Al Qasimi Choir of Sharjah Art Foundation –

For the annual A Guide to Art in America, published in print in January, the editors spoke with five directors of renowned museums and institutions – Adriano Pedrosa of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo; Ibrahim Mahama of the Savannah Center for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; Sharmini Pereira of the Sri Lanka Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; Khur Al Qasimi of Sharjah Art Foundation; and Robina Carode of the Kiran Nadar Art Museum, New Delhi – for their work in and around the Global South.

SIn 2009, Heikha Hoor Al Qasimi founded the Sharjah Art Foundation, where she now serves as director. The organization – with its closely watched Sharjah Biennale, commitment to regional artists and audiences, and rigorous evolving program – has become a model for institution-building in the Global South. Below, the Emirati royal shares her vision for the foundation and talks about curating this year’s edition of the biennale.

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Growing up in Sharjah, I witnessed many cultural activities. But when I saw Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta in 2002, it inspired my commitment to relentless experimentation. I want to cultivate a space where creatives, thinkers and young people can come together. With everything we do, we start small and then grow from the feedback we get from the audience and from the artists. For example, Focal Point, which started as a stand at the Sharjah International Book Fair, has grown into a huge event. It started as a desire to share artists’ books and other works of small publishers, and now draws huge crowds, including entire families, and causes traffic jams.

I run the Foundation with public funds, so the local community is always my first thought. I want to be sensitive to the needs of the people here because they are my audience all year round; the international art world comes and goes, but its members are not stakeholders in the same way. The organization cooperates with other institutions; we are currently presenting a show by Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag at the Serpentine in London [through January 29]. Many institutions in the West have robust systems of patronage and support for the arts, but we don’t really have that here, so my work is about supporting artists. I don’t care who wants to put his name on commission or if it gets shown in Venice before he comes here. Institutions must work together and share credit and resources. I emphasized cooperation during my presidency of the International Biennale Association: we should commission works together, without fussing over who will show it first.

We are now in full installation mode for the Biennale, which will be held in five cities in Sharjah. The Foundation grew out of the Biennale, but I realized that our year-round commitments were not always obvious to Biennale visitors. We host workshops and courses in seven cities in Sharjah and I want these cities to be a visible part of what we do. I always aim to decenter the biennale. Some people might say “oh so and so is too far”. I find this frustrating: too far for who? There are people who live there! We also renovate several buildings across the emirate and display the work there. I banned the word “offsite” in our office; no such thing.

In addition to the fair, biennale and exhibitions, we host residencies for artists, curators and musicians. Our latest initiative is a performance festival, Perform Sharjah. I got Air Arabia to sponsor the curatorial residency because I wanted it to be regional, but I asked myself who is our region? So I looked at the flight map of Air Arabia, which is a budget airline, and thought, well, it’s a region! We have an annual photography exhibition, now in its 10th edition, as well as an architecture triennial. We decided to build the African Institute based on the recommendations made by the African-Arab Symposium in 1976. I am happy that I had the support of my father and the government of Sharjah to do all this. I don’t really feel repulsion or censorship. For me, my community is most important. If I were just on my own, I could open a gallery in New York or London or wherever. I’ve been working for the foundation and its predecessor for 20 years now, and my dad asked me what I was going to do to celebrate. I said: the biennial!

Banner images, left to right: Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: Blues for the Martyrs (detail), 2022, oil on canvas, 623 by 934 feet; Tahila Mintz: The Ancestral Gratitude Bridge, 2022, video; Al Qasimi [illustration by Denise Nestor]; Carolina Caicedo, Intense aluminum (detail), 2022; Nusra Latif Qureshi, The perfect floral background (detail), 2013

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