Al Noor mosque
Al Noor mosque

Thought-provoking art and cultural attractions bolster Sharjah’s reputation as the UAE’s culture capital, writes Neeta Lal

I’m surrounded by stunning art at the Sharjah Biennale, the Middle East’s oldest art event spread over several sites in and around the Emirati city as well a few off-site venues like Kalba on the Gulf of Oman as well as Hamriyah.

I hop from one exhibition site to another admiring artworks by some of the world’s leading artists at venues like the Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces, the Sharjah Art Museum, and the nearby traditional buildings and courtyards of the Arts and Heritage areas.

The biennale  – being held this year from March 7 to June 10 – was founded in 1993. And has grown from a traditional and regionally focused exhibition into the internationally recognized event it has become today. The movers and shakers of the art world fly to Sharjah especially for the top-notch art event, widely regarded as one of the best biennials in the world. Though it was founded 25 years ago, it really only entered the big league after Sharjah’s ruler’s daughter Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi became involved.

Sharjah: UAE’s culture capital

Indeed it’s fairly easy to immerse yourself in art in Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the seven-member constellation of the UAE. For a population of just 1.4 million, the city boasts over 20 museums, including one dedicated to just calligraphy. The Art Museum — a capacious building near the Corniche — showcases one of the largest art exhibitions in the Gulf region.

At the Sharjah Museum of Cultural Civilization — housed in a splendid old souk on the Majarrah waterfront, where dhows moor among luxury yachts — I view the most significant collection of Islamic art in the world. Among the museum’s stunning repertoire of over 5,000 artefacts are precision-made astronomical instruments, calligraphy, jewellery, handwritten Koran, letters from Prophet Muhammad and collectibles from Mecca.

There is also the Sharjah Art Museum, Museum of Islamic Civilization and Museum of Archaeology. Not surprisingly, the city has several noteworthy awards to its credit, including the Culture Capital of the Arab World 1998 (UNESCO) and the Capital of Arab Tourism Award 2015 (The Arab Council of Tourism).

Sharjah: UAE’s culture capital

As a political construct, Sharjah came into existence on December 2, 1971, when the British bowed out of the region. And integral to the city’s DNA is the preservation of Islamic heritage. Over 600 mosques pepper Sharjah’s landscape like confetti, the most enthralling being Al Noor on Khalid Lagoon, its stony ramparts accented by soaring spires and sweeping arches.

Apart from museums, vibrant souks, art galleries, heritage sites, world-class hotels and atmospheric restaurants make Sharjah a city that intriguingly juxtaposes the old and the new, the modern and the medieval.

This eclecticism is also what gives it a distinct cultural identity forged by its ruler — H.H. Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The Sharjah Art Foundation, the Sharjah Art Museum and the Maraya Art Centre balance an Islamic society’s traditional values with a spirited quest for art.

Contemporary art thrives at the Sharjah Art Foundation. Located in the heart of old Sharjah, the venue is a medley of early 19th century buildings hewed from coral bricks as well as unadorned expansive spaces brimming with art from across the globe.

A refreshing counterpoint to a quintessentially Middle Eastern attraction, Al Noor Island is a serene retreat in the midst of the desert. At its beautifully sculpted gardens, I reconnect with nature among 70,000 trees and plants, both indigenous as well as those sourced from around the world.

Sharjah: UAE’s culture capital

Similarly, the city’s atmospheric souks offer a slice of traditional Arab life. Most of them are located at the Khalid Lagoon and the creek and consist of kiosks and stores and stalls. Commercial insanity reigns at the blue-tiled Central Souk — one of the biggest in the UAE — which houses over 600 shops selling everything from Iranian carpets to handicrafts from Afghanistan and Turkey to pashminas from Kashmir and silver jewellery from Oman and Yemen. The Gold Centre on the first floor has an eye-popping collection of gold necklaces so large they seem to weigh down the mannequins!

After a few days in Sharjah, I drive down to Dubai, reaching the UAE’s capital city in all of 30 minutes! Indeed the best part about travelling across the UAE, is the quick and seamless access it provides to its other Emirati sisters.

Sharjah: UAE’s culture capital

I’m in Dubai to view Art Dubai,  the Gulf’s foremost art event attended by the world’s leading artists and gallerists. This year the fair brought together 90 galleries from over 40 different countries, divided across four gallery sections as well as deeper engagement with artists and galleries from non-Western geographies. Talking to passionate artists and gallerists at the event, some of who were also exhibiting at the Sharjah Biennale, was informative and enriching. Not to mention the sheer joy of experiencing two holidays for the price of one!

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist.

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