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Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi’s Mission Is Putting A Spotlight On The Middle East Art Scene

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia March 2019

Hoor Al Qasimi’s list of job titles, accolades, and collaborations is so long it’s hard to keep track of them all. Her main roles are as president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation and director of Sharjah Biennial, and she’s just wrapped the inaugural Sharjah Film Platform. Al Qasimi has been meticulously planning and organizing the film festival, which combines a curated film program with a series of talks, workshops, and discussions. “It’s an alternative to the usual red carpet film festival and is more of a platform for filmmakers,” she explains. “This year, we had more than 450 submissions for the open call and I watched all of them. I selected more than 140 from 40 countries in 30 different languages. For a lot of these films, it was their premiere screening.”

Al Qasimi, who speaks seven languages, is enjoying barely two days of recovery at her second home in London before she flies to New York for a meeting at MoMA PS1, where she’s been on the board of directors for nine years. She’s also on the board of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, and the advisory board of Darat Al Funun in Amman. More meetings and calls will follow this trip, before it’s time to head back to the UAE to concentrate on what is possibly her greatest success story: the Sharjah Biennial, the 14th edition of which takes place from March 7 to June 10, showcasing three unique exhibitions curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif, and Claire Tancons. Her position as director of the biennial has seen her take the art exhibition from having four staff members when she took on the role in 2002 at the age of 22, to more than 200 staff. Her vision has led to the formation of the Sharjah Art foundation and other side projects, including the Africa Institute and the new Africa Hall. This, along with successful installations such as Rain Room, has put the emirate firmly on the map as one of the world’s most formidable art hubs. The Sharjah Biennial is consistently rated as one of the top 10 biennials in the world, which is quite the accolade when there are hundreds of art exhibitions taking place every year. Although Al Qasimi is the daughter of HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al-Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, who established the biennial in 1993, her role as director wasn’t always mapped out for her.

“When I was 14, I wanted to be a chef,” she laughs. “Back then, in the 90s, chefs weren’t cool. I remember my mother saying, ‘So you want to be a cook?’ After that, I wanted to go into furniture design; I would do woodwork and make chairs with the carpenter working at our home. And then my mother’s question was,‘Now you want to be a carpenter?’ It didn’t go down well, either.” Al Qasimi settled on the idea of becoming an architect, but her art teacher saw her potential and convinced her to enroll in a painting course at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her parents, who had always encouraged an interest in the arts, supported this decision. “We visited a lot of museums while I was growing up,” she reminisces. “My father is very much into arts, culture, and history, so whenever we traveled, we always went to museums. When I was 16, we went to New York and my father took us to the Picasso and Portraiture exhibition at MoMA. My parents encouraged us to pursue art and music growing up.”

Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia March 2019

It was during a gap year after finishing at Slade that Al Qasimi’s path took a turn, after a trip to Berlin with her father. A museum curator there recommended she visit the Documenta11 contemporary art exhibition. “I was inspired by the way contemporary art connected with the real world, politics, and social issues,” she says. “I wanted to know why our biennial wasn’t looking at things like this. I wanted to see how the process worked in Sharjah. I promised my father I wasn’t going to interfere, but of course, I did.”

What Al Qasimi found, was a very traditional art exhibition in desperate need of modernization. “I asked too many questions. Like, why do we have country representation? Nobody is from one country anymore, people come from mixed marriages, there are people in diaspora, people who are refugees – you can’t label people and say they’re representing a country, they’re artists in general,” she explains passionately. “I asked why we were in a trade/expo center, even though we have an arts area. Old Sharjah Biennial was like an art fair, but we’re not a commercial art fair, we’re non-profit and cultural. The organizers quit, so it became my job.”

Al Qasimi reformed the structure and location of the biennial. “I worked day and night, 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I had a nervous breakdown afterward because I was exhausted. But it was something I had to do,” she explains. When her gap year ended, Al Qasimi made the decision to stay on as director while she embarked on a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Art in London, but she started to question her decision to pursue a career as an artist. “I started to think that nobody would take me seriously as a painter if I’m already a director of a biennial at 22,” she says. “I thought people would say I only got it because of who my father is. I remember a Korean artist I had been communicating with over email visiting and exclaiming when she saw me, ‘You’re the director? I expected an old man.’ The idea of me being 22 and a woman was weird in the international art world at the time. I thought that no matter how hard I worked, people would always say it’s because I’m the daughter of someone important. There’s always that assumption, which makes me work even harder.” She decided to instead switch to an MA in curating contemporary art at the Royal College of Arts, in order to be taken seriously. Sixteen years later, there are no doubts anymore about her contributions to the arts world. She regularly travels to the US, Brazil, the UK, and India to give talks about biennials, art research, and regional artists, and was selected for the prestigious three-year posting as president of the International Biennial Association last year.

“Major museums now come to Sharjah Biennial,” she says. “It’s resulted in works we’ve shown ending up in the likes of Tate and MoMA.” Does she ever get time to relax? “There are a couple of street cats at the foundation and one just had kittens,” she laughs. “I try to escape the office to sit with them. People know where to find me – I just might have a cat on my lap.”

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