For the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial 11 (SB11), the answer comes in the form of a typically creative solution: art will not simply be presented as paintings hanging inside a museum or gallery. Instead, it will be an interactive experience, with its many forms setting up residence in public spaces in the beating heart of the emirate.
"The concept this year is based on a courtyard, which is both a public space where people meet and interact as well as a private one, where you need to be invited to come and interact," said Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
The concept was envisioned by Yuko Hasegawa, the curator of SB11, who is also the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, as well as a seasoned director and adviser for several international biennials.
Inspired by the role of the courtyard in Islamic architecture, in particular the historical courtyards of Sharjah's old homes, Hasegawa proposes a cultural cartography that reconsiders the relationships between the Arab world, Asia, through North Africa and Latin America.
"The courtyard is where knowledge is exchanged, friendships are made, where family members meet and reconnect, where people rest and take a break. It is a central place in traditional Emirati homes," said Sheikha Hoor.
"Besides the UAE, there are courtyards in most homes and across cultures and countries."
First held in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial has established itself as one of the leading exhibitions of contemporary art in the region. Every two years an assembly of works from artists around the world gather in Sharjah's oldest district to showcase their work. The biennial, which will not charge the public for admission, will feature vast collections of artworks commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation.
"It is quite exciting and stressful at the same time," said Sheikha Hoor, referring to the intense period of planning required to stage such a multifaceted event.
As she prepares for the biennial's opening next month, the daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah has been travelling the world in pursuit of excellence. In the past month she has been to India, the United States and China, meeting artists, presenting the biennial to interested parties and gathering further inspiration in the process.
"Art is my life. I really enjoy meeting artists and seeing creations coming to life and how they leave an impression on whoever comes across the works," said the 32-year-old, who is an artist herself. A solo exhibition of her photographic work titled Off Road, put together after she drove across the US, opened recently at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.
Besides the biennial, Sheikha Hoor is chair of the Advisory Board for the College of Art and Design, University of Sharjah; member of the advisory board, Khoj International Artists' Association, India and serves on the board of directors for MoMA PS1, New York, and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. She was on the curatorial selection committee for the 2012 Berlin Biennale and is a visiting lecturer at Slade School of Fine Art, London.
The biennial - featuring work from more than 100 artists from around the world, including architects, designers, filmmakers, musicians, performers and creators - will bring many different perspectives to this year's stated theme, which is listed as "Re:emerge Towards a New Cultural Cartography."
Opening on March 13 and running until May 13, Sharjah's art district will be transformed and connected to the city's heritage area through imaginative use of artworks and cultural landscapes.
Last month, a new set of artists' names were added to the roster including Burak Arikan, Tony Chakar, Thomas Demand, Mohamed Ali Fadlabi, Valia Fetisov, Simon Fujiwara, Carsten Höller, Gabriel Lester, Pedro Reyes, Shahzia Sikander and Liu Wei. Other participants include Saadane Afif, Yang Fudong, Kazuyo Sejima and Wael Shawky.
Recently during a panel discussion at MoMA, New York, SB11 artist Ernesto Neto spoke about his research visit to Sharjah and the development of his ideas for the major new sculptural commission he will create for the show. Separately, OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, an award-winning Belgian architecture and design practice, spoke of their proposal for a series of "oases" as their contribution to the exhibition.
The opening of SB11 will mark the inauguration of Sharjah Art Foundation's five new multi-functional art spaces in the emirate's heritage area. With more than 20,000 square feet of interior space, connected by open-air courtyards and rooftop terraces, the new spaces will become venues for the foundation's activities and community outreach programmes.
"We will be putting up many works and then removing them at the end of the biennial as I personally don't think an artwork should stay too long in one place. It becomes part of the landscape and is forgotten," said Sheikha Hoor.
Besides the installations across the city, the biennial will also run a film programme curated by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker, and will include evening screenings at an outdoor cinema. There will also be music and performance events throughout SB11 including a Skype-based dance performance by Tunisian dancer and choreographer duo Selma and Sofiane Ouissi and an audiovisual concert by Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda.
"The biennial reaches out to the public and the community, where often the children of the neighbourhood are the first to visit and interact with the works, and then they bring their parents to see and enjoy it for themselves," she said. "You don't need to be an art lover to enjoy the Sharjah Biennial."
Ÿ Sharjah Biennial 11 opens on March 13 and runs until May 13. For further information please visit www.sharjahart.org
Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer for The National.