With its central theme, “Thinking Historically in the Present’’, the Sharjah Biennial 15 will open to public on February 7. Featuring over 300 works by over 160 artists from 70 countries, the biennial was conceived by Nigerian curator and promoter of African art, Okwui Enwezor, and after his untimely death in 2019, has been curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation. The biennial, to be presented at 16 venues in five cities spread all over the Emirate until June 11, reflects on Enwezor’s visionary work on postcolonial constellation. The participating artists will offer examples of critical reimagination of the past and present, as well as unique perspectives that connect regions, histories, and practices. The exhibition will also feature several films, music, and performances bringing international art to local artists while also sharing knowledge on art in Arab tradition.
Al Qasimi tells India Outbound about the objective and her expectations from the Biennial.
How will biennial reflect Okwui Enwezor’s vision?
What Okwui Enwezor had planned was a museum show which was part 2 of his trilogy. He did the ‘Postwar’ in Haus der Kunst and for this he wanted to do the postcolonial constellation. And he had a list of postcolonial keywords that I would give to 30 artists for work commission and do a historic show. He didn’t get very far in inviting people, so I decided to invite people he had worked with, I had worked with and people neither of us had worked with. I really wanted it to be a collaboration.
Before he passed away, I had asked him what he wanted me to do? He asked me to do it. The theme is centred on postcolonial discussion that is happening, the different movements, different countries have faced because of colonialism. During the pandemic, we renovated the spaces, but when you want to talk about colonialism, racism and all these issues, it cannot be confined to 30 artists, so we invited 160.
What kind of participation do you have from India?
There has always been a space where we support a lot of artists from South Asia. It has always been a part of our region, so we always invite people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We do have a lot of participants from India including a new commission by Amar Kunwar. We have Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapoor who will be coming for the opening. We have works by Reena Saini Kallat, Richard & Pablo Bartholomew, Archana Hande, Anju Dodiya, Lavanya Mani, Neetu Singh and Sunita Sharma to name a few.
What kind of footfall do you expect for biennial?
We have in the past universities sending students over, especially from Karachi. They visit every biennial and we have many others as well. For me, what I would love to see is the number of locals visiting the biennial. The opening is great with the international visitors, but for me it is the consistency. I am interested in creating a change in different neighbourhoods and communities where we are. And those changes really take decades. It is now that I see such a big difference with the people who have grown up with the biennial. At the moment, our visitor number is really great, I am trying to arrange the buses and the tours, so we are trying to figure out when people are going to come and the good thing of having the meeting in March and opening in February is that people choose to come in at different times which is also great.
What message do you expect from this biennial?
The theme of the biennial is quite political, but those messages are really important to convey that and there is little space to do that within culture. To talk about all these issues that are, maybe they have changed but they still hold the same violence and the history and where they come from. You know, as we were installing some works in the museum, one of my colleagues came in and she saw one space and said I can’t, this is too much. She was moved to tears and said I can’t see that much. It is too much pain. I thought that people can really feel the seriousness and the urgency of all these issues that we are facing, we talk about them, but maybe we talk about them in a certain circle.
What medium have the artist explored in this exhibition?
My background is in painting, so we have a lot of paintings in this biennial for sure, I have a whole section of colour photography, I have artists working on sculpture interventions or installations, some very large scale, some are immersive, we have some sound environments, also have selected quite a few dance projects. I have invited some choreographers and we have some amazing dances and performances happening on certain dates, you can see the schedule and dates on the website. Some amazing performances will take place in February since we are also collaborating with the Academy of Performing Arts to work with them in their space with their students.
If you could describe the biennial in one line what would that be?
The title really speaks to me. Thinking historically in the present, this is kind of recurring, when everyone says to me what does the future hold? I am thinking historically in the present, this is really my moment. You know there are moments when I really try to understand various histories and the geographies and what’s been happening. I just hope people spend time with the works, it is not a festival to just rush through and walk around, one should feel every artist whose work is there and saying so much. If it could affect a handful of people, it is really worth so much more than coming in and out of the space. This exhibition is also about shared solidarity and exhibition and I think that would be something that I would like people to take away from the show.