The global cultural scene has been shining a light on Africa—but the UAE has long had cultural ties with the continent, forging one of its first formal connections in 1976 with plans to establish an institute for African-Arab studies at the Africa Hall building in Sharjah. While the project never materialised, the building housed many of the region’s key cultural events, serving as a lingering trace of the untapped potential and longstanding cultural networks between the Gulf and Africa. It is now being reignited by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) and one of the key driving forces behind Sharjah’s culture scene at large. “There are many cultural links between the UAE and African countries such as Sudan and Tanzania,” reveals Sheikha Hoor. “Much of our music, instruments, dance and food show African influences. Growing up in Sharjah, I always felt a connection, and over the past several years, I’ve tried to strengthen these ties through various initiatives and programmes.”
Installation view of Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi at SAF Art Spaces. 2018
Sheikha Hoor’s work with art historian, critic and curator Salah Hassan over the past several years has resulted in several African and African Diaspora focused exhibitions—including the Ibrahim El Salahi show at Sharjah Art Museum that later moved to Tate Modern when it caught the attention of Jessica Morgan, curator at the time at the London museum. “We’ve done other exhibitions since—the Egyptian Surrealism show in Cairo, which travelled to MMCA Seoul; the Khartoum School exhibition on Sudanese Modernism; and solo exhibitions of artists such as Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq, Amir Nour, Kamel Youssef and Ahmed Morsi,” she continues.
Sheikha Hoor is equally passionate about the preservation of Sharjah’s heritage buildings and historic character. “At Sharjah Art Foundation, another part of its programming includes looking at old Modernist buildings that have been demolished or are in the process of disappearing.” This led to her research on the original Africa Hall, including the seminal African-Arab Conference it hosted in 1976. “I discussed with Salah that it should be reestablished and include some aspects of university level education,” she says. “Africa Hall was being rebuilt on the same site, but since the land next to it was available, it was suggested that we found an independent institute with clear direction over the academic programmes that are planned.”
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi
Working on renovating and repurposing old buildings has been integral to SAF’s mission, efforts rarely discussed despite it necessitating weighty heads-down work and fundraising time. “We’ve used a number of these buildings in past Sharjah Biennials—I like artists to use spaces as they are before we start changing them. This helps find the right purpose for each,” notes Sheikha Hoor. Projects have included the Khorfakkan cinema, an ongoing six-year project; a palace in Al Madam, which is currently featured in John Akmofrah’s new film Mimesis: African Soldier currently on show at London’s Imperial War Museum; or the Al Kalba ice factory, used for installations during Sharjah Biennial 12. “We look for the right architects for the right projects who will be sensitive to the histories and locations of the buildings and make them useable in the right way without losing their essence,” she says. For Africa Hall and the accompanying Africa Institute, Sir David Adjaye OBE RA has been brought onboard. “We’ve known him a long time and he is very passionate about this project,” adds Sheikha Hoor.
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi
While Africa Hall officially reopened on 25 September, the institute is set to debut in the coming years and will serve as an open place for academics, offering MAs and PhDs in affiliation with Ivy League universities as well as collaborations with universities across Africa, some of which have existing networks with Sharjah Art Foundation. It will include a gallery, research centre and library, bookshop, journal, language courses, and more. It will also include a think tank—a pioneering initiative within the Emirati cultural landscape. “Creating a think tank will allow us to bring great minds to a platform to share ideas and make things happen,” explains Sheikha Hoor. “We work with a large number of filmmakers, writers, architects and art historians who bounce ideas off each other, discuss what is needed, what’s missing, and what we can offer in terms of roundtable discussions, scholarships and research.” The programming, which has already begun despite the buildings not yet formalised, will work in tandem with the other initiatives that contribute to Sharjah’s vibrant scene, such as the first edition of Sharjah’s alternative film festival in January, which will screen films at various venues across the emirate. Come March 2019, a major international conference on the current state of African and African Diaspora studies is scheduled directly after the opening of Sharjah Biennial 14 and March Meeting, while further plans for Sharjah Theatre Days, a theatre festival running annually since 1984, will also feed into the programming.
Youssou N’Dour, singer and composer, with Egyptian composer Fathy Salama and his orchestra, performing at the official opening of Africa Hall, 2018.
“The Africa Institute will coincide and collaborate with all the things happening in Sharjah to show the strengths of different artistic mediums and cultural initiatives,” says Sheikha Hoor. “It’s really linking what existed in the past and what’s happening around us today. If it hadn’t been already in the making in 1976, it wouldn’t be happening now. There are so many cultural connections that it’s really important to build a bridge that brings these cultures together, especially in the context of Sharjah’s multi-cultural society,” she says, adding: “It just makes sense.”