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A spotlight on Sharjah Biennial 11
Sharjah Biennial 11 features over 100 artists, filmmakers, musicians, performers, and architects whose practices and creations resonate with fine strands of the core curatorial theme: the diversity and complexity of different societies and cultures; political and spatial relations; notions of new emerging forms of contact, exchange and dialogue; innovative methods of producing art and newer ways of thinking and feeling. Among the Indian participants in this important event are Ravi Agarwal; CAMP (Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran); Shilpa Gupta; Amar Kanwar; Raqs Media Collective; and Studio Mumbai - Bijoy Jain.

In choosing these artists, the Biennial sought out those with an interest in the culture they were raised, and those creatively engaged in deeply exploring this background. When they visit any new location, they tend to perceive and interpret it with their own unique subjectivity, formed within their culture(s) of origin out of an amazing amalgam of sedimented habits as well as sensibilities. They enter into a peculiar dialectical relationship with this new locale to produce new knowledge while in conversation with it. The process leads to hybrid knowledge and intercultural products, potentially constituting the genetic material for a novel culture.

A special section ‘Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography’, inspired by the captivating courtyard in Islamic architecture, especially those of Sharjah, looks to reassess the Western-centrism of knowledge in modern era and to reconsider the relationship existing between the Far East, North Africa, Latin America, the Arab world and through Asia. A Western perspective for long dominated the globalization debate. However, the work of scholars such as Andre Gunder Frank over the years has challenged this peculiar normative approach. In ‘ReOrient’, the expert points to the transnational relations history that thrived across and between the whole Arab world and Asia (8th-15th century). Apart from stimulating economic exchange and further development, the Silk Road vastly reshaped our cultures. Illuminating these shared historical roots in today’s context lets us re-orientate ourselves, and to reexamine the historically significant cultural and geopolitical role of the Arabian Peninsula.

The curator, Yuko Hasegawa, states in an elaborate note: “The long and rich cultural traditions of the Arab world, North Africa, India and Asia manifest themselves through various practices and customs from song and dance, to poetry and music, daily etiquette, architectural patterns, the shapes of spaces and the contours of gardens. The same can be said of South America, where the influence of pre-colonial practices and the vibrant culture of the Amazon can still be detected. I intend to use the courtyard as the central concept for this Biennial in two ways. It will be used both as a practical site and as a metaphorical condition for stimulating cultural negotiations and generating knowledge.”

The courtyard is also seen as a plane of experience and experimentation—an arena for learning and critical thinking of a discursive and embodied kind. The curator adds: “I was inspired by the courtyard in Islamic architecture, in particular the historical courtyards of Sharjah. Originally private in nature, they can also function, to varying degrees, as ‘public’ social spaces depending on their size and location. Courtyards housing craftsmen's studios and exhibition spaces may function as semi-public areas. Some courtyards are completely private, requiring an invitation for more intimate gatherings. There is richness to courtyards as spaces that have the potential to intensely accumulate the memories of a local culture. “

Hasegawa has invited creative personalities from Lebanon, Belgium, Japan, Spain, India, and elsewhere to make temporary architectural interventions to help envision new urban structures, which connect Sharjah’s historic area and its courtyard typology with the larger city. By employing it as a main concept in charting a new cultural cartography, the curator sees the potential for a deeper, more meaningful collaboration between South America and the Arab world. Sharjah Art Foundation looks to build on the pioneering role that the Emirate of Sharjah has so far played in the overall artistic & cultural development of the thriving Gulf region. Inspired primarily by the cross-fertilization as well cultural diversity of the landscape, visionary members of the foundation provide national and international direction in the domain of contemporary visual arts. They encourage production and presentation of best of works, recognizing the immense contribution artists make to society and understanding it. The idea is to cultivate a spirit of experimentation, research and excellence while promoting collaboration and exchange within the region and beyond.

In the lead-up to the actual Biennial, London’s Tate Modern significantly hosted a preview panel discussion that included the Sharjah Art Foundation president, Hoor Al-Qasimi and this year’s curator Yuko Hasegawa. In holding this preview debate in the UK, the organizers dealt with several logical and important questions regarding international contemporary art, which often get simplified, subsumed or even ignored. The participating artists talked about their works in relation to trans-regional politics, history and religion.