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Sharjah Art Foundation

1 May 2014

Sharjah Art Foundation has managed to connect with both the international art community and a local audience, with regular exhibitions of work by world-class artists from across the globe

Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) is based in the heart of the city’s heritage area. It is a maze of alleyways, and the walls, constructed from natural coral, once provided homes to earlier generations; that was before the discovery of oil changed everything and the residents of Sharjah moved to brand new villas in other parts of town. Today, several black arrows direct visitors through the alleyways to a series of light filled courtyards and gallery spaces. Resplendent in bright tiles, decorated with Arabic calligraphy, Al Zahra Mosque holds court nearby, and the imam’s call to prayer washes over the neighbourhood like pure poetry, grounding SAF’s modern architecture in the footprints of the past. 

Sheikha Nawar Al Qassimi, who directs the SAF’s public relations and community outreach, is impossibly cool – the kind of unflappable person you would want to be around in a medical emergency. She greets us in a pair of trendy turquoise sunglasses and slumps in an office chair. SAF, like Sheikha Nawar, is appreciably accomplished yet charmingly unaffected.
“We’re all totally accessible on Instagram and Twitter, even Hoor [Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi], who is SAF’s president and director,” she says. “We don’t hold exclusive VIP events or collector’s openings. Everything we do is free and open to the public.”

Despite the informal culture, Sheikha Nawar emphasises that SAF is a serious enterprise. “You can visit us and view work by many of the same artists you would see at international museums such as the Tate Modern in London or the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, but in a completely different setting.” It’s not unusual to encounter an installation by the Indian artist Anish Kapoor, one of Hassan Hajjaj’s hip hop influenced photographs, or the latest solo show by Saudi-based powerhouse Ahmed Mater in the galleries here. 

SAF has its roots in the Sharjah Biennial, a vanguard exhibition that began in 1993 and will take place next in 2015. Established in 2009 to support the expanding Biennial, the current art spaces were only fully unveiled a year ago. Much of the foundation’s vision can be attributed to the young but pioneering Sheikha Hoor, whose childhood and teenage years were marked by her visits to the Sharjah Biennial, culminating in an appointment as co-curator of the 2003 edition with artist and curator Peter Lewis.
One guest at the last Biennial who was given a private tour by Sheikha Hoor confided that the attention to detail was so meticulous that it was tempting to slip off one’s shoes before stepping into the space, just as though she were entering the Sheikha’s private home. 

With an evident curatorial gift, Sheikha Hoor has just been confirmed as curator of the UAE Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale. The progressive SAF may seem peculiarly out of context in Sharjah’s heritage area, but Sheikha Nawar doesn’t see the disconnect between tradition and contemporary art.
“SAF presents works that are thought provoking while keeping in line with traditions and values,” she explains. In truth, the emirate has always been an innovator when it comes to the arts and has a long history of serving as a haven for experimental artists and curators. Because of support from Sharjah, The Emirates Fine Arts Society was established in the 1980s, and the organisation’s community has consistently provided local artists such as Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem with the freedom needed to push boundaries. 

There are 18 museums in Sharjah, and the public feels such ownership over the area’s artistic identity that the Sharjah Biennial is often referred to simply as “Our Biennial”. The SAF spaces are open from 10am to 10pm Saturday to Thursday, as well as 4pm to 10pm on Friday, so that everyone is able to visit. The courtyards and alleyways come alive in an entirely different way in the evenings, and some installations are best appreciated in the moonlight. An outdoor theatre regularly screens Arab indie films, and a new urban garden has added an area of peaceful greenery. 

“The most satisfying thing about my role is seeing the area’s residents come to feel a real sense of ownership over SAF,” Sheikha Nawar says. “Neighbourhood kids have wandered in and come back again and again. They know that this is their space to the point that a group of them felt confident enough to spontaneously get up and rap onstage one night at Sharjah Biennial 10.” 

One of the foundation’s strengths lies in appealing to both the global arts community and local residents. The interests of these groups are not always divergent. Over the course of the most recent Biennial, as part of a residency, Egyptian artist Wael Shawky began a project titled Dictums 10:120. Collecting phrases from rhetoric-rich curatorial lectures and translating the words into Urdu, Shawky composed a song in the tradition of a qawwali, a classic Sufi chant. Along with professional musicians, a group of mainly Pakistani SAF staff delivered the collaborative devotional to a rapt audience in one of the area’s alleyways. A recording of the performance replays in one of the gallery spaces this spring. 

As a foundation (in contrast to a gallery or a museum), SAF frequently takes on the philanthropist’s role of commissioning artists through residencies, grants and exhibitions, culminating in the completion of special projects that are sometimes added to the organisation’s growing collection.
One product of a commission, a structured geometric sculpture by Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen has been mounted outside the entrance to Building 1, as if to invite the neighbourhood’s inhabitants and international visitors alike to interact with and even critique the work. Inside the gallery, the retrospective Before And After Minimalism explores the artist’s 50-year journey from modest watercolours to the abstract paintings and engineering-inspired sculptures he is known for today. 

Anyone who attends shows at SAF – from the labourer on a day off to the CEO of a hedge fund – is presented with a set of books containing images and text related to the current exhibitions. In an interview with Sheikha Hoor, printed in the retrospective’s book, Rasheed Araeen confesses, “I never wanted to be an artist. I became an artist because art pushed me into it.” By engaging the public with open access to these spaces, SAF is sparking the flames needed to push the next generation of artists forward. 

Near Zahra Mosque
Art Area, Sharjah
Tel: +971 6 568 5050

Words: Danna Lorch / Images: REM



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