The message of the 15th Sharjah Biennial is not subtle. In numerous artworks across the show, titled “Thinking Historically in the Present,” the past is shown to enact itself relentlessly upon the present, instigating innumerable insults against humanity: racism, forced migration, climate destruction, capitalism. Those who deny this reality, the artworks argue, benefit from the status quo, while the ignorant haven’t been paying attention to the right art.
The show’s title is a phrase coined by the late, highly esteemed curator Okwui Enwezor during a conversation about postcolonial scars. Though Enwezor was originally tapped to curate the Biennial, he gave the position to Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, amid his failing health. (Enwezor died in March 2019, at 55.) Her hotly anticipated iteration, postponed by two years, doesn’t insult the viewer by arguing that art will solve these issues. Instead, she, like Enwezor, invited artists across the Global South to probe the effectiveness of how we transmit experience—starting with biennials and art institutions.
There are some exhibitions you can walk through quickly and be satisfied with the gist. This isn’t one of them. This show rewards long viewing, given both its sprawl (two venues, Khorfakkan and the Kalba Ice Factory, are more than an hour’s drive from Sharjah’s city center) and the generous space afforded each artist. Moza Almatrooshi, an artist interested in agricultural practices and climate consciousness, converted multiple shop spaces at the market into micro-terrariums (there was a live beehive apparently installed nearby too).
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