“Sharjah is a factory; I'm going to challenge myself when we are doing these productions,” says Tohme. “Who is hearing these productions? Maybe something is not working in the structure of what we do,” she adds, referring to the difficulties of commissioning projects in far-flung destinations at a time when artists are not able to travel freely. “I could not go to Ramallah for 30 years. But a bigger threat [than physical immobility] is intellectual immobility and how we are censoring ourselves.”
Palestine is a recurring issue. Khalil Rabah's fictional museum of natural history, featuring a Gaza zoo sculpture garden and a model of the sinking Dead Sea (which borders Jordan, Israel and the West Bank) is an ironic swipe about life under the Israeli occupation. Shadi Habib Allah's video installation 'Shine' (2017) shows an elderly woman smashing into her late grandmother's Jerusalem home, which had been seized by Jewish Israelis, and Palestinian workers building an underground tunnel cemetery. The wider problems in the region are touched on elsewhere, such as in Lawrence Abu Hamdan's 'Saydnaya (the missing 19db)': in a blacked-out space, former inmates of the Syrian government's notorious prison describe how they were tortured if they didn't remain silent – even coughing would get someone a beating.
Nearby, in a former heritage house, is South Korean artist Donghee Koo's 'Way of Replay II'. An abstract mapping of the surrounding buildings, it features pathways delineating living areas, mirrors, table tennis, a water-filled structure at the entrance and styrofoam snowmen. Whilst beautifully contemplating architectural history, it conflates cultures, climates and periods in a cross-pollination of ideas.
The eclipse and distortion of language is the focus of James Webb's audio piece 'Threnody' (2016). After reversing the recording of Paul McCartney singing the 1968 Beatles track Helter Skelter, the South African artist asked Zami Mdingi to sing the backward speech. The result, playing out from behind a black, backlit circle, is like a song of lamentation, contrasting with the original heavy metal sound. The piece is shown in the newly opened Al Hamriyah Studios. Designed by Dubai-based agency dxb.lab led by Khaled Al Najjar, the site is a 2,500m2 sleek, minimalist building designed for hosting creative workshops.
Notions of ownership and rights underscores Uriel Orlow's video 'The Crown Against Mafavuke' (2016), a re-enactment of a 1940 trial in South Africa against a black man who was accused by the British medical establishment of “untraditional behaviour” for combining plant-based materials with western medicine. “I found this 400-page document on the court case in Pretoria and was captivated by the subtext of tradition versus modernity and competition of the two medical systems and ideologies,” says Orlow, also a winner of the Sharjah Biennial Prize along with Inci Evincer, Walid Siti and the late Ali Jabri.
Although the biennale mostly steers clear of sexuality and female identity, Evincer's multi-media video installation 'Beuys Underground' (2017) has feministic undertones. Fusing film with drawing and animation, it's about a group of poets and artists living underground where they create their own value system, such as “searching the nature of women”, “sensual understanding” and “practising Liberty Leading the People” appearing under a young woman in a red dress. Another video piece by the Turkish artist is the theatrical 'Runaway Girls' (2015). Staged before a rotating camera in a warehouse, girls in striped outfits and ambiguous characters, whose heads are obscured by drawings, chase each other and run away from the police.
Revolt and demonstrations are inherent, too, in Rain Wu and Eric Chen's sculptural installation 'Collectivism' – a barricaded wall made of around 600 bulletproof police shields – on Arts Square. Concealed inside the walk-through installation is a tiny garden, symbolising optimism and growth. The piece alludes to the 2015 wave of demonstrations by Taiwanese high school students against the introduction of a China-centric national curriculum which they felt undermines the island's sovereignty.
“We were offered the police shields from a friend of Eric's whose mother [in Taiwan] had invested in a stock of 5,000 of them,” explains Wu, a Taiwanese artist based in London. “As one of the bullet-proof layers had expired, the shields couldn't be sold. So instead of receiving the monetary value that she'd invested, she received these 5,000 shields. We made this piece to give some of the shields a usage, but we turned the installation into a space of nurturing and protection through the garden,” continues Wu.
Inside Bait Al Serkal, former home of the British Commissoner for the Gulf region, Oscar Murillo's installation involves the excavation of the central courtyard, painted canvases installed in trenches, sculptures erected like scaffolding and windows partially covered with bricks. Murillo, a Colombian artist, worked on-site with his uncle and a team of assistants. He describes it as “soft architecture”, treating the courtyard as a “blank canvas that I used as an investigation of excavating the ground”.
As he says, “The title – Condiciones aun por titular [Conditions yet not known] – is apt because it's not fully formed and is shifting and changing because of the weather over time and speaks about multiplicity.” The fact that Murillo was allowed to make such an audacious intervention is testament to Sharjah's eagerness to have a biennale, undulating between overtly political and subtle ideas.