The Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), established in 2009 by Hoor Al Qasimi, grew out of a growing need for year-round, engaging art programming in the region. Sharjah is known for its biennial, which Al Qasimi helped to grow from a country representational model to a thematically curated, global vision, since first co-curating the exhibition in 2003.
Through diverse and inclusive exhibitions—intimately hosted in the old city of Sharjah—programs, and residencies, the foundation acts as a catalyst for contemporary art and artists at the local and international level.
Whitewall spoke with Al Qasimi early this year, as she put the finishing touches on another major project, the 2020 Lahore Biennale.
WHITEWALL: How has the mission of the Sharjah Art Foundation evolved over the past decade?
HOOR AL QASIMI: We have tried to be collaborative and responsive to the needs of the various communities we work with—both the local communities of Sharjah and the UAE as well as the community of artists and other art professionals whose contributions to our success have been immensely gratifying.
As an example, Tarek Atoui came as a resident artist in 2008 to compose a new sound commission for Sharjah Biennial 9. Over the past decade he has returned several times to Sharjah and engaged with the community through various projects, many of which have also resulted in collaborations between SAF and other international institutions.
WW: You’ve described the foundation as a platform to give back to the community and create a hub. How would you describe the Sharjah community?
HAQ: I was born and raised in Sharjah, so I’m admittedly biased, but I’ve also been lucky enough to visit a lot of places over the years, and I have never experienced a warmer and more welcoming community than ours in Sharjah. Sharjah Art Foundation’s presence in Sharjah is not confined to one grand museum building, but, rather, made up of numerous courtyards, galleries, project spaces, historic sites, and gardens that are integral to the fabric of the city and daily life in the emirate. In my view it is SAF’s greatest accomplishment that the people of Sharjah feel ownership and pride in the foundation.
WW: Since 2003, you’ve had a major hand in the Sharjah Biennial, of which you are now the director. Under your leadership, it’s become one of the most well-known important international biennials. What have been some of the game-changer moments of the biennial for you in recent memory?
HAQ: When I started in 2003 we had no staff to speak of; I was literally sweeping the floors and stenciling wall text the night before the opening. A major milestone was our move from the commercial Expo Centre, where it was originally held, into the heart of the old city beginning in 2005 for Sharjah Biennial 7, curated by Ken Lum, Tirdad Zolghadr, and Jack Persekian, who continued as artistic director for the next two biennials and was also instrumental in the establishment of Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009. Then in 2013 a major milestone was opening our Al Mureijah Art Spaces with Yuko Hasegawa’s biennial (Sharjah Biennial 11).
We are in the early stages of developing a new building to house SAF’s collection, which will include many of the commissions we’ve supported through biennials over the years, and, for me at least, it’s going to be extraordinary to see all of that work together and recognize the cumulative creative talent it represents.
WW: What are your hopes to provide artists during their time with Sharjah via the Residency Programme, which is open to all artists, and March Project, supporting regional emerging artists?
HAQ: What we really hope visiting artists will experience is the dynamic exchange between artists, the local community, and the broader cultural landscape that is unique to Sharjah.
Often the residencies are related to specific commissions or cocommissions or one of our open calls. More recently, we have developed the open call Air Arabia Curator in Residence program that offers a selected curator the opportunity to travel and research within the Air Arabia flight network and develop an exhibition that is presented at SAF. We have also recently presented a residency award to the Kinshasa-based artist Nelson Makengo as part of the Sesc_Videobrasil Biennial.
WW: Originally you studied to be a painter. How do you think your background as a painter has influenced your role at the Sharjah Foundation?
HAQ: Being an artist myself has definitely helped me understand and work with artists in a way that has been rewarding for me personally. And while there are a number of factors involved, I feel that, as an organization, one of SAF’s strengths has been its ability and willingness to support artists in the realization of work that is often extremely challenging.