Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi adds ‘President of the International Biennial Association’ to her CV

Sharjah Biennial director and Sharjah Art Foundation president and director Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi has been announced as the new president of the International Biennial Association. The IBA will also transfer its headquarters to Sharjah.

The IBA describes itself as “a platform for establishing, researching and exchanging knowledge and information necessary for institutions and professionals, who plan and curate periodic art events such as biennials and triennials, artists, researchers and others concerned with contemporary art”. In practice it provides a forum and networking opportunity for institutions and individuals who organise and promote biennials – and these days that means a lot of candidates for membership, since the number of biennials and triennials has grown from a handful at the start of the century to some hundreds now

Hoor Al Qasimi (right) has served as one of the 13 board members of the IBA since its establishment in 2013. She declared herself honoured to have been elected as the second President of the IBA – she succeeds Yongwoo Lee, Executive Director of the Shanghai Project – and said she looked forward to expanding and strengthening the network: “during my term in office I will work towards the development of the International Biennial Association and its mission to support and collaborate with a growing network of members”.

Hoor Al Qasimi is pretty busy in the art world. She’s on the board of directors for MoMA PS1, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; and Darat Al Funun, Amman. She also chairs the Advisory Board for the University of Sharjah’s College of Art and Design, and she is on the Advisory Board for Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi.

She’s best known for SAF and the Sharjah Biennial, of course. She was appointed curator of Sharjah Biennial 6 in 2003 after her time as a student at the Slade and the Royal Academy in London; since then she has continued as the Biennial’s Director, during which time the Biennial (and the Sharjah Art Foundation) have pushed conceptual boundaries, reshaped the meaning of the biennial (this year’s SB13 expanded across space and time to include exhibitions, projects and education programmes in five locations – Sharjah, Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah and Beirut), and become solidly established on the international stage.

Hoor Al Qasimi has also curated several of the best projects to come to or from the UAE, notably the Yayoi Kusama retrospective Dot Obsessions (2016–2017, top), the Robert Breer retrospective Time Flies (2016–2017), and the highly influential 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates for the UAE Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

As a result, Sheikha Hoor has been widely recognised as a major player in the cultural growth and soft-power reach of the UAE.

Abbas Akhavan, Variations on a Garden (2017). Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and seen at Sharjah Biennial 13. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation.

So she will be well qualified to handle the tricky questions – like, have we reached peak biennial? When almost every city in the world seems to have one, is there enough good art to go round? How about curators – are there enough imaginative thinkers available? Or is there too much emphasis on innovative curatorial ideas for their own sake? And what exactly is the role of the biennial, beyond cultural tourism and the feel-good factor?

“A biennial puts your city on the map and it’s great city marketing,” as Dr Rafal Niemojewski of the Biennial Foundation puts it. The Foundation – which incidentally lists no fewer than 223 biennials and triennials – is in some respects an alternative to the IBA; it exists “to create a spirit of solidarity among biennials worldwide”, primarily by organising the recurring World Biennial Forum and by promoting the idea of biennials almost as a marketing exercise.

It seems that biennials are good for the ego – putting on a biennial is quicker and less expensive than doing the Olympics or building and filling a museum of modern art, for instance. Besides, a city with a biennial has a branding message that says it’s both culturally aware and a member of a wider club of coolness.

But biennials are unregulated and there’s no corporate oversight. The IBA and the Biennial Foundation don’t vet their members or their events; that’s not their purpose, and nor should it be. The downside however is that biennials can have deleterious effects. They encourage the kind of elite transnational tourism that sees a relatively small number of relatively rich people travel around the world to art fairs and other prestige events. In some cities, biennials have been a precursor to gentrification; it’s certainly difficult to avoid the temptation of luxury marketing dollars in sponsorships and joint promotions. The art world has an unerring ability to go where the money is, and the purveyors of luxury want to share in that.

Others have argued that the glut of biennials means cerebral overkill, encouraging passive spectatorship instead of engagement.

In these terms, Sharjah Biennial actually sets the standard – it manages both to be inclusive and to foster a sense of place. SAF and its Biennial have promoted the renaissance of their part of Sharjah (see the SAF Art Spaces, below) and are playing an important role in the development of the community.

For those reasons, we think Sheikha Hoor is an excellent choice as the head of the IBA. Her biennial in-tray does need attention, though.

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