Postcolonial Sargasso Sea—Observing Sharjah Biennial 15

As an “adventurer” of contemporary art in the Middle East for 30 years, the Sharjah Biennial has come to a turning point this year. Themed “Thinking Historically in the Present”, the 15th Sharjah Biennial brings together the work of more than 150 artists from different cultural contexts around the world, attempting to mark the turning point as also a starting point for reviewing, calibrating and repositioning the Biennial’s own connection with the cultural context of the Gulf region, the Global South and the postcolonial constellation. Taking transnational liminal narratives as an entry point, the Biennial reinitiates and reconsiders the post-pandemic discourse and conversations surrounding the themes of migration, diaspora and emigration. 

Michael Rakowitz, Shetakha for Borrowed Landscape (30.3193°N, 48.2543°E), 2023
Exhibition view of Sharjah Biennial 15, Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Palace and Farm, Al Dhaid, 2023
Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

Entangled Borders 

The Biennial was initially conceived by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, and curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, founder and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Al Qasimi’s curatorial team situates the current historical intertexts in thoughtfully arranged special counterpoints. 19 exhibition venues with different architectural forms, functions and historical backgrounds are scattered in five major cities and towns, old and new, throughout the Emirate of Sharjah. The main venue is located in the Heart of Sharjah, a cultural heritage area in the centre of the city. As the Biennial’s exhibition venues, the Sharjah Art Museum, military forts, residential buildings, and private mansions form an architectural archive, tracing the historical metabolism and colonial memories of Sharjah itself. Among them, the Al Mureijah Square architectural complex brings together courtyards, old houses, white-cube spaces, and outdoor venues. Narrow corridors and alleys run through the space like streams. They form sections within the space and create a maze-like layout, in which visitors find themselves lost from time to time between the historical and the present. Red In Tooth (2023), a group of works by Dala Nasser hanging outdoors, evokes a soft sense of nostalgia by recreating the artist’s childhood reminiscence of living with her grandparents by AI ​​Wazzani River to reinstate militarised frontier’ state as a natural garden co-habited by different ethnic groups. The Al Wazzani River flows through southern Lebanon into Occupied Palestine. The artist used four hanging cables to form the outline of the river in the courtyard. The collaged fabric hangs down, and natural dyes extracted from the river create a texture that resembles creased and layered skin. Like a tent, separating and stitching together borders that depend on each other. 

Cao Fei, HX Project, 2019–20
Exhibition view of Sharjah Biennial 15, Old Al Dhaid Clinic, 2023
Photo: Danko Stjepanovic
Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

Kader Attia’s Hypomnemata (2023), located in the Bank Street Building just across the street from the heritage area, takes its title from a term Foucault confided to refer to a kind of man-made functional material memory (such as archives, buildings, photographs, and cultural relics). On the long table by a window, a row of models – made of pulp – of the earth architecture of the Mozabite people, an indigenous people of the Sahara desert. The models look like pulp egg trays commonly seen in modern consumers’ life, while also resembling miniature archaeological sites. They echo with the displayed archival images of colonial architectures, the ancient cityscape of Sharjah outside the window, and the Bank Street Building, teasing out more layers of meaning. Attia’s earth architecture models externalise human memory about land and ancient residential cultures. They also concern how colonisers had hatched modern architectural styles from the cultures of the colonised, and how such styles continue to shape today’s consumeristic social landscape.

Post-colonial Narratives from the Non-human Perspective

Elia Nurvista and Mirna Bamieh, two artists who both work with food, take up half of the Old Al Jubali Vegetable Market. They founded organisations to study the food history of Indonesia and Palestine respectively: “Bakudapan Food Study Group” and “Palestine Hosting Society” address issues like colonial trading of food, food sociopolitics, and the preservation of vanishing culinary heritage by growing, collecting, consuming and cooking food. Navista’s video installation Long Hanging Fruits (2022–present) reveals the ecological devastation of vegetation in Indonesia caused by the large-scale planting and harvesting of palm oil and bananas through the magical eyes of fungi. Although these organic products exported to Europe are free from genetic modification and pesticides, they are exploited by large-scale capitalist consumption just like the local fruit pickers are. Sculptures of palm trees crowd a pedestal shaped like a slave ship. Together, they embody the unresolved issues of post-colonial trade and new immigration from the perspective of the non-human. Bamieh’s To Jar (2023) turns the focus to fermentation processes which occur when bacteria engulf each other in food storage jars. The artist sees such processes as internal “microscopic colonisation” and also the creation of a “bacterial culture” that is constantly becoming and generating possibilities. These food jars were created when the new coronavirus was raging around the world and causing large-scale lockdowns. The fermentation inside and outside the jars brings out a paradox of “food colonisation”: bacteria that take lives also give rise to life.   

