In Billy Sings Amazing Grace (2013), Theaster Gates, renowned archivist and lesser-known vocalist, wails and croons in a darkened auditorium alongside the white-haired and stoic soul singer Billy Forston. In its profound sonic resonance, their video performance of improvisational gospel is one of many highlights in “Thinking Historically in the Present,” the recently opened 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial.
Like the show as a whole, the piece is a work of intimate, visceral storytelling, in both mournful and celebratory turns. Featuring about 300 works from more than 150 artists and collectives, including 70 new commissions, the excellent “Thinking Historically” is biennial director Hoor Al Qasimi’s homage to the late and well-loved Okwui Enwezor, who was originally appointed curator before his passing in 2019.
My personal favorite works tap into spiritual traditions, as in Gates’ wailing hymnal, or Carrie Mae Weems’ The In Between (2022-2023), a shrine that features a small library of Enwezor’s books and a vessel that appears to sail into the afterlife. Michael Rakowitz’s Borrowed Landscape (30.3193 ° N, 48.2543 ° E) (2023) was ostensibly a large-scale, loose reinterpretation of the Passover Seder, performed in a dust-blown field of decapitated palms in the desert town of Al Dhaid.
As Rakowitz read from an iPad to a crowd of several hundred people, he passed around objects culled from eBay that recalled the long-lost belongings of his family. Its simplicity was decidedly polarizing, but the performance struck me as a moving dedication to histories one can no longer access. The title’s coordinates refer to a site in Iraq where his family’s date trees stand similarly mangled as the palms that surrounded us.
The artist designated this site as “a place to contemplate another,” speaking of the hyphen as metaphor, a suture between disparate points, but also between the “irreconcilable binaries” of his identity as an Iraqi Arab-Jew. He ended the piece with the biblical task of supplying an enormous crowd with roasted fish—masgouf, a national Iraqi dish dating back 3,000 years. When denied the right to return, to speak one’s history aloud and to share it with others is what keeps it alive.
The Sharjah Biennial is on view until June 11, 2023.