The moral problem in dealing with Arab oil and gas states is that they come across as the Elysium of fantasies of prosperity, only without co-determination. The insidious model of tempting people to become self-incapacitated is all the more tempting the more the ruling families there invest their CO2-polluted money in Western-oriented educational institutions and are reasonably tolerant of local moral concepts.
The Sharjah Biennial and its offspring, the Sharjah Art Foundation, also belong to this fairy tale of good totalitarianism. Since 1993, The Sharjah Biennial and its offspring, the Sharjah Art Foundation has been integrated into the international biennial circus, since 2009 it has built up a collection of works produced for the arts festival, which also acquires other contemporary works.
So if an exhibition in which depictions of fluid gender boundaries are shown as well as the violence of Arab dictatorships, where the curator of the exhibition, the director of the Foundation Omar Kholeif, openly addresses his homosexuality in the catalogue, then it is more evidence of the ambivalence of autocratic regimes on the gulf. The diverse, critical selection of contemporary art, which can hardly be distinguished from a Western themed exhibition, can be seen as a reserve for social change.
In this context, Omar Kholeif’s topic “Diaspora” offers a certain protection against persecution. Because the 150 works of art by 60 artists either address the expulsions and misconduct of other states in the Islamic cultural context, or tell about the discrimination experienced in Western countries, there is hardly any danger of a criminal insult to Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, one founder of the arts project.
The focus of the exhibition, which is named “In the Heart of Another Country” after a text by the recently deceased artist Etel Adnan, is above all artistic reflections on lost homes in Lebanon and Syria, in Palestine, Egypt or Iran, as well as the oppression of the Freedom in the name of state, religion and morals. But also works about the high level of resistance that artists from Muslim backgrounds in Western exile have to overcome in order to be valued for their work and their attitude are particularly highlighted. The Emirates themselves appear almost exclusively as a place of protection, where artists live in order to be able to work more freely than in their native countries.
Many works deal with state violence. In a haunting sound collage, the British-Lebanese artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan recalls Assad’s torture prison Saydnaya, the Palestinian Khalil Rabah uses 90 golden spools of barbed wire to illustrate the sense of helplessness in the face of borders drawn by force and the Iranian Rokni Haerizadeh, who lives in exile in Dubai, painted over television images of the violent crackdown on vote-rigging protests in Iran in 2009, the horror of which could hardly be more topical given the new uprising against bondage in this fascist mullahs’ state.
A very mocking work on the mundane aspects of the Mecca trip by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater or the amazingly humorous reconstruction of the museum looting in Baghdad after the US attack on Iraq in 2003 by Michael Rakowitz show how sensitive topics can be treated with wit. The joint work by Etel Adnan and Joana Hadjithomas, who remember their family hometown of Smyrna, which fell to Turkey after the fire and massacre of Greeks and Armenians in 1922 and is now called Izmir, is an intensive work with a punch line. They find that the place is probably better off in their imagination than in reality.
The diversity and critical substance of this somewhat overcrowded exhibition does not allow a clear answer to the question of whether art is not for the United Arab Emirates what sports competitions are for other dictatorships such as China, Russia or Qatar: a propaganda show that a conveyed an embellished image of the country and its business model to the world. After all, history is full of artists who were willing to be politically exploited.
In the Heart of Another Country. Works from the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection. Deichtorhallen Hamburg, until March 12th, 2023.
This article has been first published by Süddeutsche Zeitung on the 9th of Nov 2022
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