A sojourn in Sharjah

Reflections on the 16th edition of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual March meeting.

Nida Sinnoktro — "Ka." All images courtesy The Sharjah Art Foundation © 2024.

The United Arab Emirates generally evokes images of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, massive wonderlands of artifice and fantasy on the periphery of the Persian Gulf. Situated among these glittering metropolises is Sharjah, a city that has strove to define itself as the cultural heart of the Emirates, with heavy investment into institutions that prioritize preservation of the arts, support academic talent, and advance radical contemporary art practices.

During my week-long sojourn in Sharjah, I was privy to multiple aspects of this budding cultural reputation. The March Meeting—an annual gathering of international art practitioners, sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation—was taking place in concert with the debut of the Toni Morrison Fellowship at The Africa Institute. Once-in-a-lifetime exhibits featuring art from Palestine, Morocco, Pakistan, and Ethiopia were on display, each with their own specific subversive contexts. “Since its inception, [the March Meeting] has evolved on the core premise that collective gathering and discourse are vital to the growth of new imaginaries and emancipatory futures across the world and also within the cultural sphere,” writes Hoor Al Qasimi in the opening remarks for the 2024 March Meeting. “In this spirit, the annual meeting has expanded to engage wider geographies and more diverse audiences, inviting them to rethink models of cultural production and to grapple with the most pressing issues of our contemporary moment.”

Framing the art world as a space for critical encounters that can rethink, retool, and reshape cultural conversations is both ambitious and admirable. Given the fragility that is currently impressed upon much of the global South, reckoning within arts institutions about practices that can help push forth “transregional solidarities” is an ambitious and admirable goal. Seminars such as “Art as an Act of Change and Resistance” or “Towards Counter-Hegemonic Infrastructures” provide invigorating insight, as cultural laborers create work that preserves indigenous, radical practices and celebrates local tradition and genius, from Haiti to Palestine and beyond. The criticality of the work is made all the more evident by contributors whose movement was limited due to visa restrictions or life-threatening circumstances in ongoing war; these artists sent proxies to tell their story (in the case of Haiti’s Ghetto Biennale), provided prerecorded videos, or dialed into the conversation via Zoom, as several Palestinian artists, poets, and thinkers were forced to do in the midst of the current genocide in Gaza. If art can truly serve as a site of intervention and revolutionary dialogue, then the impact of artists cannot simply be felled by external restrictions—we have to seek out and engage the conversation that the craft is facilitating, doing our best to bear witness and ensure that the creative venture was not made in vain.

Exhibits such as In the Eyes of Our Present, We Hear Palestine showcase the transformative potential of art as a medium for advocacy, recollection, and reflection. A particularly compelling sculptural piece by Nida Sinnokrot titled Ka, featuring two upward-facing backhoe arms, contends with the duality and dissonance of the narratives around the Israel-Palestine conflict—one arm is viewed as a site of construction, with rapidly expanding settlements that challenge currently negotiated borders; the other, a site of destruction, displacing and destroying the lives of Palestinian families and communities without remorse or recompense.

Sharif Waked — "To Be Continued"
Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara — "The Martyr Raja’a Abu Amasheh"

A video installation by Sharif Waked titled To Be Continued… interrogates the Islamophobic narrative imposed on Palestinians fighting for liberation: a man sits in front of a camera with a large text and rifle in the foreground, reciting a speech in Arabic. The image invokes Western signifiers for “terroristic threat,” but a quick examination of the subtitles subverts that presumption: the man is not conveying a ransom threat or suicide note, but reciting the story of One Thousand and One Nights, the famous saga of a man fighting to protect himself and his family by telling as many stories as possible.

Using sawdust and glue, Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara created a series of art pieces exploring solidarity and the international struggle against the empires that have constructed oppressive realities throughout the global South. The artist employs the distinctive pattern of the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian life, culture, and struggle: in some works, the garment is used to respectfully represent a woman’s hair; in another, it is used as the backdrop for a scene of Palestinians fighting to protect their land; in the next, it is freely whipped around in a portrayal of the traditional dabke. Other pieces highlight the cruelties in Lebanon, Central America, and the African continent (especially the apartheid state in South Africa).

Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara — "Oh Homeland, Oh Night"
Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara — Beirut Siege Seires, "Human Rights Gift"
Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara — Liberation Movements Series, "South Africa"

In Morocco, the visionaries at the Casablanca Art School launched an artistic revolution, reclaiming the arts curriculum in the wake of the country’s new independence from France and forging a radical approach to integrating abstract art and Bauhaus techniques with African and Amazigh traditions. An exhibit titled Platforms and Patterns for a Postcolonial Avant-Garde painstakingly documents the evolution and transformative craft of the Moroccan New Wave, from the transition away from French colonial arts pedagogy to the formation of the core Casablanca Trio—Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, and Mohamed Melehi.

