The artists in this show draw attention to stories from and perspectives on history that remain obscured (in some cases) or overlooked (in others), in works that range from essay films to figurative paintings to monumental sculptures. Spread across 16 sites in the Emirate of Sharjah, the biennial’s greatest strength is that it is emphatically pluralistic and multicultural, but it also demonstrates the side effect of such an approach: namely, the pitfalls of placing artists in the awkward role of cultural ambassadors asked to contextualize references they can’t reasonably expect a “global” audience to get.
In the UAE, where just over 10 percent of residents are citizens, cross-cultural exchanges constantly occur. As a major economic hub in the Global South, it is home to a significant population of migrants who come to find work, and is notorious for inequality. The royal-run biennial doesn’t entirely shy away from addressing these conditions. At the Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Palace (now an art space in the desert town of Al Dhaid), Dubai-based artist Asma Belhamar replaced dilapidated decorative segments of the building’s surrounding wall with warped versions. The eye-catching interventions draw the gaze upward, toward the rooftop railing: the artist seeks to highlight the balustrade’s South Asian origins, and honor the impact that migrant labor has had on Emirati culture. Implicitly, the work asks what it means to celebrate a culture while mistreating its people, and chafes at the distinction between tolerance and equity.