In my practice of reimagining Central Asia, I have reconstructed an old economic concept known as the 'Silk Roads' and observed its manifestations, aiming to dismantle imposed geopolitical and ideological contradictions. Throughout history, there have been numerous instances of 'Silk Roads,' including one known as 'Stalin's Silk Road'.
Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present
Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present (SB15) reflects on Enwezor’s visionary work, which transformed contemporary art and established an ambitious intellectual project that has influenced the evolution of institutions and biennials around the world.
Hoor Al Qasimi interprets and re-envisions the titular proposal by the late thinker to critically centre the past within the contemporary moment. Al Qasimi develops the concept of ‘thinking historically in the present’ by adopting a working methodology that privileges the role of intuition and incidence. Acknowledging the effect Enwezor’s documenta 11 had in transforming her curatorial consciousness, she also builds upon her own long-term relationship with the Biennial, as visitor, artist, curator, and eventually, as director of the Foundation, an institution that came into being as a result of the Biennial, a fact Enwezor appreciably recognised.
SB15 will thus position Sharjah’s own lived past within the transcultural universe of thought furthered by over 300 works by over 150 artists and collectives, which will be installed in 5 cities and towns across the emirate. Participating artists have been consciously evolving practices that critique monolithic understandings of nationhood, tradition, race, gender, body and imagination, which inform the Biennial’s intersectional thematic. Enwezor’s proposition of the ‘postcolonial constellation’ and its pluriverse of key concepts form one point of departure as SB15 enables nuanced conversations around postcolonial subjectivity, the body as a repository of memories, processes of creolisation and hybridisation, the restitution of museumised objects, the racialising gaze, transgenerational continuities, global modernisms, indigeneity and decolonisation.
The 30th anniversary edition serves as a vantage point for the Biennial to reflect upon its cultural heritage and historical influence, the artistic possibilities it has enabled, and its role in linking Sharjah to transnational intellectual and artistic discourses. It is a moment for the Foundation to consider its institutional trajectory within its unique geopolitical location while continuing its expanding commitment to communities across the United Arab Emirates. The Biennial will engage audiences through ongoing learning activities and community outreach as well as a diverse programme of performance, music and film.
SB15 locates itself in continuity with past editions of the Biennial as well as the 2021 and 2022 iterations of March Meeting—the Foundation’s annual convening of artists, curators and arts practitioners exploring critical issues in contemporary art—which served as a collective prelude. March Meeting 2021: Unravelling the Present examined the 30-year history of Sharjah Biennial and the future of the biennial model, while March Meeting 2022: The Afterlives of the Postcolonial discussed the legacies of colonialism as well as emerging issues that have impacted recent global cultural, aesthetic and artistic practices. March Meeting 2023, taking place from 9 to 12 March, will continue the exploration of the SB15 themes while the exhibition is on view.
Thinking Historically in the Present has been realised with the support the SB15 Working Group, comprised of Tarek Abou El Fetouh (Director of Performance and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation), Ute Meta Bauer (professor and Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore), Salah M. Hassan (professor and art historian, Cornell University, and Director of The Africa Institute, Sharjah), Chika Okeke-Agulu (professor and art historian, Princeton University) and Octavio Zaya (independent curator, art writer and Executive Director, Cuban Art Foundation), alongside an Advisory Committee that includes Sir David Adjaye (architect) and Christine Tohmé (Director, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut).
The Tongue and Hunger: Stalin's Silk Road is an installation that explores the man-made famine of 1932-1933 in Kazakhstan, one of the catastrophic famines that occurred in the USSR during the years of Stalin's rule. According to some sources, the Kazakh famine is estimated to have claimed the lives of 49% of the Kazakh Nomad population. The installation contains various elements that examine the famine through documentary research and personal storytelling. Other nationalities were brought to the lands previously occupied by nomads. These lands were turned into Gulag camps for reeducation and creating a robust economy in the Soviet Union. They also built a nuclear testing site. Stalin's economic policies significantly affected the economies and cultures of the regions they affected. "Stalin's industrialization programs in the 1930s ended the traditional way of life of Kazakh nomads in Kazakhstan through the forced relocation of nomads to farms and Russification, which included the Famines.
The installation consists of a research book titled "Famine 1931-33 in Central Kazakhstan" a project initiated by Nurlan Dulatbekov from Karaganda University, named after E. A.Duketov, which provides a comprehensive overview of the famine based on extensive research and analysis. This book serves as a collaborative and participatory approach to the installation, offering a broad context for understanding the events during the famine that seeks to engage a wider audience in dialogue and reflection.
The second element of the installation is a personal family story of the artist that examines the impact of the famine on individuals and families and the tough choices that had to be made to survive. This personal story offers a poignant insight into the emotional and psychological toll that the famine took on individuals and families and the challenges faced in rebuilding and reconnecting after such a devastating event. These approaches use a range of mediums, such as AI synthetic reconstruction, animation photography, and stage filming, and the mix media post-digital textile “The Map of Nomadizing Reimaginings “ to explore the famine from different perspectives and to bring attention to marginalized or overlooked voices and experiences.
The third part of the installation is a work by Archipelago Karag, which demonstrates what happened to the land of the main protagonist. After the famine, a prison, and labor camp were built on her land called Karlag (Part of Gulag) covering an area compared with the size of France. This camp was part of the larger Stalinist Gulag, a totalitarian economic system called by an artist the " Stalin's Silk Road." of one of the strongest economies of the USSR.
Special thanks for the help and collaboration with Buketov Karaganda University, Central Kazakhstan.
The Tongue and Hunger: Stalin's Silk Road,2023
5-channel video installation, 40 min, 4K