Our sister emirate has the majority of the country’s museums, has carved out an inarguable place in the art world for its biennial and has, in the past year, been the host for a huge Tate Britain exhibition of Orientalist art.
Yet for many Dubai-dwellers, these shows and events seem so distant. Time Out is inundated with emails from Sharjah Museums; exhibition openings, cultural afternoons, lectures and various ribbon cutting sessions presided over by cultural ministers. But few have been to Sharjah and even fewer have made the trip for its art.
It’s in that spirit that we decided to check out some of the shows on during the summer, notably Eternal Letters, a calligraphic exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Civilization on the corniche that has just been extended to October by popular demand. We’d been tipped off that Eternal Letters, curated by Sharjah Museum’s Middle East and Islamic art collections adviser Ulrike Al-Khamis, sported a particularly inventive layout and atmosphere.
So, in a punishing midday heat, we took refuge in the darkened, solemn gloom of the museum’s exhibition wing. Starting with Kufic pieces from North Africa, the exhibition slides into Persian pieces from the 16th century before going all out and showing the evolution of Turkish Ottoman calligraphy right through the 18th and 19th centuries to pieces created in the last 10 years.
This tidal wave of over 90 calligraphic panels and books is presented with a particularly dramatic ambiance – shadows abound on deep red and green walls and the faint rolling sound of the oud is piped in to boot. The curators have really taken on the idea that the calligrapher’s art is both sacred and mysterious. But there’s a bigger mystery here – why have these pieces been brought together? What’s the connection between the Persian 16th century style of calligraphy, and a Turkish artist from the ’80s? All of the pieces have been taken from the Abdul Rahman Al Owais Islamic Calligraphy Collection, but there’s scant explanation as to what that even is.
The arbitrary wall texts throw around terms about the relationship between Islamic history and the evolution of styles of calligraphy that are lost on everyone but the most clued up calligrapher. It’s a shame because many of the pieces here are excellent: Turkish artist Hamid Aytaç’s wonderfully calming, balanced feat of symmetry from 1983, some of the tiny Persian books inscribed in squintingly miniscule lettering and a damp-worn, deep blue piece from Istanbul in 1810 by Mahmud Celaleddin Efendi , which has a crisp Ottoman sense of elegance about it.
Calligraphy can be a dry subject at the best of times, here made all the more arid by refusing to provide any explanation. It’s as if curators seem frightened of translating the Arabic in front of us. Just to know the sura, the root of the image, is a way in for non-Arabic speakers – it invites far more interest than just piling in a vast amount of material and expecting people to come away with anything more than bewilderment.
It’s a similar story with Sharjah Art Museum’s permanent collection. A collection of lithographs by 18th-19th century artist David Roberts’ travels across the Middle East and North Africa opens the collection. So far so good: we’re given background on Roberts, some idea about his journey, why the pieces are here – and the lithographs themselves are excellent, with Roberts’ orientalist eye giving even the most piecemeal scene its own dilapidated biblical brilliance. After that, the next four spaces are given over to a very curious collection of little-known Orientalists. And it’s all done, once again, without any explanation whatsoever. If this is the royal collection, why has it been amassed, who are these artists and why should we be interested? Devoid of any background, the collection feels like a corridor ripped from a provincial English community centre rather than a potential hub for one of the Middle East’s biggest art players.
As a bizarre finale, the last room is overtaken by 13 lithographs from the early 1800s, this time depicting, storyboard-like, a grisly massacre in Ras Al Khaimah by the unmistakable red and white legions of the British Empire. The lithographs themselves are impressive, but how they ended up here is an even more interesting, sadly untold story.
Sharjah has the foresight and cultural thrust to stand up as an example of government-backed art institutions to the other emirates, but right now it’s falling down in depth. It needs more explanation, more material and a greater understanding that fewer pieces with a clearer connection to each other make for better exhibitions.
Eternal Letters continues at Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, Corniche Road, nr. Radisson, until October 1. www.sharjahmuseums.ae.