Hoor al Qasimi on Decentralizing this Year’s Sharjah Biennial

The curator and foundation director discusses showing art outside city centres and why she banned the word ‘offsite’ in her office

BY Róisín Tapponi AND Hoor Al Qasimi in Interviews | 03 MAR 23

Now in its 15th edition, the Sharjah Biennial, which opened on 7 February and will run until 11 June, is widely regarded as the most respected art event in Western Asia. Featuring more than 150 artists and collectives, this year’s iteration– conceived by the late curator Okwui Enwezor and curated by Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor al Qasimi – is titled ‘Thinking Historically in the Present’ and reflects on the biennial’s 30-year history.

Hoor Al Qasim, 2020. Photograph: Sebastian Böttcher
Hoor Al Qasimi, 2020. Photograph: Sebastian Böttcher

Róisín Tapponi You originally conceived Sharjah Biennial 15 with Okwui Enwezor but had to continue without him after his untimely death, which must have been incredibly difficult.

Hoor al Qasimi In 2019, shortly before he died, Okwui asked me to visit him in hospital to discuss his legacy. I needed him to tell me how to go on with the exhibition, but how do you ask somebody that when they dont have long left to live? He replied simply: ‘You do it.’ After organizing a working group of people who were close to him, I realized that he meant: ‘You do it in your own way,’ rather than, ‘You do my exhibition.’ It wasn’t my place to second guess what he would have done. I read all our letters, messages and email exchanges, and I understood that the exhibition had to be about looking historically at the 30 years of Sharjah Biennial, about being connected and rooted, rather than just taking ideas from ‘the outside’. Okwui said that it was an important moment for the Sharjah Biennial since what had started as a grassroots programme had become an institution.

RT The biennial is monumental and features more than 150 artists. How did you find the process logistically and what are some of your highlights?

HAQ There was a lot of fundraising to be done. We’ve been joking this year that weve never had so many sponsor logos! We also partnered with various institutions to make the projects possible. For example, Doris Salcedo’s complex installation would not have happened without the support of Glenstone Museum and White Cube. We were also happy to collaborate with Polygreen Culture & Art Initiative producing works by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahm, along with many others. I’m curious to see how the public will interact with this work.

RT Who do you mean when you refer to ‘the public’?

HAQ One example is the local people who install the artwork. For instance, our lighting technician, Sunil, told me how much a painting he was spotlighting reminded him of his homeland in India. And, when I told the artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons that her framer hadn’t finished working until 3am, she sought him out to thank him personally and they spent half an hour together talking about the work. In the end, she gave a tour to the whole install team.

Doris Salcedo, Uprooted, 2020-2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Juan Castro 

RT Each of the 12 venues has such a specific character. What were the selection criteria?

HAQ I grew up in Sharjah and many of the biennial venues, such as the Flying Saucer and the Al Jubail Fruit and Vegetable Market, are places I visited as a child. I’m a firm believer that cultural and intellectual activities should not only occur in city centres. To me, the venues on the periphery of Sharjah are the most important. In fact, I banned the use of the word offsite’ in our office!

RT It’s an act of decentralization.

HAQ For sure. There are art centres in every town in Sharjah that teach painting and drawing. We have been organizing workshops in them for the past ten years. I wanted to work in these centres because they are already frequented by the public. I have also always sought to save buildings from demolition by using them as biennial venues – the Kalba Ice Factory, for instance. Now, people message me all the time about empty buildings in their neighbourhoods. Sometimes, when I see a space, a certain artist will come to mind. Recently, a person who works in town planning told me they were renovating an old palace. It had an abandoned farm right in front of it, which was deeply haunting. Immediately, it put me in mind of Michael Rakowitz’s 2018 project A House with a Date Palm Will Never Starve. I sent him some images of the site and he said they reminded him of photographs his family would send him from Iraq. He immediately wanted to work in the space and for the Biennial he ultimately created Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E) (2023) which explores the decimation of the date industry in Iraq from war and climate change. The coordinates referenced in the title correspond to Al Seeba, in southern Iraq, where date palm plantations are now barren.

Mona Hatoum, Untitled (Pressure), 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation (front); and Quarters, 2017. Installation view: Sharjah Biennal 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah, 2023. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation; photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin
Mona Hatoum, Untitled (pressure), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin

RT You have been involved with the Sharjah Biennial since 2003, when you co-curated the sixth edition. How is it growing and what are your aims for its future?

HAQ I was involved before that! On my 13th birthday, I wanted to go and see the biennial and, aged 15, I started teaching drawing in this neighbourhood: art and the biennial run through my veins. Since I’ve been organizing it, we’ve taken on more projects each year. I also set up an Academy for Performing Arts, which launched this year. I don’t think the number of new projects will ever stop. The biennial will continue to grow!

RT What do you think the role of the biennial is today?

HAQ Biennials should be mindful of creating opportunities for the next generation. I’m President of the International Biennial Association and I think we could achieve so much by collaborating more. Why do we have to push artists to create new works for every biennial? Why can’t we just pool our resources and help them make one amazing work that we all share?

RT That’s a great idea!

HAQ I think a lot of other biennial organizers feel the same way. It’s often a struggle to raise sufficient funds for all the projects we want to do, so it would make sense co-produce them. Currently, artists are pressured into a constant state of making ‘something’ for ‘someone’ by a seemingly impossible deadline. Why?

Aziza Shadenova, Treasured Shadows, 2023, produced by Sharjah Art Foundation, installation view, Sharjah Biennal 15, Bait Al Serkal, 2023. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation; photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin
Aziza Shadenova, Treasured Shadows, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin

RT In other interviews you have said that this edition ‘thoroughly embraces the postcolonial lens Okwui embraced’. How are you decentering the West without erasing it?

HAQ That’s a very important question. You can’t have a conversation in isolation because then you become marginalized, again.

RT Or, in erasing others, you become the person doing the marginalizing.

HAQ Exactly. I always keep conversations open. When I was invited to curate the Lahore Biennial in 2020, I was already too busy to take it on, but I never say no to something that excites me! So, I spent extensive periods travelling to Pakistan. I met with students and invited some of them to show works within the biennial. I was told on multiple occasions that the biennial had never featured such a diverse group of artists, nor been attended by such a diverse public. As a curator, I don’t like to go to a new country or context saying: ‘This is my team, and this is what I’m doing.’ Some curators don’t feel confident relying local expertise, so they bring in their own people from the UK or wherever. But that’s not what I wanted to do in Lahore, and it’s not what I will do in Tunis, where I have been invited to curate next year’s Dream City biennial. For me, it’s about collaborating with the team out there and continuing to build on those relationships even after the biennial is over.

RT Your curatorial approach is relational. I don’t mean this in the academic sense of ‘relational aesthetics’, but in how you commit to building relationships with the people around you. I also feel that it’s in our culture, it’s how we are raised as Arabs.

HAQ Were hospitable, yes.

RT Do you have any parting thoughts about the biennial?

HAQ I want people to enjoy themselves, to absorb the work and to talk about it.  it’s also the case that many people won’t have seen each other in a long time due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, so I want them to get together and enjoy it. There’s no pressure to experience the exhibition in a certain way. Just have fun!

Main Image: Haline Metaferia, various works from ‘By way of revolution’, 2019-2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Róisín Tapponi is a film curator, writer and academic. She is the founder of Habibi Collective, SHASHA Movies, Independent Iraqi Film Festival and ART WORK magazine, as well as a recipient of a PhD Art History Scholarship at St Andrews University, Fife, Scotland.

Hoor Al Qasimi is president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation.