The two-month Sharjah Biennial was established in 1993. For years, it was the Arab world’s largest art fair. It also predates most of the Gulf region’s other art fairs and high-profile museum projects. Originally, it was modeled on a classic biennial format with artists chosen to officially represent each participating country. In 2003, with the appointment of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi as co-curator (then with artist and curator Peter Lewis), the Sharjah Biennial shifted to a proactive approach in curating, based on artistic quality in relation to certain themes relevant for the region, with a wider international perspective. The Biennial switched to actively engage in hosting and promoting contemporary arts, and became the foremost contemporary art event in the Gulf States for a few years. In size, Art Dubai has taken over, but while Art Dubai in principle is commercial and the Biennial is not, the sense of patience and dedication to the artists at the Biennial, along with the yearly Sharjah March Meeting, make the Sharjah Biennial still have a distinctive role by itself.
From 2005 to 2011, Jack Persekian was the chief guest curator and later director.
The 2011 edition paid attention to the so-called Arab Spring, the insurgence movement aspiring for political and social change that had been ongoing in various Arabic countries for several months that year. Ironically, on the opening day of the Biennial the UAE’s army had participated in the Suadi led invasion of Bahrain to quell a movement looking for change in Bahrain. A protest held during the opening of the Biennial, which took place a day after the invasion, led to a foreign guest of the Biennial being arrested. Another shock wave that cut through the event was caused by a work by Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil at the Beit Al Serkal , Maportaliche / It Has No Importance, the content of which clashed with religious feelings. This mattered even more as the work was put up in an open area, and close to a mosque. This caused Persekian to be removed from his post.
While initially his departure was seen as a blow for the Biennial and the March Meeting, the 2012 March Meeting proved that the underlying concept, designed by Jack Persekian and Sheikha Hoor, proved strong enough to resist the turbulence. Many artists and other professionals participated in a lively event. What helped, is that Persekian, right after his departure, publicly took part of the blame for the controversy, and refused to support a call for a boycott of the Biennial and March Meeting. Suggesting that he had not well estimated the reactions some works might generate, he prevented destroying the precious results he and Sheikha Hoor had achieved. From the side of the Sharjah Art Foundation, president Sheikha Hoor since then has repeatedly praised Persekian for what he had achieved during the years.
As of the 2013 edition, chief guest curator of the Biennial is Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. The following central artists were invited to create work for the Biennial: Saadane Afif, Yang Fudong, Studio Mumbai, Kazuyo Sejima and Wael Shawky.
Over the years, the coordination between the Sharjah Biennial and March Meeting and Dubai’s Sikka Art Fair and Dubai Art have improved, with each keeping their own character. It is now better possible to visit the relevant events of each without too many events in different locations coinciding. In 2012, however, a third location manifested itself with events during the period of the March Meeting, and thus competing with the March Meeting. For the first time, Doha’s Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art organized a branch of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum, which exactly coincided with the March Meeting, almost as if to compete, one could have the impression. That would be a pity. Hopefully, these events will be better synchronized in the near future, althought in 2013 they are coinciding again.