Sharjah Biennial co-curator Zoe Butt reflects on the artistic event

From March 7 to June 10, the Sharjah Biennial 14 (SB14) showcased three unique exhibitions, curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons. Entitled Leaving the Echo Chamber, the exhibitions present artists interested in timely issues that question established narratives and hierarchies of artistic production, either in the form of ritual, belief, dogma or custom. Selections asked the Biennial’s co-curator Zoe Butt about some of the underlying premises and context behind the explosive and powerful show.

Q: This year’s Sharjah Biennial was entitled Leaving the Echo Chamber, a euphemism popularised with the rise of social media and construed according to what you define as “a modern-day Faraday cage.” What responsibility do you believe artists and curators have when it comes to assembling new quotidians of social engagement in art?
A: The Sharjah Biennial 14 is co-curated between myself, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons. Each of us curated three separate exhibitions that reveal our own interpretation of the existence of this echo chamber and how art offers a means to pry apart the assumptions of this “Faraday cage.” I believe artists and curators do have a responsibility to reveal the social parameters behind artistic production. I live and work in a part of the world (Vietnam) where artists are often the enablers and means of sustainability for a network of local cultural producers. Here, artists and curators have little local community who understand and support their endeavours in contemporary art, operating in political environments that are highly ambiguous in regulation, and incredibly psychologically violent with their hidden means of surveillance/control. Within Journey Beyond the Arrow, there are current and historic, similarly endured conditions shared (see the work of Khadim Ali, Meiro Koizumi, Phan Thao Nguyen, Antariksa and more).

Q: How do you conceive art in relation to concepts like free speech and expression?
A: I think all societies have differing parameters of speaking, thinking, acting. For example, I chose to accept SB14’s invitation knowing that I am working in the UAE and thus must respect their cultural frameworks. This I believe is how we respect the diversity of humanity. I live in a place where speech is “monitored” in Vietnam. I believe much of the world today lives similarly, to varying degrees of transparency. Art is the only language that can present grey matter (the space before judgement). I am in awe of these sleuths (artists) who command brilliant narrative to reveal what those in power don’t want to see. Real artists figure a way of saying things poetically – for me poetry is a privilege and a right.

Q: SB14 featured the work of over 80 artists, with over 60 commissions, including notably a new work by Wael Shawky that dramatized the process of writing history through careful study of stereotypes, myths and traditions. How important do you think it is for contemporary artists from the MENA and the Global South to counter Western-centric approaches to art?
A: I think it’s incredibly important that all artists, wherever they are from, to re-engage with the impact and continuing legacies of coloniality and capitalism. I think it crucial that we, as cultural workers today, understand that the interdependent nature of our economies cannot be divided into neat binaries (West vs the Rest). Within Asia we have our own beasts to historically counter (think China – see the work of Anawana Haloba). Depending on where you sit in the Middle East, there is Iran or Saudi Arabia (see the work of Khadim Ali). While the West has definitely defined the systems by which “art” is valued and experienced, there are also many socio-political frameworks across the MENA and Global South that deserve further study and consideration in the local (and in turn thus showcased as comparative interpretative discourse).

Q: And what about inter-cultural narratives? How does the Sharjah Biennial function with respect to conceiving, platforming and researching humanist and more universalist impulses that bring people, artists and curators together?
A: The Sharjah Biennial offers a meeting point for minds to contemplate and participate. The Sharjah Art Foundation’s broader programs are a wonderful example of how differing cultures connect.