Thinking Historically in the Present
7 February to 11 June 2023
7 February to 11 June 2023
[En anglais] Celebrating thirty years since its inception, the 15th Sharjah Biennial, titled Thinking Historically in the Present, is the biggest edition to date. Oscillating smartly between the legacy of legendary Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor and present-day realities of the United Arab Emirates, the impressive exhibition, curated by the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Hoor Al Qasimi, reflects on the impact of documenta 11, curated by Enwezor, which profoundly destabilized the Western art canon in 2002. But the past two decades have not gone by untrammeled: many of the biennial’s artists came of age in those twenty years—a time of immeasurable changes in the UAE and the world.
The exhibition showcases a new generation of artists whose experiences of hardship and migration are informed by the stories, lives and bodies of their parents and the changing world around them—in particular, artists in the Global South who were subjected by the West to profound limitations on their movement and autonomy. I first found a portal into the exhibition through the conjoined works of the Indian photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew and his father, the art critic Richard Bartholomew: presented side by side, their respective photographs document diasporic life in post-Partition New Delhi, but they also showcase the different realities of the two practitioners, who, despite their shared ancestry, have come to experience separation and longing in different ways. In a highly anticipated performance, Rachid Hedli and his dance troupe Compagnie Niya articulate another such moment; incorporating hybrid gestures that reference the socio-political realities of the North African diaspora in France, Hedli’s Gueules Noires (Black Faces) (2016) is performed by dancers who, like him, are sons of coal miners who migrated to France in search of a better life.
The title refers to a derogatory slang term used in reference both to the miners and to North African migrants at large. The atmospheric choreography makes connections between a heritage of hard labour and the break-and-pop movements of street performers and break dancers, as if the hardship experienced by the father’s body is passed on to the dancers’ repertoire. In another instance of bodily knowledge transfer, Abdulrahim Salem’s The Unknown Sailor (2023) is a live painting performance set to the shanti Yamal, a traditional type of sea-song sung by nahhamin, singers (in groups of four) who accompanied pearl-diving boats in the Gulf. The nahham’s melodious voice lifted the divers’ spirits when the winds died down and the labour of fishing and pearl diving became strenuous and dangerous, serving as an oral archive and black box. Salem’s performance reflected on the way in which maritime shipping routes and supply chains in the UAE were altered by British colonialism, the perilous lives of sailors in the early twentieth century, and the lost history and craft of pearl diving.
Other works in the biennial reflected on the metaphors of water, or the lack of it, as a historical vehicle. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Under the Cold River Bed (2020) is a chart and a video documentary that uncover the perplexing strata beneath Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Dala Nasser’s Red in Tooth (2020–ongoing) is a large site-specific installation tracing the Wazzani River, which flows from Lebanon to occupied Palestine; Nasser uses the river’s water to dye pieces of fabric, marking various historic places in the course of the river through the composition and colour of the dye.
The striking series of photographs by Imane Djamil titled 80 Miles to Atlantis (2020) documents Tarfaya, a Moroccan city that is slowly disappearing due to the degrading coastline and the advancing desert; children play in the surreal shadows of dusty buildings and gaze into small puddles of water. In Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E) (2023), Jewish Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz conceptualizes the ongoing Western interference in the Middle East by bringing desertification into the framework of the biennial. Referring to the practice of “borrowed landscapes,” a Japanese gardening concept that incorporates distant views into garden design, Rakowitz implicates the site of Al Seeba in Basra, Iraq, where agricultural plantations were lost to the desert after a period of extensive extraction, increased water salinity, over-farming, and an eventual decline in tree density. Once known as a fertile and shaded area famous for producing fresh fruit and vegetables, the area is now considered barren. These climatic changes are a direct result of the decade-long US invasion of Iraq.
Reflecting on the political moment nearly two decades ago, Enwezor said that the present is a “reminder of why art cannot be isolated from the everyday experience.” This statement now rings undoubtedly true. The biennial carefully considers Enwezor’s ambitions while taking into account the radically different experience of artists in today’s world. Whether our thinking has shaped the world around us or history has shaped us into being the way we are, Thinking Historically in the Present flushes out the paradoxes of history.
Curator, writer, and speaker Xenia Benivolski is involved with the subjects of sound, music, and visual art. She contributes to artforum, frieze, and e-flux journal, for which she also curates and edits the digital art project You Can’t Trust Music.