Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present

Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present


Beginning February 2023, Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) brings together over 150 artists and collectives from more than 70 countries for the 15th edition and 30-year anniversary of the Sharjah Biennial.

Amar Kanwar, The Peacock’s Graveyard (installation view), 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.

Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor and curated by the Foundation’s Director Hoor Al Qasimi, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present reflects on Enwezor’s visionary work, which transformed contemporary art and has influenced the evolution of institutions and biennials around the world, including the Sharjah Biennial.


Barbara Walker, Burden of Proof (installation view), 2022. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation with the support of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Al Qasimi interprets and elaborates on Enwezor’s proposal with a presentation of more than 300 artworks critically centring the past within contemporary times. These works, as well as a wide-ranging programme of performance, music and film, activate more than 19 venues in 5 cities and towns across the emirate of Sharjah: Al Dhaid, Hamriyah, Kalba, Khorfakkan and Sharjah. Among the many venues are sites within Sharjah’s historical quarter; buildings recently restored and transformed by the Foundation including The Flying Saucer and Kalba Ice Factory; and repurposed structures that once served as a vegetable market, medical clinic and kindergarten.

Robyn Kahukiwa, The migration, 1973. Oil on board; 70 x 85.5 cm. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington Courtesy of the artist and Season, Tāmaki Makaurau
Robyn Kahukiwa, The Choice. 1974. Oil on board; 80 x 110 cm. Collection of Pātalca Art + Museum, Porirua, New Zealand
Courtesy of the artist and Season, Tāmaki Makaurau

For Enwezor, the contemporary art exhibition provided a means to engage with history, politics and society in our global present. Enwezor’s proposition of the ‘postcolonial constellation’ and its pluriverse of key concepts form one point of departure for the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial. Re-envisioning the proposal by the late curator, Al Qasimi builds upon her own long-term relationship with the Biennial, as visitor, artist, curator, and eventually as director of the Foundation.

Robyn Kahukiwa, Muriranga-Whenua, 1983. Oil on board; 118.5 x 118.7 cm. Ngà Puhipuhi o Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection
Courtesy of the artist and Season, Tāmaki Makaurau

Expanding upon Enwezor’s initial proposal, Al Qasimi has collaborated with artists to embark on more than 70 new works, including many major commissions, that relate and respond to SB15’s overarching theme of centering the past within the present, thereby bridging diverse postcolonial histories.


Amar Kanwar, The Peacock’s Graveyard (installation view), 2023. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Hoor Al Qasimi interprets and re-envisions the titular proposal by the late thinker to critically centre the past within the contemporary moment. Al Qasimi develops the concept of ‘thinking historically in the present’ by adopting a working methodology that privileges the role of intuition and incidence.

To mark the Sharjah Biennial’s 30-year anniversary, Enwezor proposed commissioning 30 works for the Biennial as a way to meaningfully activate this critical platform through the development of new work.

The 19 venues spread across the emirate of Sharjah, from heritage buildings and historical landmarks to modern architecture of the late 1900s and contemporary spaces, connect different moments of Sharjah’s history as well as its diverse communities and landscapes. Through more than 300 artworks, the Biennial proposes a transcultural universe of thought embedded into this local social fabric, involving Sharjah’s own lived past in a nuanced conversation around postcolonial subjectivity, the body as a repository of memories, restitution, racialization, transgenerational continuities, and decolonisation. Rooted in intimate and caring observations of everyday lives and vernacular traditions, performances, concerts, workshops and other public programmes will activate the venues as well as regional art centers located in each city, forming a capillary reach across the emirate throughout the four-month duration of the Biennial.


Barbara Walker, Burden of Proof (installation view), 2022. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation with the support of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

Thinking Historically in the Present is being realised by Al Qasimi as curator in conjunction with the Sharjah Biennial 15 Working Group, comprised of Tarek Abou El Fetouh (independent curator); Ute Meta Bauer (professor and Founding Director of NTU CCA Singapore); Salah M Hassan (professor and art historian, Cornell University and Director of The Africa Institute, Sharjah); Chika Okeke-Agulu (professor and art historian, Princeton University); and Octavio Zaya (independent curator, art writer and Executive Director of the Cuban Art Foundation). Al Qasimi and the Working Group are overseeing the development and implementation of the Biennial with an Advisory Committee that includes Sir David Adjaye (architect) and Christine Tohmé (Director, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut).




Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present

Location: Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Duration: 7 February – 11 June



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