F ew people have transformed the landscape of contemporary art as much as the late Okwui Enwezor. The Nigerian-American curator created a series of hugely impactful biennials and periodic exhibitions that challenged the dominance of white, Western male artists and encouraged a polyphony of global artistic voices. His 2002 Documenta XI exhibition was arguably one of the most influential of the 21st century.
In spring 2018 – shortly before his tragically early death in 2019 at age 55 – Enwezor began to assemble one last biennial, which runs 7 February to 11 June 2023. Thinking Historically in the Present, the 15th Sharjah Biennial, features more than 150 artists from 70 countries.
Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, says that it “thoroughly embraces the postcolonial lens Okwui championed” and explores “how various histories continue to shape our present,” partly triggered by the 15th edition marking the biennial’s 30th anniversary. Al Qasimi says that in one of their last discussions before Enwezor’s death, “He was very clear that I should continue what he started.”
Among 30 artists commissioned to make new work is Colombian sculptor and installation artist Doris Salcedo, who is showing Uprooted. Made from “hundreds of dead trees” tied together to form a house which, according to Salcedo, “is a wall that, like a border wall, separates”. It is intended to mark “the impossibility a migrant will have of owning a house or a piece of land – they will always be passing by. They have little chance of belonging, and much less of being welcomed.”
Salcedo adds: “There’s no one single issue that forces us to think historically more than migration. It immediately points towards imperialism, colonialism, the climate crisis and capitalism. So it forces us to look back: how can we be inhabiting this disaster?” Also showing work is Nari Ward, a friend of Enwezor who was included in his seminal Documenta exhibition. Enwezor once said that the Harlem-based artist “completely transformed the scale and the ambition of installation art”.
Ward’s vast sculpture Nu Colossus is on show as part of the Sharjah Biennial – it was first made more than a decade ago and takes the form of a woven fish trap. The work is not necessarily about entrapment, he says, but “about placing yourself in a space where you have to reimagine what that reality is.”
Sharjah Biennial 15, 7 February–11 June 2023, sharjahart.org