The art world loves a spectacle and rewards provocateurs. Sharjah bans the sale of alcohol, enforces strict blasphemy laws, and has a reputation as the most conservative of the United Arab Emirates. They make an unlikely couple, but the opening of the 11th Sharjah Biennial recently brought an international group of artists, curators, critics, and other invitees to the small, oil-rich emirate just north of Dubai. Much of the matchmaking credit goes to Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi. The daughter of Sharjah’s longtime ruler, the sheikha holds an M.A. from London’s Royal College of Art and heads the emirate’s art foundation. She took over the biennial in 2003, and since then, has built it into an intelligent and influential exhibition focusing on artists from outside Europe and the United States.
It has not always gone well. After the 2011 biennial opened, Sharjah authorities deemed one work in the show offensive and fired the exhibition’s artistic director, Jack Persekian. This year’s curator, Yuko Hasegawa, director of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, avoided material likely to rankle the monarchy and put together a frequently surprising, if uneven, exhibition that also includes a significant architecture component. Hasegawa titled the show, which runs through May 13, Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography to emphasize its scope beyond the West, and she organized it around the concept of the courtyard, which she describes as a semi-public and semi-private space where conversations and ideas are typically exchanged. The extremely elastic theme allowed the curator to show a wide range of works by more than 100 artists, nearly 50 of which were commissioned specifically for the biennial.