Thinking Historically and Trans-Temporally: A Conversation on the Sharjah Biennial

Conversations is a series of critical dialogues between artists, designers, historians, critics, and curators on timely issues in the field. 

De Appel curator Billy Fowo plays football with a child in the plaza outside of Sharjah Art Foundation (photograph by Eugene Hannah Park)

de Appel’s Curatorial Programme (CP) is an intensive ten-month program in Amsterdam exploring curatorial practice. Each year, the program connects a group of cultural practitioners, who collectively curate a public offering at de Appel as an institutional base. This year’s cohort includes Marina Christodoulidou (Cyprus), Billy Fowo (Cameroon), Meghana Karnik (United States), Jean-Michel Mabruki Mussa (Democratic Republic of Congo/Netherlands), and Eugene Hannah Park (South Korea). The de Appel curators recently traveled to attend Sharjah Biennial 15 (SB15): Thinking Historically in the Present (February 7–June 11, 2023) for its concurrent symposium, known as the March Meeting, and titled “The Postcolonial Constellation: Art, Politics, Culture after 1960” (March 9–12, 2023), co-organized with the Africa Institute. The 2023 edition of the biennial was slated to be curated by Okwui Enwezor, who passed away in March 2019; Hoor Al-Qasimi took over curatorial responsibilities in the wake of his death. Both the biennial and the meeting were organized to honor Enwezor and memorialized his contributions to postcolonial praxis in the curatorial field.

de Appel CP wanted to meet with SB15 artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons after seeing her speak during IBA Stage: Sharjah Biennial 15, during which they were moved by her regard for Enwezor. Campos-Pons is a living archive of a generation of diasporic thinkers who created language to define the stakes of postcolonial culture. The curators’ public offering at de Appel Amsterdam this fall is titled Hope is a Discipline (October 5–November 23, 2023), and gathers artists and collectives who research the politics of friendship, space, and solidarity. For their project, Campos-Pons and her contemporaries serve as a critical reference. In a roundtable interview, de Appel CP and Campos-Pons discuss their experiences with SB15, what Sharjah offers as an emergent global center, and how Thinking Historically in the Present has been influential to de Appel curators’ collective project. This interview, conducted over Zoom on May 10, 2023, has been edited for length and clarity.

de Appel CP: Thinking Historically in the Present helped us to not only think with the past, but also beyond what is inside of us, to a bigger scope of understanding time as a structure. One moment that really left an impression on us was during the March Meeting talk, IBA Stage: Sharjah Biennial 15, when you opened the conversation by invoking ancestors. We thought, yes, this is precisely what it means to think “historically in the present.”

How did being in Sharjah and at SB15 inspire you? Did it prompt any reflections on time, or on your local context?

María Magdalena Campos-Pons: It was the first time have I visited Sharjah and the biennial. So equally, it was a new experience and a new encounter. I have been following the project over the years, but not in the flesh. Many artists traveled to Sharjah prior to the exhibition. I couldn’t do that due to issues in my schedule. So, it was a very intense, interesting encounter. There are many impressions that come to mind from the Sharjah Biennial Thinking Historically in the Present edition. For one, I sense that a legacy and a very profound understanding of a body of work that started in the 1990s, led by people such as Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Kobena Mercer. There are a number of very important voices of artists of the diaspora all around and connected with the ideas that Okwui put forward; that in some way has been coalesced, expanded, and explored in a dimensionality that is far, far reaching. So I was incredibly happy. For all of us, losing Okwui was devastating. So it was incredibly reassuring and reaffirming that the legacy, intentionality, and direction of some of the inquiries that he and the group around him put in place, have taken hold and have a continuation in a more complex, encompassing approach to culture, geography, and place. Saying that, I mean, the expansive presence of artists from every corner of the world. The complexity of the programming that was presented to us in the time that we were in Sharjah [during the March Meetings], in the cumulus.  This is a fantastic reaffirmation of conversations in [the 1990s] of places of emergency, places of need, and places of urgency that had been understood, wished, and put together—we are witnessing some of those art futures that had been enunciated earlier.

dA: What are your lasting impressions of life in Sharjah (the place versus the biennial)?

MMCP: There are so many impressions, but one I am thinking of, overall is the program in its totality, besides the personal encounters. There were definitely revealing aspects of the texture of life there, of the behavior of the population there. I had very meaningful encounters and big conversations with children. I saw children that were in the plaza playing, because a space for playing had been offered for them. And that was something that moved me.

If you followed the biennial, every place that is an art project, had a park or a water fountain for everyone. That was care. That was about caring beyond the gesture of what art does; that was about life.

