The Middle East, or at least the parts that anyone not from there actually gets to see, is not known first for its organic culture. While it does have a culture that goes back thousands of years, and some places even manage to keep that culture somewhat in tact, the term “Middle East” probably conjures up a different image in the minds of most of us. Whether it’s the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai or the Bush-inspired desert battlefields, other images probably supercede the wooden dhows and trading villages that date back to ancient times.
There is a breath of fresh air for culture lovers, though. And it’s not in Dubai, but a few kilometers up the road in neighboring Sharjah. For the tenth time, the Sharjah Art Foundation has opened its doors to the world with the Sharjah Biennial, which is on display from March 13th through May 13th at the Sharjah Art Museum. Long regarded as a key grounds for artistic experimentation in the region, there is an authenticity to the Biennial that is noticeably absent at the competing Art Dubai down the road. It is ironic that with the United Arab Emirates boasting huge tourism investments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including the current construction of a Louvre and Guggenheim in the ladder, it is the lesser-known Sharjah that has the artistic influence. Perhaps that is to the Biennial’s advantage, then–the contrast of a modern, contemporary display by 119 artists from 36 countries, juxtaposed against the Sharjah Art Museum’s majestic Arabian architecture, which certainly lends itself to more of an authentic experience than the ballrooms of faceless 7-star hotels, or the ultra modern layouts of the big names soon to open in Abu Dhabi.
With such a focus placed on the arts scene, it is refreshing to find a place in the Middle East that had the foresight to emphasize the development of art, rather than maintain a strict focus on oil and building a playground for the rich. That is exactly what Sharjah has done, and its next step is to continue to quell the notion that Emiratis buy, but don’t make, art. International though it is, Sharjah’s Biennial already features an increasingly local flair, which will only continue to grow as the rest of the region starts giving increased attention to the arts.