A different Arab spring

What is great about March in the UAE? For me, it is the coming together of the some of the best cultural events in the region. This March saw the opening of the 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennale (curators: Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif and Claire Tancons), the Sharjah Art Foundations’s annual March Meeting, Art Dubai and the opening of Alserkal Art District. Additionally this year, one of the most prominent Indian art collectors in the UAE, Smita Prabhakar founded Ishara Art Foundation and the maiden show was curated by Nada Raza, artistic director of Ishara and former curator at Tate Modern, London.

The Sharjah Biennial opened on March 7. I have heard from many of my writer friends that its book festival draws a huge crowd. I told Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation and president of the International Biennale Association, “Every time I visit Sharjah, I experience surprises. Surprises of new art spaces for conversations, art and residencies, or something entirely unexpected.” This year it was a special lunch organised in the Rain Room during the Sharjah March Meeting (a platform for curated talks and programmes, held every year). This year, it was hosted during the professional preview week of the Sharjah Biennale.

The rain room, Al Majarrah, Sharjah/ photo courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation The rain room, Al Majarrah, Sharjah/ photo courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation

The Rain Room, now a permanent installation in Al Majarrah, Sharjah, is a fantastic concept of experiential, sensitively-created, immersive art that uses technology, design and architecture. It was created by London-based Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass for Random International, a collaborative studio they founded in 2005. I had first seen it at the Barbican Centre, London, and thereafter at the MoMA, New York. The darkened, rectangular space allows visitors to walk through a downpour without getting wet. The incessant rains always move away from you. Quite a remarkable experience, to say the least.

I first met Antonia Carver over a decade ago, when she was the director of Art Dubai. She was an excellent administrator and director, and friends with many in the art industry. Antonia left Art Dubai, after making it hugely successful, to take up the directorship at Jameel Art Foundation. Last November, Art Jameel Dubai, opened to the public. The Jameels, Saudi Arabian business tycoons, have invested heavily in contemporary art and their architects created a minimalist space for this fantastic art centre. To my mind it is one of the finest contemporary arts institutions in the city. Art Jameel is dedicated to exhibitions and research, and has an extensive education programme for all ages. I am sure that under the directorship of Antonia, this centre will make huge creative waves in the region and beyond.

To top off this spring’s engagement with the region, I have been invited to the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit 2019 (April 7-11). It is a forum that has been conceived to convene leaders from the fields of arts, heritage, media, museums, public policy and technology. The 2018 edition was attended by 350 delegates from 85 countries. The summit is organised by Abu Dhabi’s progressive and visionary department of culture and tourism, in collaboration with five global partners who will curate and lead in their areas of expertise. This year’s partners include the Royal Academy of Arts (UK), UNESCO, Guggenheim (USA), Economist Events and Google. The theme is ‘Cultural Responsibility and New Technology’. The event aims to identify ways in which culture can build bridges and promote positive change. These goals chime with our own at the Kochi Biennale Foundation and I am looking forward to visiting the capital of the UAE.