I took kids to my exhibition, and I know that those kids will remember that for the rest of their lives. I met some older children, like thirteen, fourteen, and they called my room their house. And I said to them, this is our room.

dA: There was this very beautiful moment when the group of us were just taking a break between visiting venues in the main plaza. One of us began playing football with some of the children there. We remember one of them calling us “uncle” for help finding a ball. It’s as you say, the environment really felt welcoming to children. We also noticed that there wasn’t a sharp divide between the exhibition spaces and the city, as we have sometimes found in our respective localities. We appreciated that the biennial didn’t seem to interrupt or displace city life, or vice versa, where the biennial is only accessible on a need-to-know basis. City life and SB15 flowed together.

MMCP: And to families, I think that that is something that I look to as a model and revelatory aspect. I have not experienced this in any other biennial and I have been in many. There was an invitation [to the local community, and] especially for children. Putting children in the forefront is central to taking care of the future. It’s targeting the potentiality of the future. And you know, when I was this past week in Matanzas, Cuba, I was thinking a lot about Sharjah and Ríos Intermitentes (Intermittent Rivers), an exhibition project I started in Matanzas in 2018 [as an artist in the 13th Havana Biennial].

Because I was born in Matanzas, in Cuba, I know many, many, many fruits. And I wanted to know how much of that [the current, local children] know. I was devastated to find only a third of them knew the things that I knew. Sixty years have passed. But in sixty years, a lot of fundamental, wonderful things had been lost. How do we introduce this generation to ecological heritage? These are the plants and fruits that are autochthonous but had been lost because of colonization. And I am putting attention on making all of them gardeners. These skinny minis, six years old, pulling my dress and telling me, “Professor Campos-Pons, I have this plant.” We’re going to figure out how to make this farm into a classroom for learning not working. The idea is to make art accessible and create proximity to art. Children are alert and aware, and that is valuable.

What about you guys? What scenes impressed you, what scenes left you with a lasting soul, reimagining, or ambition?

dA: This was our first time in Sharjah and in the Gulf. We had a profound somatic response to experiencing diasporic art in this location. It was different than when we see gatherings of diasporic art, and practices like yours, in the US or EU. We had an overarching feeling in our bodies of the resonances between places in “the postcolonial constellation,” to borrow from Okwui Enwezor’s glossary—in this context of longstanding migration and trade routes. In Sharjah, we have been thinking a lot about intersecting waters and histories. Though we each had different access points as first-time visitors, we felt as if we were several waterways—from South Korea, Cameroon, Germany, Netherlands, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyprus, United States, India—flowing into the city.

MMCP: Well, I am very connected with what you guys describe. And of course, for me, being for the first time in Sharjah, my senses of intuition were heightened in my time there. [For Murmullo Familiar in SB15], I waited until the very end to print my footprints in the piece, in the sand, privately. I didn’t want to do it in the presence of anyone. It was a very profound gesture of returning. In Sharjah, the question about heritage was completely open to me, and to some extent, I needed to search or investigate. In my family, there are a few people they will call Muslim, the moro in Spanish. La mora or el moro, is somebody with a heritage that comes from the Arabic world. So I was there with all these inquiries, and all of this not knowing, but I wanted to mark the footprints as the very first person from my lineage that came back. Even when it was such a distant geography, I felt very connected.

De Appel curator Meghana Karnik stands in front of María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s work Murmullo Familiar, 2021–23 (photograph by Marina Christodoulidou)

I, myself as well, I come from a corner of water places. I come from a bay and in Matanzas there’s water all around. The geography, and the physicality of the city as well. When I arrived in Matanzas, a few weeks ago, I was thinking there are so many similarities with Sharjah. In the history of trade, there are a lot of proximities between what happened in the Caribbean [and the Gulf]. I am in the Caribbean as the result of trade routes. In that case, the dramatic and complex rules of the slave trade, but they are the trades of spices, they are the trades of textile, they are the trades of sound, so all of that. It was very present for me in that experience. I felt moments of body awakening, as I was there. I need to share with you this simple scene, I was in this hotel which was exactly in front of a mosque. And I wake every morning to the prayers of the mosque and to the sun’s rise, and I just bowed and made my prayers, in company of these other prayers, which I don’t understand, but they spoke to me profoundly.

dA: Though we are each from different places, in Sharjah, we shared the sensation of feeling familiar with a place we’ve never been. We also experienced the soundscape of morning devotion; it felt connected to our purpose in visiting the biennial.

It makes us wonder how you’d answer a question we’ve been asking each other—despite our differences, how can we build solidarities?

