Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

Our second day in the United Arab Emirates took our group to Sharjah, with an intensive programme of art or educational institutes and museums. If yesterday’s trip to Abu Dahbi may be summarized as old art in new buildings, then this day was all about new art in old.

Our host for the whole day was the most hospitable and elegant Omar Al Obeidli, and also a source of enthusiasm for the ambition and culture of his Emirati state of Sharjah. Furthermore, he also smoothed out our busy schedule in meeting the other hosts and guides of each institution: The African Institute, Al Hamriyah Studios, Sharjah Art Foundation sites, and the Performance Arts Academy. Each have a feature below, although we recommend you search their websites respectfully to learn more. Due to the multiple transitions in-between sites and venues, we also give a little sample of our inbetween and hospitality moments. These are significant for our bonding conversations between us, as orientation trip participants, and our hosts.

The Africa Institute is an interdisciplinary academic research institute dedicated to the study, research and documentation of Africa, its people and its cultures; its complex past, present and future; and its manifold connections with the wider world. It is a globally oriented institution with a focus on the humanities and social sciences that will have a postgraduate studies programme offering both masters and PhD degrees with the aim of training a new generation of critical thinkers in African and African diaspora studies.

Professor Salah M. Hassan, director of the Institute is well ‘kent’ (known) in the Dutch context, visiting Amsterdam annually, and originally from Sudan. He is an international scholar in African studies and a curator, focused on modernist art and diasporas. He additionally includes oral culture and performance arts as point of reference or inspiration. In his inspiring presentation to our group, he spoke of the importance of both diversification and distribution in art and knowledge related to African-Arab relations. With coffee, tea, cake and savoury snacks, we learned about the African Institute’s ambitions to expand and develop into a remarkable and progressive centre for culture and scholarship. Not just for the whole Middle Eastern and African region, but having a global reach and impact for the future.

The rest of the day until late afternoon was focused on the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). Established in 2009, the Foundation builds on the history of cultural collaboration and exchange that began with the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993. Located in Sharjah’s historic Art and Heritage Areas, SAF activities and events take place throughout the year and include exhibitions featuring the work of Arab and international artists, performances, music, film screenings and artist talks, as well as extensive art education programmes for children, adults and families. The Foundation hosts the annual March Meeting and every two years presents the Sharjah Biennial. Next week they will announce the new curator for the 2020 edition, so keep an eye out!

We learned from Vice-President Nawar Al Qasimi of SAF that heritage is not far away, because the United Arab Emirates, which includes Sharjah, is a very young State. They have a programme in the foundation to preserve the old buildings of Sharjah, transforming them into publicly-accessible cultural spaces. It was mentioned that the people who lived in the buildings are still alive, and so have a living memory of how the buildings were occupied and used before.

Our first stop in a series of venues managed by the foundation was Al Hamriyah Studios. In collaboration with the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, we visited the ‘Sunset, Sunrise’, a retrospective exhibition of works by the late artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1924-2019). With a career spanning more than six decades, Farmanfarmaian is considered to be one of the most important Iranian artists of her time. It was her first retrospective, and was living in exile in New York in 1945 to study fashion, and returned to Tehran later in the century in 2004, and she was a participant in the 2013 Sharjah Biennale. There are many artists now living in the region in exile or displacement, and she is a wonderful example of the characteristics of adaptability, innovation, and perseverance.

We next were guided to the Bait Al Serkal complex, where we experienced the extremely well appreciated (by our group at least) exhibition of Bani Abidi, co-curated by Ryan Inouye, Hoor Al Qasimi and Natasha Ginwala. The artist was very involved in the art scenography within the exhibition space, and the attention to materials and placement of the installation within the rooms was complementary to the poetic work.

For over fifteen years, Bani Abidi’s work has engaged with questions of personal memory, patriotism and geopolitics through the lens of present-day Pakistan and the larger histories of South Asia.. With a wry sense of humour and attention to the performative aspects of daily life, the artist has approached her subject matter through a cast of minor protagonists—real and imagined, human and inanimate—which come to define a place and its culture.

We are excited to go ourselves to Karachi on Friday, which was formative to Abidi’s development as an artist in the 1990s.

An additional note: Sharjah Art Foundation hosts the annual March Meeting and every two years presents the Sharjah Biennial. Next week they will announce the new curator for the 2020 edition, so keep an eye out!

We had Lunch at Fen Cafe within the SAF Al Mureijah Square, together with with Sharjah Architecture Triennial team: Mona El Mousfy, SAF Architect Consultant, Founder and Managing Director, SpaceContinuum and Mahnaz Fancy, Senior Programme Manager. The Triennial is the first major platform for architecture and urbanism in the Middle East, North and East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. It opens very soon, the 9th November!

The day’s tour ended with a visit to the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy (SPAA) to address a
growing demand in Sharjah and the region for formal quality education and professional training in the performing arts, to enrich the cultural and artistic experiences of talented and inspiring students. It is hoped that SPAA will be the leading conservatoire in the region, offering quality undergraduate and graduate degree programs in acting, musical theatre and production arts.

The new institution’s director Peter Barlow gave us a guided tour with his staff. The purpose-built state of the art facilities of the Academy are currently under construction. We saw huge and brand-new facilities waiting eagerly for students in the near future from Sharjah, the UAE, and the rest of the world.

Many of the initiatives, if not all of the institutions we learned about that day, have Sharjah’s Sheikh Dr. Sultan Al-Qasimi in the background. His education in history seems to encourage him in his enthusiastic support for culture, heritage and education.

The interweave of these subjects can be profound, and help not only to conserve and learn from the past traditions, but also to reimagine them in the ever-changing living present, to imagine a better future society.

For example, Akram Zaatari’s exhibition ‘Against Photography: An annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation’, which most of the group witnessed at SAF Spaces, pushes and expands the definition of photography. It helps to re-imagine a traditional creative practice into new forms. From another perspective the SAF Heritage Museum present the cultural heritage of Sharjah tribes and related Arabian folklore, handicrafts, food culture, ceremonial and oral traditions. The challenge for this museum is to engage younger and new audiences--young as well as old--in intergenerational exchange, as well as encourage artist- and craft- practitioners to be involved in that process.

Pauline Burmann, Andrew Gryf Paterson and Marilyn Sonneveld