Bouchra Khalili, The Circle, 2023
Exhibition view of Sharjah Biennial 15, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah, 2023
Photo: Motaz Mawid
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation;
MACBA, Barcelona; and Luma Foundation, Zurich; Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

Au Sow Yee’s audio-visual installation with a strong Nanyang style revolves around the legend of the mysterious bandit, “Human Tiger”, of the Malay Peninsula. The work attempts to unpack how Tani Yutaka, a pre-war Japanese-Muslim intelligence agent, has been reimagined and adapted in cross-regional pop cultures of different times (such as films and video games) into a Harimau (“tiger” in Malay) outlaw with multiple incarnations. In Au’s narrative, this ghostly “Calm Sea Perwira” sails through the vast and psychedelic seas of Southeast Asia with the ancient nostalgia of someone in endless exile. Every incarnation of him/it is like an undetected séance. Similarly inspired by Southeast-Asian nautical folklores, Maharani Mancanagara’s Hikayat Wanatentrem (2018) points to the paradoxicality of a linear chronicle: a Java mouse-deer imprisoned by pirates in the jungle talks to sheeps, deers, wolves, frigatebirds, and other animals, trying to find justifications for the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s and also a way out of the jungle. A sister work, Susur Leluri (2021), invites viewers to read a picture book of game cards and reconfigure the Java mouse-deer’s trajectory. The riddles of history might never be unravelled, presenting multi-perspective and open-ended narratives may provide viewers with a sense of freedom to interpret it as they choose. However, for those who have directly experienced the historical event, like the captured mouse-deer in the story, entering and being released from history remain equally out of their control.     

Elia Nurvista, The Found Objects, 2023 (front);
and The Landscape, 2023
From “Long Hanging Fruits”, 2020–ongoing Exhibition view of Sharjah Biennial 15, Old Al Jubail Vegetable Market, Sharjah, 2023
Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

Postcolonial Psychopathology and The Sargasso Sea

 Today, we consider Frantz Fanon a pioneer of postcolonial theory, yet he was also a psychiatrist. His prophetic postcolonial writing and theoretical construction grew from his experience diagnosing and treating patients mentally deranged by the Algerian War and hospitalised at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in French Algeria. For Fanon, the basis of the coloniser’s oppression of the colonised is the systematic denial of the latter, a denial that forces the colonised towards derangement and makes them constantly interrogate themselves: Who am “I”? 

The works of Cao Fei and Wangechi Mutu are located in two disused hospitals: the Old Al Dhaid Clinic, one of the first modern medical facilities established in Sharjah, and the earliest obstetrician and gyneacologist practice Bait Al Serkal. Both of their works involve a Fanonian psychopathological diagnosis of the postcolonial subject. In Cao Fei’s film Nova (2019), “I” became a lonely electronic ghost because the “Hongxia Project” on which “my” engineer father collaborated with Soviet specialists had fallen through, and “I” could not reconnect with him. In the technocratic world imagined by the film, those who do not understand Cybernetics will be stigmatised as reactionaries by the “Technological Cultural Revolution”’. In Mutu’s monumental sculpture installation My Mother’s Memories, A Mound of Buried Brides (2023), “I” traced the relationship between “my” Kenyan mother and the Mau Mau tribe and unearthed the remains of women who were mutilated and discarded during the Mau Mau anti-colonial uprising. A lock of the mother’s red hair which could not be buried, and the “Hongxia” (red glow) that the father could not forget. They both create what is represented by the sick trees in Doris Salcedo’s Uprooted (2020–22) on display in Kalba Ice Factory – the “I” who have nowhere to go.

Gabriela Golder, Arrancar Los Ojos / Tear Out the Eyes, 2023
Exhibition view of Sharjah Biennial 15,
Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Palace and Farm, 2023 Photo: Motaz Mawid
Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation with the support of Sharjah Performing Arts Academy;
Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

Al Qasimi explained in the Biennial’s curatorial foreword that the core strategy of Okwui’s 2002 Documenta 11 was to “extraterritorialise” the exhibition which took place in the year following 9/11. As the first non-European curator of Documenta, Okwui’s strategy strived to find a way around cultural conflicts from within the European curatorial discourse represented by Documenta. This strategy is his legacy as a pioneer of postcolonial curation, yet it inevitably reminds us of Edward Said, the forerunner of post-colonial criticism, and his presumption that the Orient is the internal Other of Western civilisation. In light of this, Sharjah Biennial, raised a question at its 30th anniversary: In the “post-Okwui” era, are we still crossing cultural, ethnic, and national borders to establish a Global South from the perspective of the West’s “internal Other”? How can the “postcolonial constellation” proposed by Okwui avoid becoming the “Third Europe” refuted by Fanon (Fanon considered the United States as the “Second Europe”)?

The farewell lunch of the Biennial’s opening week was held in Al Hamriyah on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Rising and falling restlessly in the dawning light, the sea’s green waves reminded me of Dominican-British writer Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel tells the story of Antoinette the heroine, a British Jamaica-born Creole heiress who tries to walk out of the looming shadow of the ambivalent relationship with her English husband, and of the mental derangement caused by lost self-identities. The novel is a post-colonial work that rewrites the story of Jane Eyre, the renowned classic of English literature. If post-colonialism is seen as a vast sargasso sea that traps one’s self-identity, then the question – and a hopeful gift – I would leave with Sharjah Biennial on its 30th anniversary is: How do we walk out of the sargasso sea, and sail toward a broader, unknown world? 

Asea Zhanglun Dai is a writer and curator currently based in Shanghai.
Her research-based writing and curating focus on the contemporary perspec- tives of life and the associated spiritual manifestations arising from them, the metamorphoses of the human body in cross-cultural imaginations, reproduction, and interspecies intimacy. She worked as a curatorial assistant for the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial “Farewell to Post-Colonialism” (Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, 2008). She is the curator of “Son: Signal of Authority” (inCube Arts, New York, 2016) and “Cold Nights” (UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2017).

Translated by Cindy Ziyun Huang