An art piece made out of rows of laundry hangs outside the Sharjah Art Museum
After wrapping up the conference, I had some time that afternoon to explore one last time before heading to the airport around 10pm that night for my flight back to Boston. Since I’d spent a lot of time in Dubai itself, I decided to catch a taxi to Sharjah, the emirate adjacent to Dubai, to visit the Sharjah Art Museum. The museum was playing host to the Sharjah Biennial, the Arabian Gulf’s premier modern art show. I’d read about it in several magazines in Dubai, so it sounded like an interesting change of pace from what I’d seen so far.
The taxi driver let out an audible groan when I told him I wanted to go to Sharjah. “Should I get out?” I asked him, when it seemed he disapproved of relatively long trip, but he muttered a string of No Problem’s and kept driving. The distance to Sharjah is only 10 kilometers, but the traffic can be very bad, apparently. Today, though, it was manageable; we drove along the highway and managed to get there in about 30 minutes.
If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed Sharjah was an extension of Dubai. But once the taxi driver dropped me off, I realized otherwise. For one thing, it seemed hotter here – there was less shade than you could find in Dubai. The buildings and streets weren’t as clean, either; though Sharjah was the dominant emirate in the early 1800s, it has since fallen on lean times, unable to strike oil with similar success to that of Abu Dhabi or even Dubai. I also noticed that all the women were covered in head to toe wearing black abayas, without any exception. And as I walked along, I didn’t see any other tourists.
The taxi had dropped me off by a market along the corniche. I thought I had a rough idea of where I was, but as I tried to navigate using the map in my Lonely Planet book, I realized the scale was much larger than I’d thought. No matter which direction I walked, I didn’t seem to make any progress on the map, so I pulled over at a hotel and asked for directions. The concierge gave me a fold-out map that captured the details of Sharjah’s streets — including the scale — much better than Lonely Planet did. I then realized I would have a lot of walking to do; the sights here were spread out over large distances. But I still had some water left in my bottle, so I decided to walk and see how I could handle the heat.
Emerati women wearing abayas inside the art museum
Following the traffic back towards the corniche, I spotted a long building with traditional wind towers at the front; across the road sat an art gallery. I’d found the art museum without getting too lost. Inside, a trio of women in black abayas ran the information desk; one of them gave me a map of the museum and asked me to sign the guest book. I then began walking down the first corridor, a long hallway with arches inspired by mosque architecture. Each artist featured in the Biennial had his or her own room. For those whose work wasn’t dynamic — such as paintings or photographs — their work would be displayed in a wide room offset from the corridor. For other artists whose work was dynamic — particularly those using video — you would first have to walk down a claustrophobic side alley before reaching a dark, intimate room showcasing their work.
One of the first artists I encountered was Tim Lee from Singapore. His piece utilized two flat panel TV screens. On one screen there was a video loop of the artist lying face down on the floor; on the other screen, a video loop of him lying face up. In both videos, he remained totally motionless; at first I thought they were still images, but every now and then you could detect slight movement in his hands or feet. Accompanying the videos was a loop of Public Enemy’s rap classic, “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Off to the side of the piece, a placard described the work as “an attempt to marry the avant-gardes of the social and artistic.” The placard concluded with a line that made me laugh out loud:
“Lee’s work can be interpreted as completely meaningless, or quite the opposite.”
This very sentence encapsulated my impression of the entire exhibit. Wandering through each floor, some pieces struck me as quite pointless, while others successfully captured the artist’s humor, angst or politics. Many of the works appeared to be related to the Palestinian conflict. One piece featured a note scrawled on the wall by an artist who had managed to convince Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting for a few days so they could host an art show in the West Bank. Another piece, entitled “Ramallah/New York,” featured two video loops of Palestinians running small businesses, one in Palestine, the other in the US. Whether it was of a hair salon, an import-export business, or something else, the mundane, everyday images from the videos made it quite impossible to tell which video took place in New York or in Palestine. There were also several pieces about globalization, featuring photos and paintings of the UAE over the decades, with various skylines crowded by cranes and construction equipment.
A wall of media representing TV programming during the Iraq War
Some of the most interesting pieces related to the Iraq war. One piece, created by Chris Keinke and Tarek Al Ghoussein, featured a display of 1500 still images of TV programs captured during the war. Many of the pictures were directly related to the war, including images of George W. Bush and wounded civilians; other pictures captured random TV programming such as cartoons and variety shows, juxtaposing pop culture with the cruelty of war.
Another work, Christoph Buchel and Giovanni Carmine’s PSYOP, critiqued the US military’s propaganda leaflet campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the most creative work of the show, PSYOP was a room set up as a small classroom. On each desk were random paper copies of leaflets distributed by airdrop to Iraqis and Afghans. The teacher’s desk featured more leaflets, file folders and what appeared to be ungraded homework. In the upper right corner of the room, a television played a 1979 instructional video from the US Department of Defense about the art of propaganda leaflet design. And to the back of the room, a large file cabinet overflowed with cardboard boxes of leaflets, thousands of them, along with books by the artists containing copies of the leaflets. A small sign in the room encouraged visitors to help themselves to copies of the materials; I put some of the leaflets inside one of the books as a souvenir.
I spent the next hour or so exploring the museum. The quality of the art varied, but it was all quite interesting. On one wall I even found a framed handwritten letter with an intriguing note:
It seems that, within the next six weeks, I would be able to show publicly (in some other place) a body of work by one of the students from the Sharjah College of Fine Arts, in the United Arab Emirates, which, apparently, is not suitable for being exhibited here.
Leaving the museum, I walked several blocks west to Sharjah’s fort. The fort, reminiscent of Dubai Fort, was one of the oldest structures in the city, but the high-rise apartments surrounding in detracted from it. I also strolled through the Sharjah Heritage Area, several square blocks of old buildings restored to their original condition. It was reminiscent of walking through a deserted North African medina; the lack of people there made it feel like a ghost town.
After buying a bottle of water at a shop, I continued westward to the vegetable souk, a covered market featuring various produce from the region, particularly the local dates. The date sellers all made their best attempt to sell me two or three kilos of the syrupy sweet fruit, but I smiled and declined.
A man strolls through Sharjah’s Heritage Area
On the far end of the souk, I found the long distance taxi stand, which my Lonely Planet book said was the place to get a taxi back to Dubai. To my horror, though, I found out that this place was actually the taxi stand for rides to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain; the Dubai taxi stand was at Rolla Square, clear across the other side of town where I’d started in the first place. I asked the taxi drivers if any of them would take me there, but they all declined, again reminding me the taxis were for Abu Dhabi and Al Ain only. Silly me.
Now breaking out into a continuous sweat, I backtracked through the city, trying to find whatever shade along the way, until I reached Rolla Square 30 minutes later. Several large minibuses sat along the northern edge of the square; one of them departed as soon as I arrived. I asked an attendant about going to Dubai; he directed me to a ticket booth under a tree in the middle of the square. I bought a ticket for five dirhams (about $1.50) then returned to the remaining minibus. It was already filling up with passengers. I grabbed a seat near the front and waited a few minutes as the last seats filled up; some male passengers had to be shuffled around to accommodate a couple of women passengers, who aren’t aloud to sit next to male strangers.
We then got under way, taking a route back to Dubai that was different than the one I’d used to get there a couple hours earlier. We passed through a very developed part of Sharjah, with brand-new high rises hugging a large bay. It was oddly reminiscent of Miami. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Bur Dubai bus station, where I had to walk a few blocks to catch a taxi back to the hotel, where I packed my bags, checked out, and plotted what to do with my dwindling hours in Dubai.