A Western perspective once dominated the debate about globalisation. However, over the years, the work of scholars like Andre Gunder Frank has challenged this normative approach. In ReOrient, Frank points to the history of transnational relations that thrived across and between the Arab world and Asia from the 8th to the 15th century, when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. Frank notes that these transnational relationships were not limited to trade, but included a great deal of cultural exchange and shared production. During this period, the central actors were Arabian traders, some of whom eventually settled permanently in China.
The Silk Road, which spanned both ocean and land, not only stimulated economic exchange and development but also vastly reshaped our cultures. Illuminating these shared historical roots in the context of the present allows us to re-orientate ourselves once again, and to reexamine the historically significant geopolitical and cultural role of the Arabian Peninsula.
In the 13th century, the great historian and lawyer Ibn Battuta traveled around the world, beginning from its centre in the Middle East and moving through North Africa, parts of Europe, India, and China. Ibn Battuta's record of his journey reveals that unlike Marco Polo, for example, his perception and interpretation of what he encountered was framed by an immersion in the scholarly traditions of Islamic philosophy and Quranic studies.
Ibn Battuta was welcomed everywhere he went. He exchanged knowledge and wisdom with his hosts. In most cases, the physical venue in which such exchanges took place was an Islamic courtyard. Islamic courtyards incorporated water, greenery and sunlight, creating an analogy with paradise. They were symbolic locations. In practice, although they appeared to be private spaces, they also had a public dimension, as people from outside could be invited in.
I was inspired by the courtyard in Islamic architecture, in particular the historical courtyards of Sharjah, where elements of both public and private life intertwine, where the ‘objective’ political world and the introspective space of subjectivity intersect and overlap. Originally private in nature, they can also function, to varying degrees, as ‘public’ social spaces depending on their size and location. Large courtyards are often more open and can be used for performances and events. Courtyards housing craftsmen's studios and exhibition spaces may function as semi-public areas. Some courtyards are completely private, requiring an invitation for more intimate gatherings. There is richness to courtyards as spaces that have the potential to intensely accumulate the memories of a local culture. The exchanges and encounters they host enable people to produce new knowledge.
I intend to use the courtyard as the central concept for this Biennial in two ways. It will be used both as a practical site and as a metaphorical condition for stimulating cultural negotiations and generating knowledge.
Sharjah hosts a large number of migrants. It is a place where people from diverse cultural backgrounds can meet and share the information and embodied knowledge they have brought with them from home. In doing so, they are collectively participating in ‘placemaking’ within this geographical space that they cohabit.
This emphasis on embodied knowledge and imagery can be partly seen as a criticism of Western normative thought’s focus on language and logic. The long and rich cultural traditions of the Arab world, North Africa, India and Asia manifest themselves through various practices and customs from song and dance, to poetry and music, daily etiquette, architectural patterns, the shapes of spaces and the contours of gardens. The same can be said of South America, where the influence of pre-colonial practices and the vibrant culture of the Amazon can still be detected.
In selecting artists for the Biennial, we sought out individuals who have a deep interest in the culture in which they were raised, and who are creatively engaged in exploring this background. When such artists visit a new location, they perceive and interpret it through the lens of their own unique subjectivity, formed gradually within their culture(s) of origin out of an amalgam of sedimented habits and sensibilities. In doing so, they enter into a dialectical relationship with this new locale, producing, as a result, new knowledge in conversation with it. This process produces hybrid knowledge and intercultural products that could potentially constitute the genetic material for a novel culture.
All people internalise the practices - songs, dances, culinary techniques - that characterise their cultures, preserving them as bodily memories. We are all ‘cultural experts’ in some form or another. Every individual has the capacity to make a contribution to culture by sharing his or her knowledge with a local host encountered in a courtyard.
Being open to the practice of sharing is an essential requirement for successful participation in the conversations and experiences courtyards can potentially play host to. For this reason, the Biennial exhibitions will involve practitioners from a wide variety of genres including, architects, researchers, and performers
It is, in this sense, that the courtyard can be transformed from a place into a ‘condition’ or a catalyst. Is it a test? Is culture - rather than being organically formed - cultivated out of the will, critical faculties and practices of individuals?
The courtyard is also seen as a ‘plane of experience’ and an ‘experiment’ – as an arena for learning and critical thinking of a discursive and embodied kind. It is a generative space with the potential to produce new awareness and knowledge.
Sharjah is now attempting to create new cultural genes in collaboration with the migrants it hosts, as it simultaneously reconstructs the past. Now that the postcolonial debate is coming to an end, this situation can be valuable as preparations are made for the future. We can see here the preliminary contours of a new space for cultural production.
I am inviting a selection of architects and cultural practitioners from Lebanon, India, Belgium, Japan, Spain and elsewhere to create temporary architectural interventions that will help envision new urban structures that connect Sharjah’s historic area and its courtyard typology with the larger city.
Courtyard cultures around the world conceal their great potential. These spaces are concentrated symbols of years of rich cultural accumulation. They originated in great civilisations that morphed into countries stagnated by the transition to ‘modernity’. These countries currently inhabit a moment of enormous potential, energised as they are by the forces of globalisation, by the vibrant cultural exchanges migration has facilitated, and by increased socio-cultural, political and economic hybridisation. I am not referring to monotonous and perfunctory data sharing and consumption, but to the production of new knowledge that can be potentially enabled by the courtyard - a space and a symbol that resists the destruction of culture. Within this space, the international and local encounter one another and negotiate the effects of each passing wave of globalisation.
By using the courtyard as a key concept in mapping out a new cultural cartography, I see the potential for a deeper collaboration between the Arab world and South America.
An examination of H.H. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi’s extensive collection of maps, housed within the Centre for Gulf Studies, reveals the way maps change and differ depending on the perspective of the individual who draws them. My concept for the Biennial seeks to emphasise and reinforce the important role that perspective and subjectivity play in the way socio-cultural spaces, geographical landscapes and physical locales are perceived, interpreted and engaged with.
Yuko Hasegawa, September 2012