SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: It’s a Thursday, the first day of the 14th Sharjah Biennial. Squinting, a motley crew of international journalists have stumbled from the first of several bus journeys. This one’s got them to Al-Hamriyah Studios, the state-of-the-art artist residency and exhibition space the Sharjah Art Foundation’s erected in the desert.
One of SB14’s exhibition spaces, Hamriyah is today hosting a pair of performances. First, in an alcove between galleries, Australian-born artist, curator and writer Leuli Eshraghi awaits.
Barefoot, wrapped in a gold-foil emergency blanket, cheeks and forehead dabbed with gold leaf, he sits amid split coconuts and packaged South Sea Island commodities.
Before him, an ovoid mound of desert sand frames a foil sculpture representing the Pacific.
“Nullarbor. No trees,” Eshraghi recites to his curious audience.
“Terra nullius. Land empty of people. Mare nullius. Sea empty of people. West and its supposed Enlightenment. ... Unable to surmount the craze for empire.”
Eshraghi has Samoan and Persian roots. His poetic 2017 work “tagatanu’u” reflects a practice rooted in the narrative traditions of the Pacific Rim’s First Nations peoples and the extreme impact imperialism and nation states have had upon them from conquest to settler-colonial dislocation, from nuclear testing to cultural commodification.
Helmed by SAF founder Hoor Al Qasimi, the Sharjah Biennial is widely acknowledged to be this region’s premiere contemporary art platform. It’s an ambitious affair - three months of exhibitions and public programming scattered around the emirate, showcasing commissions and recent work by squads of feted international and Arab artists. This year over 80 artists are participating.
The opening week of any biennial is the busiest.
SB14’s exhibition openings correspond to the March Meetings - a series of panels and talks by artists and fellow travelers reflecting upon the state of contemporary art (and everything else) and an especially busy performance program.
SB14’s opening days have been ferocious. That reflects, in part, SAF’s decision to appoint not one guest curator but three - Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons - all distinct in their curatorial obsessions, each free to program a distinct section of exhibitions, talks and performances.
Titled “Leaving the Echo Chamber,” SB14 addresses the exclusivity of contemporary art exhibition practices, which play to a minute class of cosmopolitan urbanites with the leisure for cultural production whose object is never simple entertainment. Performance seems one way to reach a broader public. Some of this biennial’s works are entertaining enough to infiltrate the defenses of some hostile audience members.
Like all the works on show at Hamriyah, Eshraghi’s work has been programmed for Butt’s program, “Journey Beyond the Arrow.”
Most of SB14’s performances, though, have been curated by Tancons for her “Look for Me All Around You,” which she terms “an open platform of migrant images and fugitive forms.”
It was in the quest for fugitive forms - rather than an effort to escape the echo chamber - that pushed the press corps back onto buses Friday morning. The trek (an elongated affair) targeted the town of Kalba, a Sharjawi coastal enclave near the Oman border, where a derelict ice factory and its beachfront environs hosted a series of Tancons’ performances.
The climax was “Land of Zanj,” a 2019 SAF commission created by Mohau Modisakeng, performed by a black-clad troupe led by Thembekile Komani and Aphiwe Mpahleni.
Located within the ice factory building, the first of the work’s two acts centers on a wordless, rituallike choreography. First, pairs of female performers move up and down the length of the sandy factory floor, accompanied by the simple percussive beat of the shells about their ankles and solo drum.
(The musical ensemble comprises derbake, oud and violin.)
Eight male performers stand outside at the hangar entrance like pallbearers, flanking a wooden facsimile of a rowboat. They’re motionless throughout, faces downcast, unfazed by a noisy procession of Harley-Davidson motorbikes that rumble past a few minutes after the work has begun.
As the female performers file out, the men push the boat inside, with Mpahleni clinging to the prow like an inverted figurehead.
There they enact a slow-motion pantomime of tumbling overboard, near drowning and rescue.
The second act of “Zanj” takes the form of an outdoor procession.
It begins with Mpahleni and Komani’s duet, which leads them to a literal marriage bed. The dancers then to take the audience on a journey down the beach, through a door to an outdoor salon, interacting with the beached boats that litter the shore in this part of Kalba.
Sometimes the dancers freeze in place, as if to mimic a photograph. Other times they sprint away from their audience, as though chafing beneath the scrutiny.
Tancons’ performance program continued Saturday morning.
“Sabor a Lagrimas” (“Taste of Tears”), one of two new works commissioned from Carlos Martiel, started the day. Staged in a restored date-pressing factory, this installationlike performance consists of a length of handmade rope running from the roofing beams to the glass floor. The artist (here fully clothed) has entangled himself in the rope, lying facedown in a pose that’s meant to emulate pearl-diving practice but here resembles the aftermath of a lynching. In an ironic flourish, a pair of men of non-Caucasian heritage bear gilded trays of baklava, each sweet impaled upon a gold-colored pin, topped with pearllike luminescent gob.
At times serious art can be entertaining and Saturday morning’s program included Ulrik Lopez’s SAF commission “Pataki 1921.” It’s inspired by Lopez’s research into a ballet, performed during the 1966 World Chess Olympics in Havana, that animated a match between Cuban and German chess masters.
Set on a giant chessboard, performed by dancers in costumes topped by elaborate, defacing masks, Lopez’s work references colonialism’s regimentation of Caribbean life, as well as the region’s African heritage. Accompanied by three percussionists and a keyboardist, the work unfolds not unlike a capoeira contest. The dancers start in their squares, anonymous, but the soloists’ duels and solos invariably send the headgear flying. A lot of research no doubt went into “Pataki,” but that’s not what got SB14 attendees dancing.
Two works have been especially successful in using form to disarm audiences. One is Eisa Jocson’s SB14 commission “The Filipino Superwoman Band,” her latest exploration of body politics in the service and entertainment industries.
The other is Peter Friedl’s SAF project “No prey, no pay.”
Friedl’s practice works the frisson between popular aesthetic and political awareness. “No prey” is composed of seven circus-style plinths scattered about the gallery, each accompanied by costumes associated with historical character tropes.
The work was activated Saturday when Johnathan Lee Iverson entered Mureijah Square’s Gallery 1 and started to dress himself in the sequined top hat and tails of a ringmaster, punctuating his preparations with whistling and outbursts of operatic tenor. An accomplished performer, Iverson has, in real life, been America’s first African-American ringmaster and been lauded by Broadway critics.
Here he’s performing Friedl’s script, standing upon the plinth and calling upon his audience to observe the brilliant acts of circus derring-do that he describes - which no one can see, of course.
After a spell he calls upon a young couple from the audience to volunteer. Placing the young woman on the plinth, he tells the man that all he has to do is go through the motions of serenading her. He, the ringmaster, will provide the voice. The performance is hilarious, all the more so when he calls upon the couple to switch positions on the plinth.
Another artist might take pains to spell out how this circus business is a clever metaphor for the peculiar performance of contemporary politics. Iverson's improvised conclusion to Friedl's work was a rendition of the aria “Nessun Dorma,” from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.”
Sharjah Biennial 14 runs through June 10. For more information, see: sharjahart.org/biennial-14.