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Left: Tarek Atoui's Revisiting Tarab in Sharjah. Right: New Museum curator Eungie Joo with Hu Fang of Vitamin Creative Space. (All photos: Lloyd Wise)

“AN ART FAIR is all art and no context; this was all context and no art,” said a smartly dressed curator navigating the crush of crowds exiting the last panel of the March Meeting, a marathon three-day symposium held by the Sharjah Art Foundation in an air-conditioned room off Calligraphy Square in the midst of Sharjah’s partly reconstructed, two-hundred-year-old Heritage Area. Operating under a relatively defanged rubric, “Working with Artists and Audiences on Commissions and Residencies,” some eighty speakers and panelists expounded on such topics as “Art and Cultural Diplomacy,” “Artists and Audiences,” and, notably, “The Importance of Site.”

“Notably,” because if art’s context was the theme, it was also the rub, animating the event but also giving it a slightly anxious tone. The organization sponsoring this modest conference is, after all, the subject of a vigorous international boycott—a protest against the abrupt dismissal, during the last Sharjah Biennial, of Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian for his role presiding over the public installation of a sculpture that outraged conservative locals. Some of the programming (“The Responsibility of Public Art,” “The Biennial as Commissioning Agent”) seemed only to brush up against, while still awkwardly circumnavigating, this elephant in the room.

Which, if understandable, seemed unfortunate—at times it was hard not to long for some fireworks, some bite. The rewards tended to arrive during presentations on smaller, more peripheral operations: in talks by Kuona Trust director Danda Jaroljmek (about her residency program in Nairobi, Kenya), Adeela Suleman (on her Vasl artists’ collective in Karachi, Pakistan), and Talal Afifi and Areej Zarouq (discussing their Sudan Film Factory), for example.

Left: Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: 303 Gallery director abroad Mari Spirito, artist Isak Berbic, and MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.

The schedule, for some, could be grueling, and it rapidly became a cliché among attendees that the best meetings at the March Meeting took place outside, impromptu, in between or even during the talks, as visitors lounged languorously in the sun on beanbags by the entrance to the conference hall, where an endless quantity of coffee and juice was always in fresh supply. And why not? It wasn’t bad mingling—for hours—with a crowd that included New Museum curator Eungie Joo, Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer, Long March Space director Lu Jie, Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf, and Townhouse director William Wells, among a litany of other artists, curators, and writers, and then head back in, if you wanted to, for a talk about the activities of an off-the-beaten-track art space in Cairo.

The charming, down-to-earth Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation and daughter of the Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi III, ruler of Sharjah, drives a hybrid car. She also speaks fluent Japanese, hates public speaking, and untags herself in photos on Facebook when she doesn’t like the picture. Her dinner, the final night, took place in the courtyard of Bait Al Naboodah, a two-story, mid-nineteenth-century house where we had assembled every day for a sundrenched lunch. The amiable hum of conversation was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the US consul general to Dubai, Justin Siberell, flanked by eight guards in fatigues.

As the crowd gravitated back to Calligraphy Square for a performance by Tarek Atoui, I took off with 303 Gallery’s “director abroad,” Mari Spirito, to Dubai for the night’s openings. The taxi smoothly carried us past the tall, sinister buildings lining Sheikh Zayed Road to DIFC, or, Dubai International Financial Center, a vast, labyrinthine complex housing financial service institutions, retail outlets, and art galleries. “You could live here and never leave,” marveled Spirito, as we rode up an escalator, lost, only to find yet another long, empty hallway.

Left: Sultan Al-Qassemi and Mandy Merzaban, curator at Barjeel Art Foundation. Right: Artist Ziad Antar.

Another escalator ride later, we were at a celebration for Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia at Gaucho, a restaurant filled with mirrors, gleaming metal fixtures, and chairs upholstered in cowhide. But we’d already missed the party there too, it seemed, and the small crowd—I saw ICE Magazine editor in chief Zeynep Berik Yazıcı, collector Tom H. Tandio, Art Arabia editor Arsalan Mohammad—dwindled quickly.

Back in Sharjah, we wended our way through the dark streets, past a pickup cricket game outside the Sharjah Museum of Art, and on to Calligraphy Square, where Atoui’s performance Revisiting Tarab, was in midstride. By midnight, when we arrived, there were still about a hundred people standing, sitting on chairs, or lying on the beanbags and carpets spread over the square, listening to the cycle of performers, from sound artists to musicians playing ouds and kanuns. Eventually, some in the crowd began to dance. (Not Ruf, but certainly Joo and Noura Al‐Sayeh, architect and curator for the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Bahrain.) When I finally left, a little after two, the performance, on its third encore, was still going strong. (Would it bother the neighbors? “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow,” said Sheikha Hoor, when asked about the 2 AM end time.)

On the final day, a group of us (Art in General’s Anne Barlow, Latitudes’s Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna) took a foundation-sponsored trip to the future site of the Kalba Art Center, a building from the 1970s that was designed to produce fertilizer but has instead been used intermittently to manufacture ice. Kalba is purportedly an hour away by car, but we went by way of a sluggish city bus. The air was cloudy, thick with dust stirred up from sandstorms that had been sweeping through the region, adding strangeness to the landscape: the empty McMansions, plopped, quixotically, in the middle of the desert; the Martian hills; the glittering towers with angular glass facades, some half-finished, that made up the core of Kalba.

Left: Didem Ozbek of Pist in Istanbul; Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre; and Witte de With director Defne Ayas. Right: Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer with Isak Berbic.

We arrived after two hours, feeling dazed. The factory, sitting beside the parking lot, was large and bland, and in utter disrepair. Hisham Al Madhloum, director of the Sharjah Directorate of Art, began to show us around. “This is where the galleries will be,” he said, gesturing at an empty room, while pigeons flapped around the ceiling.

It looked beautiful—stunning, really. An industrial ruin seated, photogenically, before a strip of cerulean water near the coast of the Strait of Hormuz. “The Sheikha loves those old spaces,” foundation director Judith Greer told me on the way back. “She traveled all along the coast looking for one. Everything’s new here, so people get really attached.”

Lloyd Wise