Sharjah Art Foundation
Contemporary art from around the world finds a nostalgic home in Sharjah.
In the long-standing tradition of cross-cultural conversation, influenced for generations by a vibrant port life in the city, the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) is bringing contemporary investigative art into a colloquial context through the preservation and repurposing of historic architecture. SAF opened its doors in a dedicated series of traditional buildings in the historic heart of Sharjah in 2013 under the leadership of its founder, H. E. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, a practicing artist and, according to ArtReview currently the most influential individual on the art scene of the UAE.
“Now, we have a very wide range of spaces to use for our work,” says Al Qasimi about the large collection of buildings that the foundation has acquired both within the city and across the emirate, “but what unites them all is a sense of human scale and intimacy. These are not grand and intimidating examples of new architecture but buildings meant for encouraging an intimate and personal experience of art.”
SAF’s goal of presenting challenging, regionally relevant, well-curated work is pursued in airy traditional courtyards, vaulted historic passageways, and sprawling town squares, and on the flat, accessible downtown rooftops from which wooden dhows can be seen passing along the corniche. A visitor’s encounter with these spaces provides a meeting with local history, while Sharjah residents who have known these places their whole lives are seeing established elements of their local landscape reconfigured and in new roles.
“A very important part of SAF’s mission is to engage with communities across the emirate,” says Al Qasimi, “so as we are looking at historic structures that are neglected or at risk of demolition, we also think about the communities within which they are located and how these repurposed buildings can become part of the fabric of local life. Many of these buildings have also been important in the history of the emirate, so by finding new ways to use them, we are also preserving our past for future generations.”
In a residential area of the city, an old grocery store turned fast-food restaurant built in the 1970s and known among residents as the Flying Saucer because of its circular flat design is now serving the community as a unique gallery space. In the Yarmouk neighborhood of the city, the old Sharjah Radio Station building, which functioned from 1972 to 1978, is under renovation. One of the first projects of H.E. Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi when he became ruler of Sharjah was to fulfill his late brother and predecessor Sheikh Khalid’s aspiration of establishing a local radio station following the closure of Sawt Al Sahel, a British-run radio station. “We are planning to readapt this building to house our music program and to create an SAF radio where we can record interviews and work on creating an oral history of Sharjah and the UAE,” says Al Qasimi.
Over the years, SAF has expanded beyond the city boundaries to small towns and sleepy far-flung villages across the emirate. In Kalba, on Sharjah’s eastern coast, an old fish fertilizer facility turned boat repair shop turned ice factory has been repurposed as an artists’ workshop and gallery. In 2015, the Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas exhibited Planetarium in the refurbished space, bringing visitors to the town and local residents into a conversation about the installation. In the village of Al Hamiriyah, SAF worked with the architect Khalid Najjar to convert a former seaside fruit and vegetable market that had been built around a central courtyard into studios that will be used for the first time during the Sharjah Biennal in 2017.
“One of our future plans,” concludes Al Qasimi, “is to find a location that can house revolving exhibitions from the Foundation’s growing permanent collection.” Not only does SAF save and repurpose the structures in which Sharjah’s past is housed, but it has also been busy accumulating an important cultural archive of artworks, commissioned or acquired by the Foundation, that will help shape the community it serves far into the future.