MMCP: Your question contains a lot of the answer. I think that in the context in which I was born and raised, which is the Caribbean, in particular Cuba, as a site in which a multiplicity of cultures combine, there is a complexity and the richness of a different modality for gathering or celebration. We, in Cuba, kind of agree that we are a plus, or multiple cultures of different heritage: Indigenous traditions, African traditions, as Spaniards. Fundamentally, these are the three departing points of the culture that combine. In Cuba, there could be many different points of entry from an African point of origin, Yoruba, Congo, Carabalí. And then you have a Spanish influence there, and Catholicism. Out of that we make a mélange, we create something that didn’t exist in Africa or in Spain. And that is Santeria, which is taken from here and there, and emerges as a new form of gathering, ritual, and celebration. And also, the celebration and the ritual of resistance.

dA: One of your performances that inspired us to reach out to you is When We Gather (2020), in which you ritually cleanse the museum space. In our own curatorial research, we are interested in the prompt, “How can we gather now?” Can you explain more about this work?

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, When We Gather, 2020 (photograph by Tommy Oliver; provided by the artist)

MMCP: It is a culture of survival and that has always interested me. And the only way that culture evolved in a situation of oppression is through survival modes. And in the gatherings, and in the sort of celebrations that I try to structure in/for my work, I have used a position of survival and defiance. What I’m trying to do is learn from the history of rituals and the history of practice of the body. It’s both an understanding and a knowledge of the validity of a tradition and a ritual, by taking it and putting it to work to serve a very particular request in the moment. When I started When We Gather, which I first saw in a dream, it was a very clear response to the political situation in America: a moment of both despair and a need for another way to come together.

I see forms of gathering as an opportunity to call attention to fundamental needs of a time, but also in a ritualistic way, as a very gentle way to come together. At the backbone of my work is always a desire to really coalesce people and to bring a sense of not only beauty, which I am not afraid of, but also a purpose in which we center in our actions the goodness, the goodness for ourselves, and the goodness for others.

It was an acknowledgement of the potentiality of all of us, [coming] from many different points. Processions, singing, dancing, stillness, all of these things are tools to explore: how do we come together? And how do we sense the implication of being connected? And I am very much interested and curious about the materiality of gatherings. What are the possibilities of those?  And I mean, you guys have more answers for that I could have, because you guys are the new potentials to explore that.

dA: Your comments resonate with the project we’re developing with de Appel, which is in part inspired by the words of abolitionist Maríame Kaba, who says, “hope is a discipline.” We are looking at artists and collectives who research the politics of friendship and who engage historical or artistic research into social organizing and solidarity; in order to carry lessons of the past forward and propose plural visions of gathering. One question we’re asking ourselves is, how can we share in the struggle of intergenerational peers, trans-temporally (across different historical moments, as well as rhythms)?

In some ways, this edition of the Sharjah Biennial memorialized Okwui Enwezor. What do you think about the potential for the biennial framework to do the work of remembering and memorializing? What are your thoughts, as someone who knew Okwui?

MMCP: We cried in Sharjah. But we cried because of the beauty as well. And also, we celebrated the lasting impact, touch and presence of Okwui, his ideas, and his vision in our generation. There was a work by the artist Carrie Mae Weems, The In Between (2022–23). She made this memorial of all the writings of Okwui, every single book, everything he wrote, but she also inserted her own ideas of what he could have implemented in that time. It’s both a dialogue with him and homage to him.

I was privileged and lucky to know Okwui. Privileged that he wrote about my work very early on, and that opened corners of opportunities to understand and enter my work that were very revelatory; that have created a path to understanding and helped locate my work. Okwui found exactly the words, the concepts, the nomenclature to precisely set in place: this is what it’s about. And the brilliance of his vision, the certainty of how he understood history, but also the incredible sense of newness, freshness, and opportunity to dare to propose paths that nobody had taken—was one of his most incredible qualities and capacities. He was a friend. We had the opportunity to spend many moments of camaraderie, collegiality, discussions, arguments, dancing, eating, you know? All of the scenes, questioning! And I left Sharjah very happy, because he was supposed to be creating that Biennial. It was a wonderful homage to his legacy.

He was an elegant mind, besides a brilliant man. He was elegant in the way that he lived. He was elegant in the way that he performed. He was elegant in the delivery of information. And he was elegant in the delivery of material and exhibitions. I think that Hoor Al Qasimi and her team understood that and delivered an absolutely expanded new show, but one that renders his legacy in an extraordinarily valuable way. I was very pleased. When I think about Okwui, I always think of his proximity and his relationship with Professor Salah Hassan, who is in Sharjah at the African Institute. And in my personal experience, even with the complexity of their relationship, is his work and his collaboration with Olu Oguibe, who was very important in defining some fundamental language and concepts of our time.

