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Conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present (SB15) reflects on Enwezor’s visionary work, which transformed contemporary art and established an ambitious intellectual project that has influenced the evolution of institutions and biennials around the world.

Hoor Al Qasimi interprets and re-envisions the titular proposal by the late thinker to critically centre the past within the contemporary moment. Al Qasimi develops the concept of ‘thinking historically in the present’ by adopting a working methodology that privileges the role of intuition and incidence. Acknowledging the effect Enwezor’s documenta 11 had in transforming her curatorial consciousness, she also builds upon her own long-term relationship with the Biennial, as visitor, artist, curator, and eventually, as director of the Foundation, an institution that came into being as a result of the Biennial, a fact Enwezor appreciably recognised.

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Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E)

On the northern end of Kyoto, Japan, is a shrine called Entsu-ji. It features a rock and moss contemplation garden. Behind the garden, in the distance, one can see Mount Hiei and a lush green forest that stands between the shrine and the summit. A caption at the shrine, much like a museum accession label, lists where the stones in the garden are from, what type of moss is growing, and itemizes the mountain as part of the garden. This technique of enlisting pre-existing natural elements in a formal arrangement is called shakkei or "borrowed landscape."

As an artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent, much of my work has attempted to suture fragments of a world my mother, my grandparents and millions of Iraqis have lost. In my practice, the Mesopotamian date palm has been a constant symbol, an element of that shared landscape and one whose decimation has mirrored the fate of the Iraqi people themselves. In the 1970s, when Iraq was the world’s chief exporter of dates, there were over 30 million date palms in the country, with over 600 different varieties growing. By the end of the Iran-Iraq War, that number had been halved to about 16 million. At the end of the US-led invasion, less than 3 million remained.

The surviving date palms, especially in the south of Iraq, continue to dwindle, as much of its “black land”—so named because of the shade the plentiful palms used to provide—has become uninhabitable due to war, pollution, and climate change. Disease plagues many trees, causing their trunks to go flaccid and their crowns to fall off, as if beheaded. The stumps are left to burn under the sun, appearing scorched.

My experience of visiting the oasis town of Al Dhaid was a visceral one, as if I had been transported to Iraqi terrain that I knew of only through stories or photographs. My project for the Sharjah Biennial is to simply call this place in Al Dhaid Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E). The coordinates correspond to Al Seeba, Iraq, where this scene, unfortunately, also exists. While the causes of decimation differ, ranging from conflict to ecological catastrophe and neglect, the result is the same. The one is a portal to the other, a place to contemplate another place, to grieve, but also to make commitments for replenishment and return.

—Michael Rakowitz, 2023

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