Rhythmic chants, news dispatches and a multitude of impassioned Tunisian voices echo down the corridors of Sharjah's Beit Al Serkal. Elsewhere, discordant electronic strings float up shadowy staircases in this 150-year-old building, seeping into its nooks and darkened passages which shudder with a subdued bass drone.
Built as a residence before becoming the city's first hospital and once a short-lived home for the Sharjah Art Museum, Beit Al Serkal is the perfect venue to showcase the audio and video artworks commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2011. Its bare rooms are washed red and blue with light from the stained-glass windows, and the sound art pieces transform a stroll through this illustrious space into a sequence of clandestine, contemplative happenings.
The foundation commissioned more than 65 works of art for the 2011 edition of Sharjah Biennial, funding the creation of each work from start to finish. This showcase represents the New Media side of those commissions.
It's just one of a series of must-see art projects taking place across Sharjah until the middle of January. A short walk from Beit Al Serkal is the Collections building, currently home to Drift - An Exploration of Urban & Suburban Landscapes, an exhibition curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Over in the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Aida Eltorie, who assembled this year's Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, has selected eight works by artists from the region that explore the aftermath of revolution via video, sound and a lot of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Upstairs in Maraya, the Barjeel Art Foundation hosts a panorama of artists who reflect on a nostalgia for a halcyon, sometimes fantasy-infused Middle East.
As completion of the UAE's major museum projects continue to be delayed, Sharjah offers a high-calibre, refreshing alternative to the commercially orientated scene found elsewhere in the country. These are shows primed by their relevancy, and set the high-minded tone that the city's arts programme has become known for.
In Beit Al Serkal, visitors are left to explore three floors of coral corridors and lonely passageways, while hidden speakers provide a brilliant, haunting soundtrack of electronic pops and hums from one space to the next. Meanwhile, behind black curtains, 10 film works play constantly, representing top-flight video art talent from across the Middle East.
The majority of the audio pieces were composed by PWR&$$$ (Power and Wealth), a collective of New York-based sound artists who came to Sharjah in January 2011 to record market ambience, slightly out-of-tune radios and the general hubbub of the streets. Breaking this down into composite sounds, the artists have created warm, though not always harmonious, soundscapes of around two minutes each. Carefully positioned around the space, they work well - the more cavernous compositions seeming to oscillate deep into the recesses of this old building.
"PWR&$$$ wanted to create something that felt new and modern but with respect to traditional Arab sounds," says Sheikha Hoor, who positioned these pieces around Beit Al Serkal. "They wanted to present these sounds in a way that challenged expectations of what Arabic music is supposed to sound like.
"The building isn't relevant to these compositions, but it creates an intriguing relationship between the audio pieces and the architecture of the place," she says. "Beit Al Serkal is an interesting space for reflection and, by having the audio pieces dispersed throughout the building, one is taken through a reflective journey of contemplation and exploration on what is happening in the Arab world."
Highlights of the video selection include Javed by Bahman Kiarostami, son of the Iranian master of cinema Abbas Kiarostami. This 18-minute piece captures the melancholia of kooche bazaari (pop singer) Javed Yasari, who was banned from performing in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Javed recounts his journey from household name to obscurity, having moved to Dubai - one of the few places he can still legally sing in public to a big group of Iranians. It's a bittersweet tale, but one that speaks volumes about a continued yet ebbing nostalgia that many Iranians have for the country's past and for its icons.
Another highlight is Rania Stephan's The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, a feature-length movie co-commissioned in part by the Serpentine Gallery in London. This elegy to the life of one of Egypt's most complex yet brilliant 1960s stars, Soad Hosni, cuts up footage from her films and splices it together to create a narrative that leads up to her death on a London pavement in 2001.
Drift, over in Sharjah's Collections building, explores the intersection between geography and personal stories. Sheikha Hoor, who curated this exhibition as well, says that the works by each of the 10 artists featured "resonate with the absence of a society that is there but not visible in human form".
Bouchra Khalili, for instance, has created a video in which a young Algerian émigré draws his chaotic journey into Europe on a world map, narrating his constant tribulations to find somewhere stable to live. "We are observing a part of society who, through clandestine journeys, reveal an underground and hidden geography," the curator says, and refers to Zineb Sedira's included works to illustrate. "Her photographs of abandoned ruins leave us with a sense of history of European bourgeois, a colonial past that once inhabited the Algerian coast. These images are highly redolent of the society and people who are perhaps absent from these works but whose lives are their subject."
Sheikha Hoor refers to each of the artists as "flâneurs" of such submerged narratives - detached observers yet whose art wanders through such submerged histories. Hrair Sarkissian's photographs are particularly powerful - Execution Squares depicts public squares in Latakia, Damascus and Aleppo snapped in the twilight of early morning. They are calm, deserted and glow with street lights not yet turned off. But these squares are also the sites where public executions took place. Once we know this, the images are forever changed - the peace of the scene appears instead like an aftermath.
Over at the Maraya Art Centre, Renditions is a continuation of the Contemporary Arab Video Encounter (CAVE) that began in 2010, which aims to disseminate a greater awareness of Arab artists working in video. The exhibition draws together seven video and installation artists who explore the idealism of a revolution rather than its implicit violence.
Sama Al Shaibi has crafted a beautiful video piece, heavy with symbolism, shot in a snow-strewn landscape in Colorado. "She captures a change of humanity," says Eltorie. In this snowy, desolate scene of twisted barren trees, crows begin to drop from the sky and we see the artist wrapping their black bodies in red ribbon. "In the imagery of this inches-deep snow, Alshaibi's black hair, and her red dress on the snow, you start to see the Egyptian flag."
Another great work here is by Bassam Yousri, predominantly a painter, who filmed the view from his window near the Cairo Stock Exchange during the riots. From between the brick buildings of an alley, we watch the insane theatre of the uprising in black-and-white - people marching one way, a crowd of police running against them, banners dragged through the streets, men with their arms around each other striding towards victory. A stunningly framed portrayal of the fervour of mobilised people. The scene is silent, save for a thudding heartbeat.
Upstairs at Barjeel Art Foundation, Caravan continues, a collection of artists who, says Barjeel curator Mandy Merzaban, reflect "a residue of nostalgia to keep alive something of their heritage or their culture". It's a fairly divergent show - everything from the texture of burnt canvas to a sculpture by a Kuwaiti artist of a ghostly figure astride a horse - but a solid narrative thread keeps this exhibition punchy and comprehensive.
With the March Meetings coming up, when Sharjah hosts a multitude of foremost thinkers who let fly monologues on Middle Eastern art, it's important to keep the emirate's cultural output firmly on the radar. With a cultural direction that is experimental, dedicated to non-commercialism and an exciting openness to commissioning new talent, Sharjah offers an optimistic glimpse of where the region's art scene is, hopefully, heading.
- Beit Al Serkal and Drift - An Exploration of Urban & Suburban Landscapes in the Sharjah Collections building, are both in the Heart of Sharjah heritage quarter close to the Rolla district of the city. Opening hours are 9am-9pm, Sat-Thurs, free entry, continuing until January 14 (www.sharjahart.org). Maraya Arts Centre is open 10am-10pm, Sat-Thurs, free entry. Visit www.maraya.ae
- Sharjah Art Foundation has just announced an open call for its 2012 production programme, seeking submissions from artists. Up to US$200,000 (Dh735,000) is available for an artist to realise a new work. For more information visit www.sharjahart.org