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The Big-Budget Sharjah Biennial Tackles Postcolonial Fallout With Beauty, Sentimentality, and Nuance

In Billy Sings Amazing Grace (2013), Theaster Gates, renowned archivist and lesser-known vocalist, wails and croons in a darkened auditorium alongside the white-haired and stoic soul singer Billy Forston. In its profound sonic resonance, their video performance of improvisational gospel is one of many highlights in “Thinking Historically in the Present,” the recently opened 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial.

Like the show as a whole, the piece is a work of intimate, visceral storytelling, in both mournful and celebratory turns. Featuring about 300 works from more than 150 artists and collectives, including 70 new commissions, the excellent “Thinking Historically” is biennial director Hoor Al Qasimi’s homage to the late and well-loved Okwui Enwezor, who was originally appointed curator before his passing in 2019.

In her catalog essay, Al Qasimi reflects on Enwezor’s groundbreaking decolonial legacy, citing his 2002 approach to Documenta 11 as “a lodestar in my curatorial consciousness.” Validating artists outside the canon’s narrow purview, his work had offered her a glimpse into a wider world of possibilities, unhindered by “the social myopia” of Eurocentrism.

Theaster Gates’s Billy Sings Amazing Grace (2013). Photo: Janelle Zara

Nodding to Enwezor’s decentralization of Documenta 11 across five cities, the Sharjah Biennial spans five towns across the emirate, in venues that include the polished galleries of the capital city, and the peeling classrooms of a disused kindergarten along the coast.

A full generation since Enwezor’s groundbreaking exhibition in Germany, the participating biennial artists contend with what are now-familiar themes: the aftermath of empire, foreign extraction, and slavery among others. 

“Thinking Historically” is a welcome antidote to the academic tropes of recent biennials, some of which, like the Berlin and Istanbul Biennials in 2022, were filled with research-based projects with few formal merits. In the rich textures of works like Ibrahim Mahama’s monumental

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