Postnational Hybridity and Our Uncertain Future

Shiraz Bayjoo, Sharjah Biennial 15, Installation view, 2023 [photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin; courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation,Bait Obaid Al Shamsi] 

Twenty years after Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor introduced a non-Western curatorial model to documenta 11, we can witness the impact of his thinking upon the Sharjah Biennial. Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor Al Qasimi—and curator of Sharjah Biennial 15—began to reconsider traditions of cultural representation after she met Enwezor and experienced that exhibition in Kassel, Germany. As she organized Sharjah Biennial 6 (2003), Al Qasimi stepped away from the national pavilion model. In an interview with the author, she recalls, for example, selecting Tarek Al-Ghoussein, an artist of Palestinian and Kuwaiti heritage who lived in the United Arab Emirates: “I thought, how can you put people into borders or international identities when it is more complicated than that? That was the moment when I decided to say no, no more.” 

Over time, Enwezor’s emblematic “postcolonial constellation” has given way to new nomenclature. On the 30th anniversary of the Sharjah Biennial, hyphenated identities are embraced and amplified. Polyphonic, polycentric, circular, decentralized, inclusive, and intergenerational, Sharjah Biennial 15 is truly of the moment. Expressions of modern global identity and postnational hybridity are omnipresent and abundantly clear, surfacing in the art and in the ways that artists talk about their projects. 

Revolutionary Enclosures (Until the Apricots) (2023) by Jasbir Puar and Dima Srouji is ripe with multivalent metaphors. Situated at the Old Al Dhaid Clinic, an hour’s drive from Sharjah, their multi-chambered installation recalls visceral elements of lockdown, interweaving experiences of Covid-19 quarantine with memories of the Second Intifada (2000–2005), a major Palestinian uprising against Israel. Enclosures readily summons the coming together of family and community to survive trauma. At the entrance, apricots on a glowing countertop recall shared provisions. In other rooms, a bathtub, a stairwell, a radiator, and personal artifacts evoke a modest shared dwelling. Darkened nooks invite visitors to watch home movies of a family (Srouji’s) living under a stairwell, and to marvel at midcentury television ads for canned tuna and a diet drink (war rations that, decades later, became Covid lockdown staples). The lavender-flowered wallpaper in one room might bring back memories of your grandmother’s house. Instead, we discover the design is the repeating pattern of an exploding dumdum bullet. 

Puar and Srouji vocalize a desire to make ideas of trauma and containment more porous. During a recorded interview with me, Srouji talks about how the term post-traumatic stress disorder assumes that trauma has an ending. “But in our case, at least,” she says, “it doesn’t ever end. It just stays in your body.” 

“We were reading Frantz Fanon,” Puar remembers in an interview with me. “The tendency to call a population traumatized is part of the colonial apparatus, you know?” There’s a move away from using PTSD as a diagnosis in psychoanalysis, or even complicating the idea of trauma as something that is understood as a transparent experience. “What is presumed to be traumatic in one place cannot be presumed to be traumatic in another,” Puar posits. “You know, aerial noises of shelling and drones may not be as traumatic in Palestine as the knock on the door. That’s the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] coming to raid your home.” 

Bahar Behbahani, Sharjah Biennial 15, Installation view, 2023 [Photo: Danko Stjepanovic; Sharjah Art Foundation, Bait Al Serkal] 

Beauty and duplicity are embedded in the global intrigue that grounds the work of Iranian-born artist Bahar Behbahani. The centerpiece of her research-based Garden of Desire (2023) is a living sculptural installation inspired by the design of the historic royal Fin Garden in Iran. Behbahani’s quadrilateral garden of handmade seed paper, soil, and local flora is elevated and framed in galvanized steel, with water channels and a central pool engineered to create a self-watering system. For the artist, the meticulously designed Persian garden is indelibly linked to the personal and geopolitical histories and deceptions that inform her prints and paintings, as well as the declassified documents displayed alongside and inside her garden. “I wanted to tap into the idea that, as much as the garden is hospitable, it is a contested space,” Behbahani says. “It goes back to this very specific incident with American scholar Donald Wilber. Ironically, I studied his writing on Persian gardens in art college, in Iran. In 2013, The New York Times exposed him as [one of] the CIA [agents] behind the 1953 military coup in Iran. That really challenged my whole practice.” In Sharjah, her miniature garden is growing a new cultural narrative; the seeds she planted in those once-secret documents are sprouting microgreens and weeds. 

From Mauritius, artist Shiraz Bayjoo brings a project from the island archipelagos of the Indian Ocean. Searching for Libertalia (2019) is a multi-chambered installation inside Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, a complex of 16 buildings that was the personal residence of a local pearl merchant and his family from the mid-19th century until the 1970s. Bayjoo’s project engages diasporic history in a pseudo-archive that materializes the complexities of creolization through the “recovered” artifacts of a pirate colony founded in the late 17th century. 

