Hoor Al-Qasimi, a Sheikha engaged with her public
SHEIKHA HOOR AL-QASIMI is the Director of the Sharjah Biennal. She made it the leading exhibition of contemporary art of the region in a city which has become one of the cultural capital of the Arab world. She tells how she aims at reaching the viewer, tackling all subjects while staying both relevant and respectful, liberal but not offensive. INTERVIEW WITH AN ACCESSIBLE SHEIKHA.
Tell us about your journey to become a selecting member of the Biennial of Sharjah ?
I grew up with the Biennial. It started in 1993, I was 13 at the time and visited it every couple of years. After finishing my BA at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, I had a year gap between my bachelor and masters degree at the Royal Academy in London. I was traveling with my father in Germany. We were in Berlin, and from there I went to Kassel to see Documenta 11. It really inspired me and I thought about the Biennial in Sharjah and how it could develop. After discussions with the organisers I finally joined the committee and eventually became Director.
That was the first time you actually selected the artists ?
Yes that was in 2002-2003. It was an application process and some artists were also invited. It was at the Expo Centre in Sharjah and I decided to bring half of the exhibition here to the Arts Area where you had the Sharjah Art Museum, the Emirates Fine Art Society, the Arts Institute and artists' studios. An area where art has been happening since the 80’s. 2007 was the last time we used the Expo Centre because I wanted to move away from a space associated with trade and commerce since it is important to stress that what we do is non for profit. This location in the old part of Sharjah was more interesting for us to house our offices and our spaces as well as different spaces throughout the city with every biennial which changes with each session. Our new Sharjah Art Foundation spaces recently opened here in time for the Biennial this year.
The Sharjah Biennial is recognised as one of the leading exhibitions of contemporary art in the region ?
Everything that happened in Sharjah in terms of art and culture happened organically. I grew up with the Biennial, the theatre, the book fair and many cultural activities. At the Foundation we now have exhibitions all year round, a summer school, talks and workshops, conferences, a film club, residencies and publications.
How come Sharjah is so much orientated towards culture ? Is it something that comes as a mark of this Emirate ?
My father’s priorities are education and culture, he has invested so much in the universities and cultural institutions. In 1998, Unesco put Sharjah as Cultural Capital of the Arab world. Next year Sharjah will be the Islamic Capital.
How is contemporary art -which can be very provocative- received in a very traditional culture ?
People always think that Sharjah is very traditional but it is very liberal really. Artists often deal with political and social issues. For example Sarah Abu Abdallah from Saudi Arabia studied in the Art College of Sharjah and she did a project about women driving in Saoudi Arabia (Saoudi Automobile-see picture).
It’s quite amazing because it really takes a swipe at Saudi Arabia forbidding women from driving…
Yes and then, next to it, we have the photographs by Ahmed Mater of Mecca showing the fast development in the area (Desert of pharan/Room with a View- see pictures).
Can we takle every subject here ?
Everything is on the news and people discuss politics all the time. In what you show you can provoke a discussion but should not offend the pubic. If you offend people you don’t provoke a discussion and you actually fail in what you are trying to do. If you reach the viewer, that’s very important.
This 41 year old country of yours is experiencing a revolution but the way you do things in your field seems more like an evolution ?
When I think about the region I also think of the different communities who live here in Sharjah, people from different countries and generations. We also work with artists from these countries. Like the residency project we started two years ago with Egyptian artist Wael Shawky. It was called The Witness Programme where we invited an artist to witness the Biennial and produce a new work. Wael had our press conference from Sharjah Biennial 10 transcribed and translated into Urdu because most of our technicians speak Urdu. He then asked them to select their favorite sentences and worked with a lyricist in Pakistan to create a song in Qawali, Sufi music which was performed for three days by Pakistani musicians during the opening of the Biennial and then evolved into a sound piece. This work was part of the Biennial this year.
Contemporary art can be a bit impressive ?
It’s not for the elite. That’s the whole point : a lot of the work we do is very approachable. It's not necessarily for the museum goer but for the general public including children. Like the structure of Thilo Frank : the room inside is full of mirrors with a swing. Both children and adults love it.
It is as if you were given this heritage from your family and you have to pass it on to the next generation ?
I did this between my BA and my MA for a year but I just kept wanting to change the Biennial, make it more relevant and more engaged with its public. I am continuously researching, reading and learning.
How is it to be a Sheikha in this environment ?
I am not really Sheikha in this environment. We were never raised as Sheikhas.
Would you say Sharjah has become a regional hub for contemporary art ?
It always was on a small scale. In the summer we will host a summer school and film club as well as have works from our growing collection on show. My main focus is to work with communities and outreach in and outside the city.
What did your father transmit to you ?
Hard work and modesty.
And your mother is very involved in charity ?
Yes, she also set up the Children's Biennial and Children's Film Festival.
What do you wish for the next generation of girls ?
For both men and women to be ambitous and work hard. I noticed that people have ambitions because there are so many new opportunities here which did not exist when I was in school. Now they can study biochemistry or architecture because it is available here and the universities are of a high level. They don’t need to travel anymore.