A new show at Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation explores the nature of walls and borders, both physical and metaphorical

Walls, fences, borders and margins are a basic part of our day-to-day experiences. We spend our lives among walls — we live, work and spend most of our leisure time inside closed buildings, with only limited time dedicated to outdoor experiences. Borders follow us wherever we go: we are constantly limited by political and metaphorical margins, and very often also by physical and tangible walls and borders between countries and territories, where crossing is only allowed after the fulfilment of a series of complex procedures marked by documents and passports.

Walls and Margins, the new exhibition curated by Suheyla Takesh at Barjeel Art Foundation — the Sharjah-based initiative to manage, preserve and exhibit Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi’s private collective of contemporary Arab art — focuses on artworks that interpret the experiencing of walls, fences and borders, both physically and ideologically. In the process, it raises questions about human rights, limitations of free movement, separation, migration and freedom.

Nadia Ayari

Nadia Ayari

Walls are intricate phenomena. Their ambiguity also lies in the fact that the desire for separation and defence might end up in confusing realities: we may come to find that we no longer know which side we are on, if our supposed defences provide us with freedom or self-generated imprisonment. This existential ambiguity is profoundly demonstrated in a reflective painting by Tunisia-born, New York-based artist Nadia Ayari, in which we see a monumental eye behind a barbed wire fence. The work is open to different readings: is it about the limitation of the eye’s view, or the other way around, an ever-watching gaze surveilling us behind an imprisoning barrier?

Visitors to the exhibition can directly experience the power of blockades. A work by Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem physically blocks part of the entrance to one of the exhibition space’s rooms. The 2010 work, entitled Concrete Block II, is a life-sized wood and rubber replica of a concrete block, normally used on roads. The ready-made character of the work is intentionally weakened by the change of material, where the surface of the sculpture is covered by rubber stamps with the repetition of the Arabic sentence: “Never trust in concrete.”

The work again allows for a wide range of interpretations that range from a critique of the obstructive nature of the work, to optimism about the gradual erosion of even the strongest wall-building materials.

Walls and Margins continues at Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah until February 1

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 20.