cartography, of those who in search of rights, well-being—or simply the prospect of earning enough to live on—come up against restrictions, controls and the politics of exclusion. With barely concealed clandestineness they cross geo-political borders that are paradoxically increasingly flexible and increasingly reinforced, more open to goods that circulate frenetically, than to people who move with a kind of monitored freedom.
Sharjah is one of the few biennials where you find not only the omnipresent “must-have” artists, but also an extremely distinctive selection that aims to take stock of a specific panorama.
It is precisely the rigorous set-up of the Biennial, with the presence of many works of political significance that brings out the contradictions: contradictions that have to do with the identity of the region, with what art is and the system that art is part of. In this biennial, history is reflected through a filter. But the works speak beyond the immediate meaning and the symbols are not inert, but rather always active. And to bring out silences and contradictions is no small thing.