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The star of the UAE art scene is coming to Toronto
When Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President of the Sharjah Art Foundation, was asked to curate the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates at the 56th annual Venice Biennale (on now until November 22), she knew exactly what she wanted to do. “I didn’t even have to think about it,” says Al Qasimi over the phone from her London office, where she lives part of the year when she’s not in Sharjah or travelling the globe. “There is this idea that Sharjah is a new art scene—and while it is—many people don’t know about the artists I grew up with, the older generation. There are a few artists from the UAE who have made it big, but many remain neglected and forgotten.” The resulting exhibition, “1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates,” is a compelling mix of both old and new—one that sent Al Qasimi digging through the archives of the Emirates Fine Arts Society. “Even the director of the society hadn’t heard of some of the artists that are in the show, but they needed to be looked at again. I curated the pavilion based on work, not because of an artist’s name.” Although confident in her choices, the days leading up to the biennale saw Al Qasimi overcome with nerves. “While the show was for Venice, I really had the UAE audience in mind, so when I started to get invites for the biennale I thought, ‘oh my God!’” she says laughing. “I completely forgot it was for Venice.” But any anxiety she might have felt was quickly dispelled when she started to hear the reaction from the artists she chose to exhibit. Al Qasimi recalls the pavilion opening with one artist repeating the line, “you never forgot about us,” over and over again, while another artist aptly noted, “you reunited us.”
Al Qasimi, a trained artist herself, grew up in Sharjah before moving to London in the late ‘90s to study art and currently holds an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art. In 2003, she became curator of the Sharjah Biennial and from there; the Sharjah Art Foundation was born. “We were just doing so many different things, like artist residencies and commissioned projects that went beyond the art fair, so we thought it just made sense to create a foundation. We launched in 2009, and just this year we have been recognized as an independent entity outside the city’s department of culture—it’s very exciting!” Today, the foundation is housed within a 20,000 square foot complex located in the Sharjah Heritage Area. When asked who visits the foundation on a regular basis (made up of exhibition, education and open air public spaces), Al Qasimi says it truly is a mix. “When people ask, ‘who is your audience?’ it’s really difficult to pinpoint. It’s children in our neighbourhood playing cricket to university professors and businessmen, to sailors that dock their ships in the marina. It’s literally everyone.”
On November 10, Al Qasimi will be in Toronto for the Royal Ontario Museum’s annual Eva Holtby Lecture. While only here for the day (Al Qasimi currently has speaking engagements all over the world, including one the day before and after the Holtby Lecture), she’s excited to discuss the important role that art plays in community engagement. “We do a lot of work with Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services. It’s a centre for the disabled that was founded in the 1980s. We built a new space for them, which now adhere to building requirements for people with disabilities. So it’s not just about working with artists and providing art education, it’s about truly engaging with your community and supporting everyone on a long term basis.”