Discover Sharjah, the UAE’s Capital of Culture

Walking through the alleyways of Al Mureijah Square in old Sharjah, a sense of history overwhelms you. Crenellated parapets checker the sky, and coral stone enclosures flank traditional houses. Here, between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, a maritime civilization was born. To the outsider observer, the area looks much the same as it did centuries ago. But inside its whitewashed walls, a creative revolution is taking place.

Since 2013, the area has housed the contemporary art galleries of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which recently featured a retrospective of renowned Emirati artist Hassan Sharif. Behind one discreet gallery door, hundreds of brightly colored foam flip-flops lay heaped in a pile on a bare, gray floor. Behind and to the right, colored strings cascaded down a stark white wall. To the left, bunches of neon pink threads clung together in the shape of a rug.

Known for his weaving assemblages and compilations of found objects, Sharif was a pioneer of contemporary art in the Middle East as well as an advocate for the development of a contemporary arts scene in Sharjah. On view following Sharif's passing in 2016, the exhibition symbolized how far the Sharjah arts scene has come in the space of just a few decades.

When Sharif began his career in the 1970s, Sharjah consisted of a scattered community of artists with very little opportunity for exhibition. However, in 1980, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Ruler or Sharjah and a devoted patron of the arts, established the Emirates Fine Arts Society. Offering training and support, the Society attracted creatives from across the UAE. Later in 1993, Al Qasimi founded the Sharjah Biennial, a regional contemporary arts festival. Public art and heritage museums followed, and in 1998 UNESCO named Sharjah the Cultural Capital of the Arab World.

Today, thanks to the vision of Sharjah's leadership paired with the ambition of local artists such as Sharif, Sharjah has solidified its reputation as a bastion of culture in the Middle East. Home to a revamped Sharjah Biennial, 19 museums and the world’s third largest book fair, it is a place where modern expression fuses with Emirati heritage and traditional practices.

Whereas Abu Dhabi and Dubai have invested in headline-grabbing arts developments such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Dubai Design District, Sharjah's transformation has come about through more of a grassroots approach. “Sharjah is very home-grown, it’s old school," says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and daughter of the ruler of Sharjah. "[The change has been] not so much from the top down. Here, it’s happened through the people, through the artists.”

The result is a diverse and ever-evolving approach to the arts that ranges from traditional to strikingly contemporary. Here are four ways to dive in.

1) Sharjah Biennial and the Sharjah Art Foundation

Sharjah Art Foundation's indoor exhibition spaces are situated in the historic heart of Sharjah around three public squares: Al Mureijah Square, Calligraphy Square and Arts Square. (Nico Porcaro)
Entranceways blend in with the surroundings, and squares are utilized for outdoor film screenings as well as installations. (Haitham Al Mussawi for the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates Washington, D.C.)
Sharjah Art Foundation ran a retrospective of legendary Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, I Am The Single Work Artist, from November 2017 through February 2018. The exhibition traced his work from 1973 to 2016. (Nico Porcaro)
"Hassan Sharif was a dear friend and strong advocate for the contemporary art community here in Sharjah," says curator Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. "We are so humbled to have worked with him since his presentation at the first Sharjah Biennial in 1993, and to have witnessed his incredible impact through the years... Now, we will come full circle in mounting this significant retrospective in Sharjah, a city that was not only a site of intense artistic production for the artist, but also a place he greatly enriched through his teaching and community activities." (Nico Porcaro)
Sharif was one of the Middle East's pioneering contemporary artists and advocated for the development of a contemporary arts scene in Sharjah. (Nico Porcaro)
Sharif is known for transforming industrial excess into art. (Nico Porcaro)
The 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennial will take place in 2019.

Hoor Al Qasimi has led the charge in bringing the Sharjah Biennial to new, international audiences over the past decade. Inspired by Germany’s Documenta 11, in 2003 she did away with Sharjah Biennial's national pavilion structure, which organized exhibitions by country, turning the attention instead to individual artists and bringing in outside curators. Put on every other year, the internationally acclaimed contemporary art event enriches the cultural landscape of the area with newly commissioned installations and cultural programming. The 14th annual edition, planned for 2019, will explore art’s meaning in a world where “history is increasingly fictionalized.”

In between biennials, the Sharjah Art Foundation organizes exhibitions, workshops and free film screenings and fosters a community by connecting artists with the resources and spaces they need to create. It also hosts the annual March Meeting, during which artists gather to discuss the production and distribution of art. In recognition of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi’s significant contributions to the international contemporary art space, the International Biennial Association named her president last September and will move its headquarters to Sharjah.

2) International Book Fair

(Mostafameraji / Wikimedia Commons)

Last November, the annual fair attracted a record 2.38 million visitors from over 60 countries in addition to some of publishing’s biggest names. The 11-day festival, launched by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi in 1982, has grown to be the largest literary festival in the region and the third largest in the world. In light of Sharjah’s efforts to expand access to reading and foster literary creation, UNESCO has named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019. As part of the program, this fall Sharjah launched the Sharjah Publishing Company, a first-of-its-kind free trade zone projected to become the regional hub for book publishing.

3) 19 Public Museums

Featuring more than 500 works from modern and contemporary Arab artists, the Sharjah Art Museum is one of the largest permanent art exhibitions in the Gulf region. (Nico Porcaro)
The museum library consists of 4000 titles in multiple languages. (Nico Porcaro)
Local and international temporary exhibitions rotate throughout the year. (Nico Porcaro)
The first floor introduces visitors to the five pillars of Islam and features rare Quran manuscripts. (Nico Porcaro)
A collection highlight is this Sitara, a curtain that covers part of the Kaaba shrine in the heart of Mecca. (Nico Porcaro)
On display in a separate gallery are reconstructions illustrating the Islamic achievements in the maths and sciences. (Nico Porcaro)
Perhaps the museum's most photographed element is its gilt dome lined with a mosaic of the twelve zodiacs. (Nico Porcaro)

While it looks to the future, Sharjah simultaneously places great emphasis on preserving its cultural heritage. The city hosts 19 museums focused on themes ranging from calligraphy to maritime history to classic cars. Perhaps the most remarkable collection resides in the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Housed in a beautifully converted souq, or indoor market, on the Majarrah Waterfront, the museum holds more than 5,000 artifacts related to Islamic culture, including rare religious texts, historic scientific instruments, pottery, metalwork and textiles. Other popular museums include the Sharjah Art Museum, the UAE’s first public art museum, which features more than 500 works by modern and contemporary Arab artists, and the Sharjah Heritage Museum, which showcases the region’s cultural heritage and customs, including traditional jewelry and art looms.

4) Barjeel Art Foundation

Installation view of Peripheral Vision, Barjeel Art Foundation's inaugural exhibition (Cmclean74 / Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to museums run by the government, one of Sharjah’s most prolific art collectors, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, established the Barjeel Art Foundation in 2010 to share his extensive collection of modern and contemporary Arab art with the public. Through local and international exhibitions, fellowships and publications, he has promoted contemporary Arab artists and developed critical dialogue about the history of Arab art and its place in the broader art world.

In a 2014 interview with Christie’s, Al Qassemi predicted that Arab and Middle Eastern art will in time win new audiences, and is preparing Sharjah for that future. “Even if I don’t like the work,” he said, “I will buy it if I think it is important, so that visitors to the museum that I hope to build one day can have a good understanding of art from the Middle East and the Arab world.” Today, visitors can view rotating exhibits in the Foundation’s gallery or browse over 1,000 works organized by artist, country and medium in the Barjeel’s impressive online database.

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Discover more arts destinations in Sharjah