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How Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi brought new life to Sharjah’s arts scene

The Africa Institute 101 Housed on the same site as the original Africa Hall, which first hosted an Arab-African Symposium in 1976, the newly renovated building will be home to a think tank and postgraduate studies hub (it will offer master’s and PhD programmes). The centre will focus on both the historical and contemporary links between Africa and the Gulf, and will serve as a meeting place for conferences, symposia, lectures, film screenings, plays, musical performances and more. In fact, today it is hosting a symposium – 5-plus-1: Rethinking Abstraction that will look at the six decades of Frank Bowling’s career, as well as those of his contemporaries that invested social, cultural and personal meaning into abstraction. One of the more noteworthy eureka stories in GCC curatorial legend is that of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi and her trip to Documenta 11.

In 2002, Al Qasimi, at the time 21 and studying painting at the Slade School in London, was accompanying her father on a cultural tour of Germany. He went to Mainz for a day, and she to Documenta 11, the agenda-setting art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel. That year happened to be a key one for the show. Put together by Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, the exhibition drew artists from across the world and challenged a western-centric art scene to look beyond its confines. It would have been an extraordinary exhibition for anyone to start on.

“I had never been to any biennial other than the Sharjah Biennial before,” Al Qasimi tells me. “And so I went, on my own, and it changed my life.

“I said to my father, ‘What happens with our biennial? Why isn’t our biennial like this? I just want to see, I won’t interfere’,” she continues, laughing – because she did interfere.

After being appointed to the committee overseeing the Sharjah Biennial, which her father, Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, established in 1993, she eventually took the exhibition over and turned it into an important stop on the art world calendar.

In 2009, frustrated with the stop-and-start visibility of hosting biennials, she created a foundation that hosts about 10 exhibitions a year, many of them well-researched, major retrospectives of figures who have been ignored elsewhere. The biennial and foundation also began a number of education and funding schemes – in film, music and art – such as the Production Programme, which gives US$200,000 (Dh734,500) every two years to support the making of artworks.




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