Shiraz Bayjoo, Sharjah Biennial 15, Installation view, 2019 [photo: Motaz Mawid; courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation,Bait Obaid Al Shamsi]

A set of three three-channel quasi-archival video works; sculptural vitrines filled with ceramic curios, painted postcards, portraits, and imagined artifacts; and recreated historical paintings all come together as an altarpiece to represent the history of a renegade creole nation on the island of Madagascar. Bayjoo reveals in multifarious ways how creolization happens—how cultural identities shift, separate, and coalesce from the pressures of forced labor, displacement, and land extraction. 

Shiraz Bayjoo, Sharjah Biennial 15, Installation view, 2019 [photo: Motaz Mawid; courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation,Bait Obaid Al Shamsi]

As Bayjoo counters the categorizations that draw lines through communities, tribes, and collectives of people, the artist contemplates (in an interview with me) the question that led him to make this work: “How have we arrived here with the complexities of division, racial hierarchies—ultimately racisms—that still persist? One has to understand what has taken place in order to create those lines. Those layers within society, the structures of colonialism, have not been removed. They do not necessarily endure always in the most visible ways, but they endure through the emotional, through the traumas, through the psychological. In that sense, it’s important for us to tell these stories, historically, in the present.” 

Hiding in plain sight, Monuments of Alfreej (2023), the lyric site-specific intervention of Dubai-based artist Asma Belhamar, is a design-based project that intends to illuminate the impact of immigrant labor, over time, on culture in Sharjah. (Emiratis represent slightly more than 10 percent of the total populace there.) Belhamar’s biennial project calls our attention to the South Asian laborers who built the Sheikh Khalid Bin Mohammed Palace in the early 20th century. Delving into the architectural memory of the newly restored palace in Al Dhaid, she quietly transforms the decorative balustrade along the surrounding outer walls and the building’s roof railing. The artist re-imagines elements of the original design by insinuating a warped, gestural motif of her own into dilapidated sections. The work manifests a sense of culture in flux at the same time that it reflects upon unsung cultural contributors.

Montreal-based artist Hajra Waheed channels voices of resistance across time and cultures in her ongoing sound project Hum. Evoking radical forms of collective and sonic agency, the work’s title is polyphonic, translating to We in Urdu. The artist first realized this large-scale multi-channel musical composition and sound installation in a historic space at Lahore Biennial 02. Hum (2020) remembered international solidarity movements in the second half of the 20th century with hummed songs of resistance from Africa, as well as from South, Central, and West Asia.

In Sharjah Biennial 15, we immerse ourselves in Hum II (2023). As she did with Hum’s first volume, the artist prepares us for the experience by requiring that we remove our shoes before entering the space. Here, the setting is a white, skylit, conical sound chamber specially designed and constructed in consultation with architect David Adjaye. Resonating around and through us, a new collection of hummed compositions amplifies the passion of historically significant social and anti-colonial uprisings led by women. These timeless, tonal works resonate with the energy of protests—from the 1920s to the present—in Korea, Palestine, Iran, Chile, Canada, and India. 

Hajra Waheed, Sharjah Biennial 15, Installation view, 2023 [photo: Motaz Mawid; courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation,Bait Al Mureijah Art Spacei] 

In 2020, in The Contemporary Journal 3, Waheed speaks about her work as a call to action: “I really do believe that the power of the arts as a rallying force for imagining and sustaining solidarities is crucial to hold [onto,] now more than ever.” Three years later, there’s a sense of prophecy in her thoughts about the ever-diminishing right to free expression. She says:

“One question that continually came up while thinking through the work was: what is freedom of expression truly, in a capitalist system that promises equity, yet withholds it at every turn? And how can we deconstruct—and even imagine or reimagine—sounds to challenge our vantage points towards creating a more just and equitable future?” 

One strength, among many, in Sharjah Biennial 15 is the range of works that take a deep dive into non-Western cultural, historical, and emotional territories. At every turn, the exhibition reveals a universal survival skill: living with uncertainty. What questions about the future can we answer with these expressions of enduring resilience, resistance, disruption, and delusion? Perhaps we’re not meant to know. When Hoor Al Qasimi introduced the biennial at the opening ceremony, she acknowledged, “It doesn’t have a beginning and an end. It doesn’t have a direct route. There is a circularity to this biennial …. It is very important that the biennial comes full circle … with the same message of solidarity, power, strength, and friendship.” 

Cathy Byrd is an independent contemporary art curator, educator, and art writer. Launched in 2011, her Fresh Art International podcast features more than 300 episodes amplifying the voices of artists, curators, filmmakers, and designers from around the world. Click here for Fresh Art International podcast episodes featuring Hoor Al Qasimi, Shiraz Bayjoo, Bahar Behbahani, and Sharjah Biennial 15. Follow @FreshArtIntl