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Sharjah’s old town is a port, dotted with the bobbing dhows of Emirati and Indian merchants to-ing and fro-ing cargo from Arabia, from Africa and from beyond. It’s a favoured stop-off to Somalia and some strange fruit is battened in the hatches at this historic dock. None more curious, though, than the works consigned for Sharjah’s biennial, an art event anchored in the heritage area, spitting distance (if you’re not the stone-throwing sort) from the heat-haze of Al Corniche Street, the towering refineries of Sharjah’s inky Creek and the great wash of the Arabian Gulf beyond. The Venice Biennale has its canals and Sharjah has its drink, too.

The biennial is in the business end of town. Next to the pallets, the tyres, the jettyland miscellany, flutter the biennial flotilla; red and white standards proudly shouting “nine”, for anyone who didn’t know that since 1993 this event has been hugging art-world ­acclaim to its humble breast. Dubai boasts escapist seven-star hotels, the world’s tallest building (the phallicious Burj) and its own art fair at Art Dubai. Abu Dhabi will entertain the Louvre and Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island. But Sharjah’s different. Like the old Seinfeld joke, if this emirate were one of the Three Tenors, it would be “not Pavarotti, not Domingo… the other guy”. But Sharjah has made good decisions in its low-rise high-rises – it was the emirate to put culture near the top of its forward-thinking, oil-scarce agenda some 15 years ago. Hence the Heritage Area and the Sharjah Biennial. It’s rough enough around the edges to be believable as a place where artists work rather than pout for flashbulbs; it’s renowned as the real heart of art in the Gulf.

“It’s amazing to have a port in the middle of the city!” shouts Jack Persekian across the traffic boom and diesel thuggery of the Corniche’s dockside stretch. “They mustn’t clean it up or they’ll lose its soul.” Despite 35 degrees of heat, a packed schedule and a crisp cream suit, the youthful artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial is determined to illustrate his show’s relationship to its surroundings.

“I have to ask myself – what’s the actual point in doing this?” he says. “In the context of Sharjah itself, in the context of so many other biennials – it’s nothing if we don’t engage local artists, if we can’t connect to here.”

Here’s where the heart is: the bulk of the biennial is housed in and around the portside Art Museum, an oasis of cool, if not calm, on the last day of prep before the show opens to press, collectors and a litany of assorted high-born; show sponsors or potential buyers of its bits.

Among the vacuum cleaners, bubblewrap and paint pots, Reem Al Ghaith is crouching in a building site of her own design, inspecting a graze on her manicured finger. Dubai: What’s left of her Land? is Al Ghaith’s sculptural installation of chipboard, sand, construction tools and obscured workmen’s silhouettes that charts the emirate’s scorched-sand construction policy and “labourers who you never really see”.

The 23-year-old is the youngest exhibitor at the biennial, she is also a native Emirati, living and working in Dubai and is influenced by having seen it rise around her. “I have a positive feeling about Dubai,” she says, brushing cement dust from her abaya. “Sure, it’s a construction site, but there’s beauty if you look closely – my city is a work in progress like many others and my work reflects that.” She means it: the artist, ­already dwarfed by her creation, is following the edges of the city with satellite imaging and adjusting the environs of her work accordingly. “All that money,” she says, “it just keeps eating the land.”

Past film, paint, sculpture and oblique installations, past Arabic coving, swishing abayas and a skylight full of Sharjah’s hot blue heavens, is a room of photographs. Depopulated portraits of Emirati rooms both grand and bland. Another Emirati artist, another young woman, Lamya Gargash, has trained her lens on majlis – Arabian homes’ public reception room for meeting, talking, drinking tea. The majlis is the social airlock between the public and private areas of the family home and, as such, is usually the focal point. “Our homes are very private and people are sceptical about you entering and taking photographs,” says Gargash, “so I like that – that I broke barriers.” Her photography is concerned with culture and space, documenting places that seem abandoned. “People move on so quickly here – they are given land, so they move on and build a new house.” Just like that? “There’s no sentimentality, they just leave – living in a house that’s over 15 years old is very rare – it’s considered weird.”

Gargash’s room of rooms is a lonely, polarised, absorbing space. The basic majlis: two grey sofas, five remote ­controls, a perfunctory reproduction of a rural ­English landscape. The mega majlis: five adjoining rooms dripping in marble and Louis XIV-style fixtures and fittings. It’s Through the Keyhole with a young photographer-cum-anthro­pologist as our guide. “Who’d live in a house likes this?” They’ll never tell you, that’s the point. “I’m looking at how spaces change, this is many people’s public show of taste to their guests,” says the 26-year-old who wears her abaya undone with skinny jeans and a polo shirt. “It’s about how we’ve evolved.”

