From Miami’s Art Basel, New York’s Armory Show, Scope, Frieze, and Art Dubai, my time at art fairs has been vast. I felt like I’d seen it all, until I found myself in Sharjah for the 11th Biennial.
What makes a great art fair? Is it the ability to sell art? Is it the exclusivity to attend the events? Is it the volume of art in one space? Is it the after parties? I could go on for ages describing the elements of what make the previous mentioned fairs so seemingly popular.
One of my favorites has been Art Basel. I’ve attended it numerous times (1,2,3), and, for the most part, enjoyed each visit. Art Basel is not just a pricey fair inside a convention center. Art Basel swallows Miami whole and dresses it up in art, tourism, fashion, street art, and, of course, amazing parties. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll end up realizing that the convention center is really the least bit of fun for the week. It’s places like Wynwood, with its vast street art and independent galleries. It’s Miami’s artists showing its guests some truly beautiful hospitality and it invites incredible talent from around the world to participate as well. That’s where the real fun of Art Basel comes in, and has successfully left me coming back for the past five years.
So, back to the Sharjah Biennial. If you’re unfamiliar with the UAE, Sharjah is one of the seven Emirates, only about half an hour away from Dubai. That being said, it is nothing like Dubai. No absurd high rises, no world’s largest-mostest-sparkliest, no fluffers, no bullshit. Its goal is to nurture culture, heritage, and art. And that it does.
This was my first time in Sharjah, and I was thoroughly impressed with the way the biennial seamlessly blended into the city life. Leaving blocks of old souks and shops between galleries, all attendees are forced to explore a part of the city. Most galleries and viewing rooms are built into traditional architectural structures of the Gulf, rooms cooled down by portable air conditioners and fans. A few modern buildings scattered in between, but camouflaged well. You come to the Sharjah Biennial, and you experience Sharjah. All access, all free.
When I go to an art fair, I go to experience something new, something I can’t find anywhere else. I want to see a well-curated selection of artists take on the city as I explore. For example, SUPERFLEX brought something new to the neighborhood this year. “While many of the banks situated in Bank Street in Sharjah are finding more lucrative locations, another non monetary banking model could be taking over the street. What if we were to regard the total sum of memories and stories of the people using Bank Street as the real capital of the street.” You can see the result in the second to last photograph in the set. It was major success. Thanks to SUPERFLEX’s contribution, the people of Sharjah came out and became part of my experience.
Bravo, Sharjah. I’ll be seeing you again soon.
The fair will continue until May 13th. More information here.
(Artist information is located in the captions, viewable upon hovering over the bottom portion of each photograph.)