Sharjah, the discreet emirate and neighbor of the extravagant Dubai, has been named among the 5 emerging cultural hubs in the world by the BBC. A recognition for this city that stands as the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Led by a passionate emir, this rather conservative emirate has cultivated a unique position on the local cultural scene since its creation: as both guardian of the traditional Arab heritage and window of the emerging contemporary scene. A work started thirty years ago, and which keeps placing Sharjah on the map as a regional creative hub.
At the crossroads of traditional arts and the contemporary scene
A former fishing port located at the junction of the Persian Gulf and Oman, Sharjah dates back from more than 5000 years ago. In the 70s, while the whole region discovers the black gold, his emir Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qassimi prefers to focus on the cultural influence of the city. Art and history lover (he holds a doctorate in history from the University of Exeter and has written several plays), he finances the Emirati Society of Fine Arts and founds the Sharjah International Book Fair. But it’s only at the beginning of the nineties that he starts his great cultural “revolution” with the construction of about twenty museums dedicated to preserving the historical heritage of the city in various fields like calligraphy, archeology, arts, Islamic civilizations, or aviation. Beyond the unique work of preservation, he is also looking towards the future and creates two major events for promoting local art on the world stage: the famous Biennale of Sharjah (1993) and the Lights festival (2010). Initiatives that give the city its titles of the cultural capital of the Arab world by UNESCO in 1998, and Islamic arts at the Conference of Islamic Countries in Baku in 2014. Today, a number of cultural spaces pursue the cultural mission of the emirate. Focus on three of them:
Maraya Art Center
Founded in 2006, this artistic incubator unearths and supports the talents of the region. It offers an annual residency program for emerging artists and regularly organizes temporary exhibitions, like Islamopolitan, an event that questioned the relationship between Islam and design. The Maraya Art Center has also collaborated with international artists such as Franco-Tunisian L Seed and Iraqi painter Marwan Shakarchi who have been invited to add their artistic signature and revisit iconic sites of the city. UAE-born graphic designer Zena Adhemi has reinvented the font of Smile you are in Sharjah, an iconic phrase of the city.
Founded in 2010 by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, the Barjeel Foundation’s mission is to support the intellectual development of the regional art scene. Today, it has become one of the main sources of information on contemporary Arab art, and enlightens the general public on the Arab world diversity, beyond the borders of culture and geography. A goal largely achieved by the construction of a public collection of about 1300 works, which are regularly made available to foreign institutions to share the modern Arab creative wealth. Recently the foundation has lent a hundred pieces from its collection to The Arab World Institute (IMA) as part of its exhibition “100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Art”.
Artistic Foundation of Sharjah
Located in the historic district of the city, the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) has been active since its creation (in 2009) as a catalyst for artistic exchange in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Managed by the daughter of the emirate’s ruler, Hoor Al Qasimi, it ensures the historical continuity of the Sharjah Biennale. In parallel, it also organizes a series of events such as screenings, concerts, discussions, but also performances. It has recently acquired a new multi-functional space of approximately 20000 square meters. A renovation which is part of an urban development project, including a succession of indoor and outdoor spaces, housed in traditional Emirati houses.