The first Sharjah Architecture Triennial appears to be something of a misnomer. One may compare it to the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2018, where the Holy See of the Vatican invited star architects of the West to interpret the ideal chapel. It resulted in the building of 10 chapels in the woods of San Giorgio Maggiore island, all designed by acclaimed architects. In Sharjah, one would be hard pressed to find a built structure or a star architect. Rather, the event has a pre-Lapsarian air in which building, or a concern with contemporary material, is curiously absent but the consequences of urbanisation — digging, mining, blasting, dredging, polluting, crowding — are everywhere. Adrian Lahoud, the curator, has so placed the triennial that it opens up a cornucopia of riches as well as a quagmire of contradictions.
First, given that the Emirates lure the art-trotting elite with glitzy art fairs and spectacular museums, Lahoud chooses to approximate the model of a poverty triennial. The spaces speak for this. Under a blazing white November sun, the inaugural was a ragtag procession of Gujarati sailors, waving the green flag of Dariya Pir as they would before embarking on a journey from the port of Jam Salaya, Gujarat. Crowding into the abandoned old vegetable market, they danced and sang near the model of a dhow, the kachhi vahan that has sailed between India and coastal Africa for centuries, even as it now plies the fraught seas to Somalia or war-torn Yemen.
Such voices from the margins, of people in sites of dispossession who, as Lahoud said, had nothing to gain from being there, critique the global biennale as a high-stakes site for deal-making for museums and gallerists and the architectures of rampant consumerism.
Besides the old vegetable market, much of the triennial was also housed in the Al-Qasimia girls school, a now defunct institution: both sites have been acquired by the Triennial for future activities.
Lahoud also moves away from the fraught curatorial issues of the decade — borders, boundaries and the nation state, to the land as devotional entity. In the process, the artworks inflect a collective moment — to speak of an equitable mobilisation of resources for a more humane future.
Inhabiting a space
According to French philosopher Deleuze, “nature is raised to the level of history through the ceremony”, and the triennial emphatically celebrated the ceremony as performance. Singing, music, processions that hark back to an older palpable sense of community had a heraldic presence.
There was great immediacy in the unveiling and ceremonial installation of the Ngurrara Canvas II. A massive community project by the aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia, the canvas originates from a title dispute over land. To make their claim in the absence of title deeds, the Ngurrara painted the canvas in 10 interrelated sections that marked waterbodies, but were also sacred sites related to their ancestors. Admitted as evidence in court, the canvas successfully won the Ngurrara the right to their land.
A procession of devotional singers from South Africa, at the opening, led the ceremonial arrival to a platform, which became an important subject in understanding the “collective control of the ground”. Invoking the platform at Mohenjo-daro, the vast plinth of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, or the Çatalhöyük in Turkey, 7500 BC to 5700 BC (where houses were accessed from the roof, which was also used for cooking and sleeping), Pier Vittorio Aureli, the ideologue behind the collective, Dogma, constructed the platform for the triennial. Set in the heart of a middle-class neighbourhood, it became the subject of discussions — on occupying land, on the fallout of urban habitation growing exponentially, on domestic issues and structures as signifiers of social class. A basic question was posed: how is space distributed and who benefits from it?
In the exhibition spaces, the visualisation by the Otolith Group on the British “Windrush migrants” who were illegally deported by the British government in 2018, and the depredations of the desert of Chile and its magnificent geoglyphs, threatened by mining companies, were on view. A beautifully mounted work was a network of studies by the Feral Atlas, a collective of more than a hundred scientists and anthropologists with their rich and complex study of the fallout of progress – of dams, power stations, shipping routes – which are meant to signify progress but leave a terrifying wake of ecological destruction.
As the Triennial unfolded, what became apparent was that Lahoud was guiding us beyond buildings to the very culture of human habitation.
What would an event like the Sharjah Architecture Triennial mean in the Emirates, where kingdoms strive for the most opulent symbols of architectural wealth? For Triennial patron Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the event was a signpost of architecture moving towards much more visceral concerns around human habitation.
The writer is an art critic and curator who runs www.criticalcollective.in.