The emphasis on visual anthropology is evident in the artists’ various styles—integrating the modern art techniques they had been trained in with the cultural touch points they had been raised to appreciate, from Amazigh calligraphy and weaving to leatherwork and pottery. Exhibits would be a showcase in mixed media and local materials—vivid geometric rug patterns made out of goat hair and wool, and precisely crafted pieces using traditional leather-, copper-, and woodworking techniques. The result is exhilarating and sensational—a composite story that honors the magic and skill of traditional artisanship, defying the trends of popular art at the time.

The impact of this transformative approach to arts pedagogy and training in the early stages of the postcolonial wave reverberated throughout the Arab and African art world. While the Casablanca Arts School prioritized local street exhibitions, festivals, and installations, they also showcased their work on a global scale, participating in events such as the Pan-Arab Biennale and the 1978 International Art Exhibition for Palestine, a show of collective resistance and solidarity that took place in Beirut. The school made pains to create an institutional model for work that was accessible to all, not just the elite—an arts practice that reflected local traditions and honored the labor of visual storytelling. The programming served multiple core intentions—it mentored the next generation of visual artists, established their work and mission as part of an ongoing global dialogue of revolutionary and decolonial artistry, and rejected and reframed any European logics that characterized Moroccan folk art as primitive or inferior.

Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2
Exhibit 3

The theme of the 2024 March Meeting was tawashujat, an Arabic word meaning “intertwining”: How are stories, cultural practices, and solidarities connected to one another? How can we engage in collaboration in the arts to fortify the struggles for liberation, self-determination, and other social justice issues? How can the art world serve as a conduit by bearing witness to these emerging struggles? In one simple word lies a compelling stream of queries, each more urgent than the last. The smartly curated exhibits showcased artists who seek to disrupt dangerous colonial and apartheid frameworks; however, one has to contend with the multiple tensions that exist in protecting elite art spaces as sites of intervention—namely, the institutes that fund them or, in the case of Sharjah’s institutions, the state itself.

The same Al Qasimis who fund such transgressive bodies of work hold long-standing positions as part of a dynastic reign, ruling for centuries atop two of the seven Emirates—Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah—and participating in the Federal Supreme Council. As a self-interested state actor, the Emirates has had a checkered history of participating in global fights for liberation. In Sudan, the country has been repeatedly accused of backing the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in an ongoing war that has led to over 7.5 million

Sudanese nationals fleeing their homes. Amid an ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the Emirates have chosen to maintain diplomatic ties with the state of Israel and remain a trusted security partner of the United States in the region. In both instances, the Emirates has publicly stated a position of de-escalation, yet the tangible impact of policy has threatened safety and quality of life for the people of Palestine and Sudan, some of whose stories are being touted at these very exhibits.

How much can we praise the archive, no matter how painstakingly organized, when we are valuing the art more than its stewards? The question lingered for me throughout the week, at points feeling like a nagging contradiction within the concept of an interventionist arts practice. What does it mean, for example, to laud the work of the Casablanca Trio and their radical decolonial approach, when Mohamed Melehi’s and Toni Maraini’s daughter, documentary filmmaker Mujah Maraini-Melehi, publicly declined to comment on Palestine in an open conversation honoring her parents’ avant-garde work? At some point, the conversations begin to seem more fantastical than practical, an unwitting revelation of the limits of the contemporary arts apparatus, paralyzed by rhetoric and hamstrung by funders.

This structured tension is not unique to the UAE. The recently debuted 2024 Whitney Biennial: Even Better Than the Real Thing purports to explore “fluidity of identity and form, historical and current land stewardship, and concepts of embodiment, among other urgent throughlines” in its showcasing of American contemporary arts. The exhibition claims to be “amplifying the voices of artists who are confronting these legacies, and providing a space where difficult ideas can be engaged and considered”—yet a quick glance of its major sponsors shows a different story with respect to the genocide currently taking place in Gaza, perhaps one of the most urgent crises of our time.

The work I had the privilege of engaging with throughout my trip showcased the labor of remarkable visionaries at the pinnacle of their disciplines, dedicated not only to showcasing ability but to using their respective mediums to make sure their stories are recognized around the world. Preserving that archive, and placing that work into its proper context is no small feat, and it is a credit to the Sharjah Art Institute and their mission of public arts education and the exploration of new artistic practices that significant efforts were made to ensure that exhibits were carefully documented for the masses. It is difficult, however, to ignore the scale of resources while the actual struggles being documented remain ever present—in the way, for instance, that some of the artists and curators were denied the freedom to join and speak publicly at the event, and in the way the suffering throughout Palestine and the global South is documented as the daily tedium of regular news blasts.

Without an intentional sense of rigor in confronting this dissonance, it is easy to fall into a chasm of a dangerous necropolitic—one where the sustained suffering offers more value to the art than it does to the people this art seeks to honor and protect. Revolutionary art demands that we not just stand in awe of its mission but also adhere to its call to action; any exhibit planning to celebrate that practice should be prepared to interrogate whether they are meeting that challenge.

Further Reading