“Unsettled Objects” at Sharjah Art Foundation
by Ruba Al-Sweel
Curated by Omar Kholeif, director of collections and senior curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, Unsettled Objects cuts through the mantle and into the core of the imperial connotations of an art world that has become increasingly “globalized.” On view are more than thirty artists whose work has been acquired through more than two decades of the Sharjah Biennial and the foundation’s year-round exhibitions, as well as other commissioning programs.
The Brutalist wonder of Sharjah’s Flying Saucer sits on a cement platform like a shuttle craft freshly landed from deep space. Star-shaped, with a hovering dome, the onetime market, built in 1978, has been reconfigured and opened to the public in September 2020 as a community art space resounding with the collective, vernacular memory of the many lives it’s taken on.
Unsettled Objects, an exhibition drawn from Sharjah Art Foundation’s rarely seen collection, conceives of the venue as a cabinet of curiosities, overflowing with works beyond the interior of its circular structure. Encompassing a diverse body of works, the exhibition ventures to reimagine the authorship of history as it pertains to tangible heritage and looks at the problematics of collection and display in a globalized, postcolonial art world. From the 1920s to the present day, it is a conceptual disassembling of the Western-style museum collection, often anchored in the imperialist histories of their formation. With Unsettled Objects, the foundation aims to echo an opportune moment in the universal debate on restitution to deconstruct art history’s structuralist East/West binary oppositions and introduce a South-South semiology. To do so, Kholeif argues for a curatorial and programming framework that not only springs from the hyperlocal but also responds to it. In the exhibition publication, Kholeif writes, “The works accessioned into the consortium were either commissioned in or for Sharjah. Others emerged from life-long collaborations with artists, or are carefully selected artworks brought into the institution’s holdings to narrate a part of art’s history that may otherwise remain unseen.”1
The objects animate space through clusters of salon hangs. Perched on the platform surrounding the building’s panoramic facade is video and installation artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s Saudi Automobile (2011). The millennial-pink car glistens in chaotic assemblage as cables, pipes, and tattered fabric bleed out of the body. The battered pearl-white SUV had been treated to a new coat of paint and reappropriated as a silent protest against the ban on women driving in the artist’s home country of Saudi Arabia, a ban lifted in 2017 through a royal decree. The installation is meant to be experienced in two-part nonlinearity. Indoors, I stumble upon an accompanying ten-minute looped video of the artist offhandedly—and in no particular order—applying swathes of pink paint onto the car, playing into universal gendered color codes. The durational act ends with a drained Abu Abdallah retreating to the passenger seat, gesturing at her secondary place in the social hierarchy of male privilege.
Lothar Baumgarten’s Unsettled Objects (1968–69), from which the exhibition borrows its title, illuminates the wall. The carousel projection of some eighty slides features hundreds of artifacts lying hermetically in vitrines at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The projection flicks through images overlaid with verbs and adverbs like a sucker punch; the words “climatized,” “classified,” and “obfuscated” are just a few that flash at random as Baumgarten not so subtly calls into question, and calls out, European and Western museum methods of classifying, categorizing, and conserving ethnological and anthropological objects. By looking at possibly looted non-Western objects in foreign contexts, he examines the systems of meaning and representation they play into.
As I wade further into the show, the plot thickens. Akram Zaatari’s In This House (2005) is an adventure in cinema verité in which the artist literally excavates the earth looking for the lost history of the Daghers, a family from the village of Ain el Mir in South Lebanon who were displaced from their home following the Israeli withdrawal in 1985. The house was occupied by a radical resistance group for seven years; a group member stationed in the house left a letter to the family in which he justified his occupation and welcomed them back in, placing the letter inside the empty case of a B-10 82 mm mortar, buried in the garden. Zaatari visits the house, a site of contention, and walks the viewer through his journey of unearthing the letter, interrogating themes of disappearance, mourning, and remorse.
Similarly, Armenian Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian looks at what is left behind. In Final Flight (2018–19), seven 3D-printed skulls of the extinct northern bald ibis sit on freestanding blocks. Descendants of the birds depicted in the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs dating from 5,200 years ago, a surviving colony of seven was discovered in 2002 in the Syrian Desert near Palmyra. Despite intense conservation efforts, illegal hunting and electrocution by power cables on the birds’ migratory route made protection almost impossible. The onset of civil war in Syria in 2011 severely constrained the conservation program, and the birds disappeared again around the time Palmyra was destroyed in 2014.
In The invisible enemy should not exist (2007), Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz showcases a lifelong project that pieces together shattered fragments of history. Acting as an archaeologist and a historian, Rakowitz uses recycled Middle Eastern food packaging and Arabic newspapers to reconstruct artifacts from the National Museum in Iraq that were looted and destroyed following the invasion in 2003.
In other works, the thematic thread is not so overt. The show presents three iconic works by Huguette Caland from the 1970s: Maameltein (1970), Flash (1978), and a piece created in 1979 as part of her notorious Bribes de Corps series, in which the fleshy, curvaceous abstractions resemble parts of the female anatomy. The color-drenched paintings epitomize her signature cocktail of the organic, mischievous, sensual, exuberant, cartoonlike, and always decidedly feminist. She was the daughter of Lebanon’s first president after the country gained independence from France in 1943; the experience contoured her reality and left indelible marks, manifested in her undying quest to emancipate the feminine ideal from the constraints of conventional beauty.
Equally, artist Tony Chakar—who teaches history of art and architecture in Lebanon—troubles established systems of logic. In All That Is Solid Melts into Air (2000), Chakar reproduces the first modern map of Beirut, drawn by the Danish consul as a gift for the Ottoman sultan. In Chakar’s cartography, the north is at the bottom, gesturing to the Chinese and Arab traditions of mapmaking and shifting notions of territoriality. Here, the artist reflects on the map as a construct and as a geopolitical game of chess.
The show features the baldly political—Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara’s handmade ceramic wall reliefs that marry whimsical colors with a trenchant demand for Palestinian solidarity—to the sly and playful—Mona Hatoum’s Baluchi (Burgundy) (2016), in which she uses a carpet with worn-out parts in the shape of the Peters projection map to look critically at the political implications of map design. I’m reminded of scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s passionate cri de coeur in Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019), in which she says, “Plunder cannot be studied as the mere appropriation of discrete objects; it must simultaneously be analyzed as the destruction of the political-material world in which people had their distinct place—a memory of which is still inscribed in these objects—and their subsequent coercion into new imperial formations.”2 In Unsettled Objects, works appear anthropomorphic, retaining a well of emotional memory and standing as testaments to an unrecognized past, refusing imperial violence by making present what was invented as “past” and making the repair of torn worlds the substance of politics. I had a peculiar feeling that the objects could speak, Night at the Museum (2006) style.
Ruba Al-Sweel is a writer and researcher from the Middle East. Her writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Art Asia Pacific, Vogue, and VICE, among many other publications. She also manages strategic and global communications at Art Jameel, an independent organization that supports artists and creative communities.
at Sharjah Art Foundation
until 15 June 2021