Braving the cold late October winds that announced to New Yorkers about winter’s imminent arrival, the guests bundled up in woollens as they poured into the large auditorium of the Asia Society to hear a group of award-winning ‘game changers’ from Asia — all women candidates — for their outstanding contribution in their respective field of work or specialisation.
As an education organisation that promotes understanding and partnerships between the people, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States, the Asia Society has been, annually for the last six years, selecting outstanding Asians as “game changers” for their ability to make a strong impact in their respective profession or area of specialisation. These “game changers”, as Tom Nagorski, Asia Society’s executive vice president put it, “have cracked the glass ceiling in one way or the other”.
One of the distinguished award winners was Shaikha Hoor Bint Sultan Al Qasimi from the UAE who was conferred a “game changer” status for her dedication and contribution to the world of art.
She was only 22 when she was appointed director of the Sharjah Biennial in 2003. She is credited with bringing a “fresh breeze” of change in the Gulf’s art world — to quote some guests at the award ceremony in New York — as she trekked an inspiring journey that catapulted her to becoming a leading voice of the art world.
Shaikha Hoor was, at the time, the youngest member of the team and the sole woman.
Brimming with ideas
A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, Shaikha Hoor had then recently returned from Documenta 11 — an iconic art fair held in Kassel, Germany. Curated by the Nigerian art historian and critic Okwui Enwezor, the 2002 exhibition focused on themes of migration, urbanisation, and post-colonial experience, drawing artists from around the world.
Fresh from her visit to Germany, she was brimming with ideas on transforming the Sharjah Biennial into a modern, dynamic and thought-provoking vehicle of communication. However, the Sharjah Biennial team, at that time, seemed less enthusiastic about her ideas; indeed, when Al Qasimi pushed for new, provocative art from across the globe, half of the old guard quit.
Thus, at the young age of 22, she took over the responsibility of transforming the Sharjah Biennial, working 20-hour days to elevate the event to an internationally acclaimed platform for contemporary artists, curators and cultural producers.
She is the founder/president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, an arts institution presenting a growing line-up of programmes, including exhibitions, education, artist residencies, etc., through the year.
In an interview with Gulf News in New York, Shaikha Hoor said that she was inspired greatly by Britta Schmidt, the curator of Hamburger Bahnhof in Germany. “I came away so inspired,” she said. “It was life-changing for me, and I saw scope for transforming the Sharjah Biennial.”
‘A role model’
Hamburger Bahnhof is the former terminus of the Hamburg-Berlin Railway in Berlin’s Moabit district. Today, it serves as a contemporary art museum — the Museum fuer Gegenwart — and is part of the Berlin National Gallery.
“Britta Schmidt was my role model,” Shaikha Hoor recalled. “German art inspired me and I asked myself why we can’t have something similar in Sharjah.”
When she returned home to the UAE, the Sharjah Biennial team was less than thrilled at the thought of undergoing a transformation. But she persisted and patiently pushed ahead with what she called the “aim of art”.
Given that the business of art, particularly in many countries of Asia, still continues to be a “man’s world”, how did she manage to promote her ideas?
“Oh, I had my share of disappointments in the beginning, but my father kept encouraging me,” she said. “He is my number one role model,” she said, adding, “You have to believe in yourself and be resolute, if you want to achieve your goals”.
Al Qasimi’s father is His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, who has written several books and plays, founded theatre companies and played a stellar role in raising Sharjah’s international cultural profile.
Subsequently, she was appointed to the overseeing committee of the Sharjah Biennial and, eventually, took over the exhibition and converted it into an important milestone in the art world. Indeed, the biennial and the foundation have, meanwhile, created education and funding programmes for films, music and art. The Biennial’s Production Programme offers grants worth $200,000 biannually to support the creation of works of art.
One of the top-ten biennials
“It is our mission to give artists a platform in Sharjah,” Shaikha Hoor explained. “And it is gratifying to now see other institutions, including western ones, follow our example and give long overdue attention to these artists.” Sharjah Biennial is today ranked as one of the top-ten biennials in the world.
Her grasp of the intricacies of organising art exhibitions comes from what she describes as her “hands-on” approach, manifested in handling even the tiniest of details such as selecting the right nails to hang a picture by, fixing a piece of art in the perfect way or sometimes even sweeping the floor – tasks that would normally be assigned to others. It is a testimony to her love for her role that she does not shy away from such work even today, she said.
Accolades continue to pour in for her work for the Sharjah Biennial, including the coveted position of the President of the International Biennial Association, besides being entrusted work from “outside events” such as the Random International’s “Rain Room”, which some refer to as an “Instagram wonder”.
The Sharjah Art Foundation has expanded over the years and today has a workforce of more than 200 employees, according to Shaikha Hoor. An ambitious project in which the Foundation has its sights on is the David Adjaye-designed centre for the study of the African diaspora as also on a performing arts’ academy dedicated to dance, theatre and design. These projects, she said, are aimed at “giving back to the community and creating a hub”.
Multilingual - A world citizen
The Sharjah Art Foundation has, meanwhile, established representational offices throughout the Emirate, including in remote villages. The Foundation is, as Shaikha Hoor put it, “about the artist and the public”.
As a multilingual — she is fluent in Arabic, English, Japanese and Mandarin, and also has knowledge of French, German, Russian and Tagalog (Filipino) — Shaikha Hoor is called a Weltbuerger, a world citizen, who seems to be at home in any corner of the world.
Her acumen as a curator has also been tapped by international organisers of art events. The Lahore Biennial of Pakistan, for example, selected her as the curator of its second edition which opens in 2020.
She will endeavour to curate a programme for the Lahore Biennial “that celebrates the richness of artistic practice in South Asia and the importance of strengthening cultural ties between this region, the Middle East, and the broader international arts landscape.”
Shaikha Hoor is also on the board of directors of the MoMA in New York, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and the Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, besides being on the advisory board of Darat Al Funun in Amman.
Not surprisingly, she is frequently invited to deliver talks in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.
How does she feel about international organisations seeking her expert advice?
“It’s part of the work,” Shaikha Hoor responded.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based writer.