Interview: Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi
How has SAF evolved over the years, and in what ways can it help Sharjah’s burgeoning art scene serve as a catalyst for tourism?
SHEIKHA HOOR AL QASIMI: We have always focused on providing programming and events that cater to local and regional audiences. Our goal was to create a platform that enables South-South exchange. In the past many organisations have relied on Western institutions to determine their future, so it was important to create spaces that encourage conversations and permit us to write our own histories. This guiding principle led to the establishment of SAF, where we hosted major events. Gradually, our efforts transitioned into growing cooperation with other international institutions. This growth trajectory – and the current international recognition of Sharjah as a cultural centre – was the result of direct and consistent government support. Indeed, the authorities have invested heavily in the protection and promotion of the emirate’s culture and heritage.
Although it was not originally designed as a catalyst for tourism, the Sharjah Biennial, which was established 1993, attracted a surge of visitors from all over the world. This automatically influenced tourism, even if we did not initially anticipate this outcome. The emirate already provides a robust network of museums and cultural offerings, which positions Sharjah as an attractive destination for tourists.
To what extent is Sharjah positioned to become a creative and cultural centre for artists from the region and around the world?
AL QASIMI: There is demand from local and regional populations for arts and culture, which explains why there are so many cultural activities taking place across the emirate. When we started hosting the Biennial, there were a number of available spaces and institutions for people to gather and engage in cultural exchange. Spaces for education, conversation and debate have multiplied and continue to expand as awareness and demand from the population grows. This desire is also shared by people from the Middle East who come to Sharjah to take part in cultural events.
In order to encourage this interest, we work to develop programmes across the cultural spectrum, including visual arts, performance, music and film. For instance, we offer residencies for artists, host yearround exhibitions and organise events to increase the visibility of creative disciplines such as architecture. Together, these projects serve the public, especially young graduates. We also support and promote local and international artists who may not have a platform in their home country. The wide-ranging activities and programmes are not only educational, but also create opportunities for cooperation with other international institutions as visiting artists can come to Sharjah to mentor, exchange ideas and develop connections. Sharjah can be a natural location for this mode of exchange given its accessibility, geographical position and international recognition as a cultural centre.
Which types of infrastructure need to be developed to enable growth in the cultural sector?
AL QASIMI: We have many ongoing infrastructure projects, including the renovation of existing spaces and the construction of new buildings. We have traditionally pursued our physical expansion at a cautious pace, as we prefer to tweak our plans and discover new ways to develop our assets as we grow.
New facilities are centred around enhancing accessibility for all. We plan to renovate community and art centres across the emirate as we expand access to arts education and creative activities. Another priority is to cultivate a presence in universities by collaborating on programmes like lectures. Additionally, SAF is revamping existing spaces, such as an unused cinema in Khorfakkan and a factory in Kalba. Our most recent renovation project, the iconic Flying Saucer building in the city of Sharjah, opened to the public in November 2020.
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