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Suchitra Mattai, Imperfect Isometry, 2019. Mixed media installation, vintage saris, rope net Image Credit: Wes Magyar

The 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennial (SB14) titled, Leaving the Echo Chamber, explores the possibilities and purpose of producing art in a world where news is fed by a monopoly of sources, history is increasingly fictionalised, ideas of ‘society’ are displaced, and borders and beliefs are dictated by cultural, social and political systems.

The event organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) seeks to explore ways to renegotiate the shape, form and function of the ‘echo chamber’ of contemporary life with the aim of multiplying the echoes within by offering alternate images, revealing hidden or eliminated narratives and highlighting cultural and political histories that have been suppressed or sidelined by the mainstream forces that govern our world.

Moving away from typical Western art narratives, SB14 fosters dialogue between artists from across the Global South investigating subjects ranging from slavery, colonisation, migration and diaspora to concepts of time and interpreted histories. It explores stories that echo in a different way and reveal different means of connecting and sustaining a collective humanity.

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Khadim Ali, Standing Flames, 2019, from “Flowers of Evil” Image Credit: Sharjah Art Foundation

The event includes three distinct exhibitions presented by three curators — Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons. It features works by more than 80 established and emerging artists from around the world, which include nearly 60 major new commissions, large-scale public installations, performances and films. These are displayed at various venues across Sharjah, including SAF Art Spaces, SAF’s Al Hamriyah Studios, Emirates Fine Art Society, Sharjah Art Museum, buildings and courtyards across the city’s arts and heritage areas such as Arts Square, Al Mureijah Square and Calligraphy Square and the eastern coast city of Kalba.

Hoor Al Qasimi, director of SAF, says, “Contemporary life is dominated by competing information and fluctuating histories — a reality that raises important questions about the trajectory of contemporary art as well as the conditions in which it is made. The three curators bring incredibly different perspectives to these questions that together represent the complexity of challenges faced by today’s artists and by our whole society. The aim of Sharjah Biennial 14 is to deepen the context of these questions through thought provoking and often experiential works of art.”

Butt’s exhibition, Journey Beyond the Arrow, provides deeper context to the movement of humanity and the tools that have enabled or hindered its survival. It seeks to emphasise the necessity of exchange and diversity across the globe and throughout human history.

“The artworks in this exhibition look at the intergenerational impact of a range of physical and psychological ‘tools’ and how the meaning and representation of these tools has changed due to factors such as colonial exploitation, social and religious conflict or ideological extremism. With their own distinctive approaches, the artists have investigated the historical context of the ‘bow’, which reveals the ‘arrow’ of humanity’s echo — an echo of the diversity of all our activity in relation to language, memory, belief, ritual and cultural and social practice. Through their imaginative retelling of our planet the artists invite us to look at things that have been overlooked or lost in the echo chamber,” she says.

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Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör, Digital collage for Suntitled, 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artists

This exhibition includes Notes from the New World, a multi-media installation by Mark Salvatus, which examines the enduring legacies of imperialism in the Philippines through the history of a Philippine military band formed in 1901 after the US takeover of Spanish colonies. The installation featuring video, magazine clippings, archival photographs and vinyl records highlights the band’s colonial history as well as the persistence of American cultural influence in the country. It also includes drawings based on the time Salvatos spent with Filipino workers in the UAE who perform mostly American pop covers in local hotels, presenting a complex history of economic migration and cultural influence.

Roslisham Ismail’s mixed media work, ChronoLOGICal, references his own cultural ancestry as a descendant of Yemeni Arabs who settled in the Malay peninsula in the ninth century to unpack the complex, alternative, cultural roots of a place; and Ho Tzu Nyen’s ongoing project, The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, questions the term Southeast Asia — coined by British public servants for a region that has never been unified by language, religion or political structures except during the Second World War when it was under Japanese control.

Kholeif’s exhibition, Making New Time, explores how material culture can be reimagined through the lens of artists whose political agency, activism and astute observations encourage us to extend beyond the limits of our beliefs.

“In today’s fast-paced technological world, reality and history have been augmented by the realm of the virtual which allows us to look back with a critical eye at the history of material cultures as we think we know them; but how do we slow down and ‘experience’ the experience and how do we make ‘new time’? This exhibition considers how economies have formed around technological culture, how narrative is created and deconstructed, and how these forces enable a reconstitution and even a restitution of a lost or unknown history,” he says.

This exhibition features one of the most striking installations in the biennial — Flowers of Evil by Khadim Ali. The multi-media work includes documentary and archival displays, Persian miniature style paintings, a metal sculpture, embroidered wall hangings, hand woven rugs, a sound installation and a monumental public mural. Using traditional craft techniques from Iran, Afghanistan and Indonesia the artist has inserted modern weaponry into ancient myths of military glory to explore the normalisation of violence in Afghanistan.

Shezad Dawood’s virtual reality work, Encroachments, takes viewers on a virtual journey to places such as a library in Lahore, the US Embassy in Karachi and a gaming arcade, tracing the ebb and flow of Pakistan’s relationship with the US.

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Roslisham Ismail, ChronoLOGICal (detail), 2015 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition curated by Tancons, Look for Me All Around You, is a platform of migrant images and fugitive forms, mainly featuring new commissioned performances that revel in displaced artefacts, coded languages, sonic disturbances, transient presences, light flashes and shadow imprints.

“Composed of multiple scores drawn from the many scales of Sharjah as city, emirate and peninsular territory, these after-images and after-forms circumnavigate global history, meeting through the confluence of the Gulfs of Mexico and Oman and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in a dialogue between the Americas and the Emirates.

Inspired by the words of political activist and pan-African leader Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr (1887–1940) to ‘Look for me in the whirlwind or a storm, look for me all around you…’, this exhibition attests to the alternatively dispossessive and repossessive disposition of diasporisation as an aporetic phenomenon of the contemporary, encompassing human, semantic and material forms of displacement. What is being ‘looked for’ is not what is being ‘looked at’— if only it could be seen,” she says.

The exhibition includes a multimedia installation by Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör that envisions performance through the materialisation of time and without the physical presence of performers. Installed on the rooftop of Bait Al Shamsi, the free-standing, darkened structure with cut-out sections, features a theatre of objects based on the workings of a sundial. At different points in the day, the series of amorphous sculptures acquire eyes and mouths, chronicling the rotation of the earth on its own axis and they sing, talk, reflect on recent and ancient history as well as the forms they might take if they could leave this confined space.

Suchitra Mattai’s installation, Imperfect Isometry, investigates the complex relationships between history, memory and the construction of identity in diasporic communities. Made from vintage saris from India, Sharjah and her own Indo-Caribbean family woven together, the work draws on the histories carried by the well-worn garments, exploring the experience of traversing physical and psychological borders and the entanglement between people and places. Another part of the installation is a merry-go-round in the Bait Obaid Al Shamsi courtyard that was unearthed from a now closed school in Kalba, which symbolises displacement and the ongoing cycle of separation between peoples, cultures and classes. The third part of the installation is a multi-channel video work examining how national and physical borders configure our political, social and private identities.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Sharjah Biennial 14 will run at various venues across Sharjah until June 10. The exhibitions are complemented by a diverse public programme running throughout SB14 and the event is free and open to all.