The ninth Sharjah Biennial began on Monday, kicking off two months of art exhibitions and cultural fixtures designed to add to the ongoing conversation about art, design and culture in the Arab world. The event's red and white posters and flags could be seen almost everywhere in the emirate, which is known for its galleries and museums, but anyone expecting a bold display of intent on the festival's opening day may have been surprised.
The organisers opted to start the Biennial with the March Meeting, a series of workshops and seminars given by artists and organisations linked to the event, before its official inauguration ceremony tomorrow. Monday's March Meeting, which took place in Sharjah's Heritage District, began with a presentation from the Biennial's organisers. "The Biennial was set up in a different way this year. We left the idea of having a theme or a topic and got rid of the framework," said Jack Persekian, the artistic director. He added that he hoped artists would be able to use the event to help hone their skills and learn more about the promotion of art.
"We wanted to get away from the idea of a Biennial that is just for ready works; we want it to be for production purposes also." Persekian also said that he hopes the March Meeting will become an important part of art in Sharjah and the Emirates by becoming an annual event. The first meeting was held last year but was closed to the public, he said. "In March every year we will gather these institutions. This is the start of the new scene. It's an experience; you are part of it," he said.
One of the day's biggest names was Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architectural theorist, urbanist and Harvard professor. The current financial crisis was touched on at the meeting, by speakers from the Prince Claus Fund, a Dutch organisation that supports culture in developing nations. In recent years it has helped reconstruct the Central Library of the University of Baghdad and has given emergency money to save cultural projects in flood-hit Yemen.
"Art and culture is always the first thing to lose funds when budgets are cut, so we are expecting more requests for help this year," said Els van der Plas, a spokeswoman for the fund. One of the day's highlights was a presentation by a delegation from London's Victoria & Albert Museum, which has collected Islamic art since 1850. During the workshop, attendees were shown pieces by the nine artists shortlisted for the museum's Jameel Prize - a £25,000 (Dh130,000) award for a contemporary artist or designer for work inspired by Islamic traditions of craft and design.
"Seeing Islamic art at the V&A forces people to put aside their clichéd views of Islamic culture - simply because of how beautiful it is," said Tim Stanley, the senior curator of Middle East art at the V&A. As well as the workshops, which attracted artists, art professionals and journalists from around the world, there were also a number of book launches, film screenings and lectures in the evening.
Monday night also saw the symbolic handover ceremony of the torch of the Unesco-sponsored Arab Capital of Culture, from Damascus to Jerusalem. The March Meeting will continue tomorrow between 10.00am and 3.00pm at Dar Al Nadwa, in Heritage Village. The official inauguration ceremony, to be held by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, will take place tomorrow from 10.00am until 1.00pm at the city's Arts Area.
The Sharjah Biennial features several cultural programmes that will run throughout the festival's duration. These include an Artist in Residence project, which invites international artists to Sharjah to work on projects that are later showcased in an exhibition. Also taking place is Past of the Coming Days, a film and performance programme curated by Tarek Abou el Fetouh. It includes live performances, exhibitions, film screenings and lectures until March 25.
For a full list of events, visit www.sharjahbiennial.org