Even the desert can bear a message of healing. As our bus reaches Al Madam outside Sharjah, the sun is about to set on the village, which was built in the 1970s, and is now desolate. Trudging across its expanse, our group comes to the newest structure, a solitary tent, with its stark silhouette.
Constructed from sackcloth and lightly fixed with a cement wash, this open faced tent allows visitors to come in and sit in a spirit of community. Seated on reed mats, we hear the names of the thousands who have been killed in the Gaza conflict, but been denied a decent burial: for the two Palestinian architects, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, the tent is the space for mourning. Set stubbornly in a vast nowhere space, as the shadows of the desert lengthen in the setting sun, the simple building stands as witness to an unfolding catastrophe.
The second Sharjah Architecture Triennial, curated by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo, opened on November 11 in Sharjah at a critical time. As images of multistoried apartments collapsing in a heap of rubble in Gaza, or of smoke and petrol fumes poisoning the air in the NCR, stress the precarity of built-up environments, all ostensible notions of progress come into question. Wearing the Palestinian keffiya, Sharjah’s Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, patron of the Triennial and founder of the Sharjah Art Foundation, inaugurated the event with a passionate defence of the people of Palestine, dedicating the Triennial “to those who have lost their lives and those who are fighting for their lives in Gaza”.
Dust as the dividing line
Inevitably, the Triennial aims to address these urgent questions, which invoke colonial extractive processes for resources, and the long shadow they cast on local economies. One instance is Sandra Poulson’s recreation of a local market in Luanda (Angola), in which all the objects — slippers, dried fish, garments — are covered by dust. She draws attention to how Portuguese settlers lived in a ‘cement city’ while the Angolan natives lived in unfinished neighbourhoods, paved by the dust, rendering dust as the dividing line between the ruling and the oppressed classes.
Nevertheless, the show, titled ‘Beauty of Impermanence’ actually has an optimistic lift in how it maps an attitude of resistance to waste, and how to reuse and repurpose resources. Working with a model of “scarcity rather than abundance”, the curator’s response to the particular cartography of Sharjah, and its vast Asian/ African neighbourhood has been playful, investigative and vested in the concerns of the Global South.
51-1, the architectural studio from Lima, came up with a lively idea for the Old Vegetable Market. Once a thriving space for trade at the edge of the ocean, where dhows from India and elsewhere would bring in their wares, the vegetable market was rendered defunct by a new market, built on land reclaimed from the sea. 51-1 turned the inhospitable square of the old facility into a public space for board games, most of which in fact originated in this region: chess, carrom, snakes and ladders, and pachisi (from South Asia), go (China), checkers (Middle East), backgammon (Mesopotamia) and mancala (Egypt, Ethiopia). The mobile 51-1 installation comprises canopies and tables and chairs, which can be moved around to catch the shifting shade under the harsh West Asian sun.
Water and environmental decay are also at the heart of the degradation of the Lalibela churches of Ethiopia, which were originally carved out of monolithic rock and have been centres of devotion in Coptic Christianity. In an elegiac re-rendering, Miriam Hillawi Abraham uses bricks of pink salt that resemble the colour of the Lalibela churches, to invoke the the inevitability of physical deterioration, and to speak of the changing nature of our heritage.
Denims returned to sender
Degradation too is an important part of the curatorial imprint, and it appears in surprising ways, involving both waste and recycling. Buzigahill, an art and activist outfit, in Kampala, Uganda, upturns the chain of global fashion which typically ends up in the poor markets of the Global South; in the process, local markets and innovations in design suffer. Buzigahill undertook the mammoth exercise of buying bales of waste denim jeans, reprising and redesigning them into tote bags, in a cheeky act of ‘return to sender’ or selling the recrafted objects to the markets of the Global North.
The theme of disuse and recuperation also runs through other sites such as the sprawling Sharjah Mall, a vast unfinished project in grey concrete, that stands as testimony to the many unfinished buildings across the Global South. Using white woven cloth to create a grid-like pavilion, the architects Limbo Accra create a soft contemplative space that contrasts with the unfinished brutalist effect of the mall.
Spirit of ‘jugaad’
In an architectural re-envisioning of used car tyres, one of the largest waste products in the world, the Indian group Wallmakers created a three-minute corridor, fashioning the tyres held vertically in a rising wall with sand. The enclosed space is both a monument to the problem of global waste, and a vast shaded enclosure. Another Indian initiative, Hunnarshala Foundation, made a presentation of its work in riot-hit areas such as Muzaffarnagar, or in earthquake-devastated Bhuj in 2001, by making 1,200 enduring circular huts for the village community.
The exhibition doesn’t have the scale of Sheikha Hoor’s Sharjah Biennial, which in the last decade has catapulted to the forefront of the art calendar of the Global South, with its vast sprawl of exhibition sites, and its influential March talk. While Sao Paolo, Havana and Johannesburg have receded, it is Sharjah that has given a vital platform to the exchange of ideas outside the Eurocentric sphere.
The first Sharjah Architecture Triennial, curated by Adrian Lahoud, set the tone as an intellectual tour de force. And while the huge power-guzzling structures of the UAE, cheek by jowl with the Triennial, may not pause to consider their carbon footprint, the exhibition makes the important statement on how the scarcity of resources can challenge the cornucopia of material consumption. It demonstrates, with wit and ingenuity, how the South may in fact restore and even celebrate its spirit of jugaad or improvised creativity.
‘Beauty of Impermanence’, Sharjah Architecture Triennial, is on till March 10, 2024.
The art critic and curator is based in New Delhi.