I always think, too, that he was gone very young, but I suppose that it was his time. He completed his journey in such a magnificent way. We’re going to see a lot of Okwui-related and inspired scenes for many years to come. I say it always, and I say it in a simple way, but I think that he really was one of the most important thinkers, curators, theoreticians, philosophers, poets of our time. He shifted the direction of how we look and think of art in the twenty-first century and beyond. Okwui, his collaborators, and those very close to him really understood that the future of art, visuality, and contemporary thinking needed to look for a more profound way to experience postcolonial ideas: what postcoloniality was, for the people that suffer the implication of coloniality. The political implication of Okwui Enwezor’s cultural work is still yet to be seen.

dA: Yes, during SB15 and the March Meeting, we witnessed a beautiful mixture of voices engaging with Okwui’s thinking, as well as got to know some of his key collaborators. This was a really special part of the biennial. There is another question in our research that has been inspired by you:

How can we find, remember, and share in the struggles of intellectual ancestors? How can we be good future ancestors?

MMCP: I’m going to share with you an anecdote, beautiful and complex. I was invited to the Dak’Art Biennale in 2004 and we visited Senegal and Goree Island because I would make a piece on Goree, for which I knew the history but had never seen it. So we arrived in Goree with David Hammons and Pamela Z., as the three artists invited to represent the United States in the Biennale. And as they were giving us a tour through the island, this little girl appeared. And then this girl kind of followed our small delegation. She followed me. If I stopped, she stopped. When I moved, she moved. So, I asked, “Who are you?” to the girl. And she answered in French, and I spoke in English and Spanish. I was concerned because there was no one with her, and she’s following me. I never did a piece in Goree because I found that I couldn’t touch the place. I came back home and I wrote something. In that text, I asked myself, “Could one return to a place where you have not been before?” And as for me I was rather returning to that place that I had never been before. I wasn’t arriving, I knew that I was returning.

Who was she? A daughter? A niece? A mother? A grandmother? A grand aunt? A sister? Was she an ancestor following me in a new body, in a new size, younger than me? She may have been six or seven, but she was an ancestor who was in Goree, waiting for me, waiting to greet me, to follow me, and to make very clear that this was not my first visit. The way of the ancestor is a mysterious way and it doesn’t end in the little dot that is air, it’s far beyond. It’s energy. And that is something that I am curious about, and trying to understand. Okwui knew. He worked with it.

dA: To us, being good future ancestors is not about isolating past, present, and future; but to stand in relation to different historical time periods and rehearse modes of relating, place-making, inspired by intellectual ancestors we choose to carry forward. For example, Édouard Glissant’s notion of “the return,” as he describes it in Manthia Diawara’s film, One World In Relation, connects with your story of the young ancestor in Goree: a return that holds space for the diaspora’s multiplicities and creolization, the “Creole garden” as a genealogy that is nonlinear, that is not a monocrop. Or Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s writings on abolition geography, which starts from the premise that “freedom is a place” created. These are ideas and energies we are working with in our collective project.

A selfie with (left to right) Marina Christodoulidou, Eugene Hannah Park, Jean-Michel Mabruki Mussa, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Billy Fowo, and Meghana Karnik in a banquet hall in Sharjah (photograph by María Magdalena Campos-Pons)

María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s body of work grapples with the coordinates of diasporic identity formation: migration, displacement, collective memory, spirituality, and gender. She is a founding member of the Intermittent Rivers, a biennial project in Matanzas, Cuba; Engine for Art Democracy and Justice at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; and When We Gather, a multifaceted art project celebrating the elemental role women have played in the United States. Campos-Pons is the recipient of many grants and awards, including the Perez Prize from the Perez Art Museum Miami (2021); Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2018), among others. She received a BFA in painting from the Higher Institute of Art, Havana (1985) and an MFA in painting and media arts from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston (1988).

Marina Christodoulidou is an independent researcher and curator, whose practice traverses collaborative formats, emerging from critical, artist-led infrastructures and self-organized communities. Her projects often take the form of discursive exhibitions, writing, film and architecture.

Billy Fowo is a curator and writer with points of interest in various fields and disciplines such as the sonic, linguistics and literature. Through his practice, he sets out to rethink what we consider to be knowledge and the spaces that inform our understanding. 

Meghana Karnik works across modalities as a curator, arts administrator, and writer exploring paradoxes between art and social change, spirituality and technology, lived experience and institutional process.

Jean-Michel Mabruki Mussa is a curator and researcher whose interests currently lie in the different genealogies of human displacement globally and the varying contexts which brought about these migratory routes. He explores the potentials of different exhibitionary formats and critical spatial practices in bringing about infrastructural and institutional change.

Eugene Hannah Park explores the possibility of learning by collective minds. Her practices intersect different histories and localities, creating schisms and holes in the homogenous hegemony. She curates and produces tools and platforms as an ingredient to share questions and translate worlds; and is interested in collaborating to create the carrier of plural futurity.