Game Changers The Arab Art Issue

Shk. Hoor Al Qasimi on arts programming during COVID-19

Sharjah Art Foundation’s president and director discusses the emirate’s new Africa Institute and the 30th anniversary of the Sharjah Biennial.

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By Lara Brunt

Like many of us during the recent lockdown, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the globetrotting President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, has enjoyed spending more time at home and engaging in deep conversations with friends and colleagues about the state of the world.

Recognized at last year’s Asia Game Changer Awards in New York for her efforts in transforming the arts across the Middle East and beyond, Sheikha Hoor believes it is up to cultural leaders like herself to create an enlightened future generation.

Alongside her role at the foundation, Sheikha Hoor is also President of Sharjah’s new Africa Institute, a think tank dedicated to African and African diaspora studies, which will explore issues of race, slavery and colonialism in its public programming.

While the building, designed by renowned British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, is scheduled to open in 2023, Sheikha Hoor has forged ahead with a series of conferences, exhibitions, concerts and film screenings in the newly rebuilt Africa Hall next door.

The institute’s first country-focused season of cultural, artistic and academic activities featuring Ethiopia has been disrupted by COVID-19, but Sheikha Hoor hopes a planned conference, in conjunction with Addis Ababa University, will be able to go ahead soon, either in person or online.  

Meanwhile, Sharjah Art Foundation’s venues began reopening late last month following the lockdown, although its flagship events – the annual March Meeting and much-anticipated biennial – have been postponed due to the global pandemic.

This year’s March Meeting, a three-day programme of talks, presentations, and performances that explore key issues in contemporary art, has been moved to 2021, while the 30th anniversary edition of the Sharjah Biennial (SB15), originally scheduled for next year, will now open in March 2022.

Select images of Sharjah Art Foundation’s spaces and projects over the years. All images courtesy of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Click on each image to enlarge it and view its caption.

Given Sheikha Hoor’s myriad commitments – she curated the Lahore Biennale in Pakistan in January and sits on the boards of multiple institutions, including MoMA PS1 in New York; Berlin’s Kunst-Werke; and Ashkal Alwan in Beirut – the extra time to plan SB15 is not unwelcome. “You want to give these kind of projects the space they need to breathe,” she says.

That the biennial is curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, who died in March 2019 at age 55, adds another layer of complexity. Sheikha Hoor approached the Nigerian-born, Munich-based curator in the spring of 2018 and they continued to plan the show together until the last weeks of his life. Okwui’s vision will be realised by Sheikha Hoor, as co-curator, and a working group of his long-time collaborators, including Salah Hassan, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Ute Meta Bauer,Tarek Abou El Fetouh and Octavio Zaya.

Titled Thinking Historically in the Present, the Sharjah Biennial will include 30 works by 30 artists worldwide, along with a historical presentation called ‘The Postcolonial Constellation’, a sequel to Okwui’s ‘Postwar’ exhibition staged at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2017.

“Okwui was enormously impactful in breaking art history and theory out of a narrow Eurocentric framework, and on a personal level, I was honoured to call him a colleague and a friend. The SB15 working group and I want to do everything we can to take his vision forward and bring his curatorial concept to fruition.”

Various performances at Sharjah’s Africa Hall as part of its opening week programme in 2018. All images courtesy of the Africa Institute . Click on each image to enlarge it and view its caption.

The acclaimed curator played a seminal role in Sheikha Hoor’s own career trajectory. Shortly after receiving her BFA from London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 2002, Sheikha Hoor visited Okwui’s edition of Documenta, the huge exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Led for the first time by a non-European curator, it was heralded for its truly global, postcolonial perspective.

“I was inspired not just by the artworks, but the concept and the way it was put together. It was thought-provoking, it was political, it had artists from everywhere that were talking about things like race, gender, equality,” she reflects. “I wanted to see how we could be inspired by that and put it into practice here [in Sharjah].”

Returning home, the 22-year-old joined the committee for the 2003 Sharjah Biennial and was soon appointed director, after her push for more political art from across the globe. “I ended up working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. It was very stressful, but it was also very exciting because a lot of the artists helped and together we made something happen. After that, I couldn’t just go back to art school and be a painter,” she says.

Instead, after completing a diploma in painting from the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2005, she did a masters in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in 2008. The following year, Sheikha Hoor founded the Sharjah Art Foundation, which she has developed into one of the most influential art organisations in the region. “At 22, I didn’t expect the biennial to become my job – it just ended up happening that way,” she says.

Poignantly, Hoor took on another unexpected role last year – as creative director of the Qasimi menswear label established by her twin brother, Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, who passed away in July 2019 aged just 39.

Last month, she presented the Spring/Summer 2021 collection at London Fashion Week. “It was basically the first show without his mood board and ideas,” she says. “I’m not as confident as I am in my own field because I’ve been doing that for 18 years. There are a lot of crossovers with fashion and art, of course, but fashion is more of a business and that’s the hard part for me.”

“But I just felt I had to do it,” she adds. No doubt the unstoppable Sheikha Hoor has done her brother proud.

To find out more about Sharjah Art Foundation visit and to find out more about the Africa Institute visit .

Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.

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