Tales From Other Worlds: The 15th Sharjah Biennial

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Michael Rakowitz Sharjah Biennial 15

Michael Rakowitz. Borrowed Landscape (30.3193 ° N, 48.2543 ° E). 2023. Performance during Sharjah Biennial 15 opening week, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Palace and Farm, Al Dhaid, 2023. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

The 15th edition of Sharjah Biennial resounds with narratives of cross-cultural encounters that defy borders and expectations.

Colonial bordering practices caused the disruption of the vast constellation of connections – historically forged through trade, migration and pre-colonial empires and kingdoms – that has always characterised the world. This notion has been at the centre of the Sharjah Biennial since 2003, when Hoor Al Qasimi was appointed as director and drew inspiration from the late curator Okwui Enwezor. The ongoing 15th edition, whose title Thinking Historically in the Present was conceived by Enwezor, reflects upon this curatorial trajectory of connections through the micro-histories and micro-narratives of communities that inhabit the undefined spaces between borders.

Such stories weave throughout the biennial’s 19 venues, which are sprawled across the heart of Sharjah, Al Dhaid, Kalba and Khorfakkan, in different forms: archival material, documentary film and photography, found objects. Shiraz Bayjoo’s Searching for Libertalia (2019) in Bait Obaid Al Shamsi offers Daniel Defoe’s 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates as an alternative account of Madagascar’s history to the dominant narrative of colonisation, slavery and modernisation. The work is “set against re-tellings of the Indian Ocean’s complex mercantile histories, reminding us that it is the oldest contact trading zone in the world,” Bayjoo explains. Sharjah Biennial itself responds to the coastal city’s history as an important node in the ancient trade network that connected East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia.

Shiraz Bayjoo. Searching for Libertalia. 2019. Detail. Installation view at Sharjah Biennial 15, Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, 2023.
Commissioned by New Art Exchange, Nottingham, UK. Photography by Motaz Mawid. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Hajra Waheed, one of the three winners of this year’s Sharjah Biennial Prize, utilises sound as a form of storytelling to call for a politics of cross-border solidarity in her installation Hum II (2023). A medley of voices humming women’s songs of protest and communion – from Dalit anti-caste lullabies to Shervin Hajipour’s Baraye, inspired by the 2022 demonstrations in Iran – reverberates inside a canonical sound chamber. With symbolic richness, the chants seem to form one continuous, flowing composition. This work is echoed by Reena Saini Kallat’s Chorus (2015–19), located in the Bank building and a series of huge, trumpet-like sculptural replicas of Second World War pre-radar devices that replace the sound of warplanes with birdsong. Kallat’s composition consists of noises made by imagined ‘hybrids’ of the national birds of politically partitioned countries, such as the Sun-poe, a species formed by the Palestinian sunbird and Israeli hoopoe. Their calls tell stories that counter those wrought by nationalist borders, as the exhibition text suggests: “By combining individual [nationalist] symbols, these imagined species symbolically seem to unify the otherwise conflicted nations they represent.”

While conceptually striking, Chorus conveys a message of world peace that is somewhat naïve and reductive. Elsewhere, however, the biennial addresses the violent splintering of communities resulting from bordering practices. At the Africa Institute, Ayoung Kim presents a two-channel video entitled Porosity Valley 2: Tricksters’ Plot (2019) that critiques the Islamophobic perception of Yemeni refugees in South Korea as malware or viruses. The work is accompanied by a wall of UV-backlit documents telling stories of rejected immigration and appeal applications. Hyesoo Park’s A Man without a Country (2023) features a mobile suspended above a pile of shredded bank notes, fixed with speakers that emit a cacophony of voices narrating the experiences of North Korean immigrants to the South. The wall facing the installation bears a neon sign that ironically reads: “Welcome – your search for freedom is over”. It is worth noting that both artworks deal with bordering practices supported or instigated by Western powers, whether through the supply of arms and intelligence or proxy warfare.

Michael Rakowitz’s opening week performance Borrowed Landscape (30.3193 ° N, 48.2543 ° E) (2023) ties together the biennial’s threads of critiquing borders and celebrating connections. In an open field overlooked by a farmhouse in Al Dhaid, the artist passed around antiquities purchased on eBay as ‘substitutes’ for his maternal grandparents’ possessions when they left Iraq in the 1940s: browning laissez passer documents, a sidara hat, a pair of pocket watches and a copy of the Haggadah inscribed with Arabic words in Hebrew script.

Hyesoo Park. A Man without a Country. 2023. Installation view at Sharjah Biennial 15, Bank Street Building, 2023. Photography by Motaz Mawid. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

“I believe in the power of certain objects to tell stories, to be witnesses,” Rakowitz said. “Magical meaning projected onto objects is something that I probably first experienced as a child during the Passover holiday, when at the seder meal there is a symbolism for all the food on the table. The hardboiled egg represents the hard times in Egypt, the salt water into which one dips parsley is the sweat and tears of the enslaved Hebrews, crushed walnuts mixed with date syrup simulate the mortar used to construct the pharaoh’s buildings.” He then invited the audience to partake in a meal of masgouf, which told another story of displacement: that of Iraq’s Mizrahi Jewish community. Doubly sidelined by the Zionist project to ‘negate the diaspora’ and the Arab nationalist equation of Judaism with Zionism, Mizrahi Jews exist in an uncertain limbo between borders effectively drawn by the British colonial government. Masgouf, which consists of grilled carp sliced lengthwise to form a single flattened piece, is the national dish of Iraq. Could the artist’s choice of this delicacy for the menu symbolise a reclamation of the community’s Arabness from both Zionist and Arab nationalisms?

Al Qasimi frames her curatorial statement for Sharjah Biennial 15 with a discussion of Kharareef or fables. “Tales and allegories of Sharjah and the Gulf were historically mediated by soothsayers whose intuition served as a conduit to transmit messages from other worlds,” she writes. “Despite the tendency of Eurocentric historiographies of the Gulf to frame the oil expeditions of 20th-century Western powers as the ‘beginning’ of regional history, in Sharjah’s curatorial and historic models for Sharjah Biennial 15, there is guidance with the Kharareef of our ancestors.”

I end with my own story of connections formed and severed. My maternal great grandparents were named Ahmed Gulamali Araath and Kulsum Araath. The incongruity of their Muslim first names and Hindu surname would have passed relatively unnoticed before the Great Partition of 1947. The couple were part of a community of Muslims who had converted from Hinduism through Persian missionary activity in medieval India, and who have since migrated to Pakistan, East Africa and the Caribbean. Amid the horrors of the sectarian violence that accompanied the mass migration across the new border, however, Ahmed and Kulsum had to pick a side. Ambiguity spelled danger. So they became known by what is now my mother’s maiden name: Gulamali.

The border that cleaved the British Raj into present-day India and Pakistan collapsed, in one fell swoop, the histories of Hindu-Muslim syncretism, South Asian contact with Persia, the South Asian communities settled as far away from home as Africa and the Americas, and Ahmed and Kulsum’s ancestry. Though these histories never ended, they are rarely told. Enwezor’s theme of Thinking Historically in the Present refers to the act of reimagining our present based on an understanding of the past that foregrounds crossborder connections that have always existed; it asks us to conceptualise a world in which the Araaths are still the Araaths.

Sharjah Biennial 15 runs until 11 June 2023

This review first appeared in Canvas 107: Art Nomads.