Evolution is everywhere here. Tradition and identity against a background of light-speed progress are questioned every which way by these young women. But where are the men? Reem Al Ghaith, stood in her fortress of work, was plain on that score, too; “The women dominate here,” she says. “They have more freedom than the men – when people take a stereotype, it’s the opposite that’s the truth.”

The sand-smothering cities of the Emirates might be marvels or monsters or both – and a new generation are posing that question. They are allowing this intelligent, involved and resonant art to breathe and bloom. Both Al Ghaith and Gargash are traditional by making art – that traditionally feminine pastime – but are utterly rebelling against the stereotype by producing work that is full of brains, brawn and searching questions. These women’s works are not decorative art in the slightest and nor are their motivations flowery. “I’m from a wealthy family,” says Al Ghaith as a matter of fact, “but all my friends work to have self-respect – the boys rely on their fathers’ fortunes and say they don’t care about anything, but they do – and they’re jealous.”

Whether or not these steely ideas have been around forever is moot, but the lack of apparatus to give them wings – canvases, dark rooms, studio space – has not been. Lateefa bint Maktoum came up with a part of the answer a year ago when she found the former supermarket from which she bought ice cream as a child and transformed it – with the help of her ex university supervisor Jill Hoyle – into Tashkeel. It’s a state-of-the-art art space, a dream of a place for people with big ideas and no space. “I realised there was no artists’ community after you leave university” says Maktoum. “So my idea was to create that community for different artists, from ­different places, with different backgrounds – and see what happens.”

Tashkeel, not altogether incongruously nestled next to a clinic and a polo club in a wealthy residential area, is ­fabulously well appointed. Every artistic impulse besides the cutting-off of an ear has been thought of, bought and installed (actually, there are scalpels, too). Membership costs a mere 7,500 dirhams (€1,500) a year, the idea being that the privately funded studios will pay for themselves in the future. At the moment, 64 members – roughly half of whom are Emirati – call Tashkeel their home from home.

Lateefa bint Maktoum is not just a sugar-mummy for travelling minstrels, either – she’s an artist herself, particularly interested in curating and in the ideas and conversations that flow through Tashkeel. “I could sum up the concerns of young Emirati artists in a word,” she says. “Identity – with importing culture, you import different mentalities and ideas – a lot of young people are saying ‘this is me, I won’t give up who I am.’” The idea of evolution is here, too. In the distance, the polo ponies are exercised in hoof-deep golf-course grass and the place echoes a little. The artists are exploring the biennial or up late or maybe they’re donning their jodhpurs.

The belief that Emiratis buy art but don’t make it was wrong, then. But that’s only recently become true. Sharjah’s investment in and fostering of artists from the Gulf’s ideas is working. There’s a scene that centres around the better galleries, the biennial and Tashkeel’s slick studios, aided by a change in taste that finds its fulcrum away from weekend ­watercolours and calligraphy. Lamya Gargash is philosophical through her fervour: “There’s so much happening; everyone’s into it, but I don’t want to get swallowed – I want to enjoy it.” Back at the biennial, Jack Persekian’s grin – too candid to be presidential, too boyish to be corporate – is flashbulbing a press conference. There’s a crush. “Provisions for the future” says the sign; it’s the title of the show that encompasses Al Ghaith’s city, Gargash’s photography and 100 other works. It’s a title given to invite reflection. Where are we? What things might we want to take into the unknown? What’s Sharjah got to do with it all?

“Since I came, there’s a new generation that wants to represent art,” says Persekian. “Art fairs and mega projects are vital and make the scene sexy – but most important? That art is made right here.” So what things do you want to take into the unknown? Those clever young women.

Best in show

“Ka” by Nida Sinnokrot

“Ka is an Egyptian hieroglyph: two arms stretching toward the heavens. Ka is the root in many languages for words meaning nature, power, death, destruction. Here in the UAE it links all the building and migrant labour. It means something for Palestine, too – it reminds me of the Israeli’s wall; the constant noise from the bulldozers and diggers. There’s something primal about throwing your arms up. It’s a bulldozer refusing to destroy any more.”

The backstory

The Sharjah Biennial was inaugurated in 1993, the bulk of the money coming from government; the powers-that-be were the first Emirati administration to realise that oil doesn’t last forever, but art and culture can. Since the beginning, Sharjah’s biennial has tried to enable art and provide resources rather than simply hang work by big names.

The Biennial in binary:

01 Founded: 1993 at the Sharjah Art Museum
02 Attendees: in excess of 11,000 visitors in 2007
03 Artists: 83 in 2009
04 Programmes: exhibition llineup Provisions for the Future curated by Isabel Carlos; performance and film programme Past of the Coming Days curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh

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