Objects in Dialogue

About the project by David Francis

Objects in dialogue is one of the many exercises undertaken as part of SAWA’s training in transcultural museology. It falls at the midpoint of the programme in the Spring and the Summer, after participants have visited Sharjah, but before they have visited Berlin.

In the exercise objects are brought together in dialogue to explore a particular theme, which changes each year. The 2019/20 SAWA focused on the pandemic, the 2022 SAWA focused on the theme of sustainability inspired by the Expo in Dubai, while the focus of the 2023 SAWA took its theme from the Sharjah Biennale – thinking historically in the present. Each object in dialogic exercise thereby acts as an archival document of a moment in time – a survey of the collective concerns of the participants for a particular year.

The aim of the exercise is to explore the curatorial skill of juxtaposition. This is a technique used by facilitators Alya Al Mulla and David Francis in their own curatorial practice. For example, in the exhibition, India and the World, held at the CSMVS Museum in 2018, each section of the exhibition would begin with one Indian object and one object from another area brought into dialogue to tell a history of India within a wider global context.

Writing about the ‘radical juxtaposition’ of Surrealism, the art critic Susan Sontag (1966) argued that ‘the fortuitous encounter’ of different objects like a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table could destroy conventional meanings and create new meanings or counter meanings. 

In asking participants to bring their objects into dialogue with one another’s, the exercise seeks to allow the participants to see an object and by extension the world from another’s point of view. In the words of the dialogic philosopher, Paulo Freire (1970) ‘dialogue is the encounter between people, mediated by the world, in order to name the world.’ In other words, naming and understanding the world can never be done in isolation, but it is always conducted in partnership with another. 

After writing their individual labels about their objects, participants co-write a piece of text – equivalent to an exhibition’s panel – that provides the wider context. Yet it is important to remember that such a dialogue is not always straightforward and often mediated and transformed through the act of translation itself. This is illustrated by the term juxtaposition itself – in Arabic the equivalent is عمل تركيبي – am’al tarkeebi, which can be likened to fitting together the puzzle. Here the direct contrast implied by juxtaposition is absent. In contrast, the German term Gegenüberstellung has a strong sense of oppositionality reflective of pieces facing each other across a chessboard, or its other use to describe a police line-up. 

It is through this teasing out of meaning expressed through objects and texts in different cultural contexts and languages that SAWA participants reveal new ideas and forge new relationships. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are fully the intellectual property of the authors and their opinions and do not necessarily reflect any official views of the SAWA Museum Studies Program nor of any of the partner institutions.

Thinking Historically in the Present (2023 Theme)


by Lara Maalouf and Christopher Hölzel

#questions raising traditions of masking/hiding true feelings

Weddings are often seen as the happiest days in one’s life. It’s Her or His Special Day, a momentous and joyful occasion to celebrate with family and friends the beginning of a lifetime bond. However, is this a reflection of the truth or an adorned mask of reality? Weddings, like anything else, come with a set of rules to follow. Often unquestioned traditions suddenly become elementary. Behind the elaborate ceremonies and fancy costumes, there are hidden stories buried under social norms. Let’s pause a moment and reflect on the ways in which cultural traditions and societal expectations frequently dictate how we act and feel, leaving little room for self-expression and truth. Are we hiding behind traditions and cultural norms, concealing our true selves and emotions? Are we sensitive to the realities of those around us? Can we embrace our authentic selves and face the external pressures to conform?

Wedding celebration: recorded at Sharjah, 2023

Weddings are not merely a private or personal matter, but also a societal one. This video captures not only the joy of the moment but also the cultural traditions and customs that surround this occasion: exquisite attire, lively music, festive atmosphere, and the powerful role of guests. We had our first chance to meet at our SAWA workshop in Sharjah. Our hotel frequently hosted wedding receptions, which became a popular topic of discussion among us. Through our conversations, we learned about diverse wedding traditions, attire, and food, and shared funny stories. Discussing weddings was a great way to connect, and to get to know each other better, irrespective of where we come from.

Behind closed doors by Anju Dodiya. Photographed at the Sharjah Biennale 15, 2023

What happens after big happy weddings? We were drawn to this art piece at the Sharjah Biennale because it depicted a reality that contrasted with the joyous wedding celebrations hosted at our hotel. The sleeping couple in the artwork, their intertwined bodies and the sense of sadness and sorrow pervading their expressions, hinted at potential troubles within their relationship. Had their wedding day been as joyful and festive as the weddings we were seeing every night. Had they, too, felt the pressure to conceal their true selves and feelings, and put on a happy face? This thought-provoking artwork inspires us to reflect on the courage it takes to shed the societal masks we often wear and engage in open and honest discussions about our true feelings.

Image Lara Chris 2


by Jill Praus and Khawla Alawahdi

“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” – Malala Yousafzai(Pakistani activist for female education and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014).

How could women have been written out of history for so long? Music, sewing or weaving are some of the mediums women artists have been using to vocal their positions on injustices, struggles and events impacting other women in history and present around the world. Throughout history, women were encouraged to pursue these techniques rather than ‘male-dominated’ and publicly effective mediums like painting, carving or architecture. Artists Veronika Saraf and Hajra Waheed tackle these historically grown stereotypes by interweaving traditional techniques with contemporary media to draw attention to unique moments in history where women were at the forefront. 

We, The People by Varunika Saraf. 2018-2019 Embroidery and Cochineal dye on cotton textile. Photographed at the Sharjah Biennale 15, 2023

In the work We, the people Veronika Saraf captures overlooked or erased moments, whether political or social, of the complex histories of South Asia, to bring them into the present. These moments depict protests and persecutions of women that have not been given importance in history. The artist combines traditional craftsmanship techniques like sewing with political messages from newspapers and expressive statements to give voice to these events and the woman of that time again.


Hum II by Hajra Waheed, 2023. Photographed at the Sharjah Biennale 15, 2023


Hum II by artist Hajra Waheed is a musically composed sound installation that stands as a reminder of a special moment in history. The seven songs “hummed” on repeat in the all-white built chamber were central in mass social movements and uprisings in the Americas, Africa and Asia, during which women were at the forefront. While they were later banned, these songs are sung proudly and widely today. 

Hajra Waheed is the winner of the Sharjah Biennial Prize.

ARTIVISM: intersecting art and activism

by Emilia Sánchez González and Katharina Löhr

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu (South African winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984)

How is our colonial past still affecting our present day? Is this a matter that should concern everyone or only a select few? What kind of responsibility do we have when it comes to dealing with this uncomfortable past? In a spirit of cross-cultural solidarities, the Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present, confronts these questions from a shared perspective felt across the postcolonial world. Two women artists rose to this challenge and created activist artworks to share their experiences with oppression, exploring post-national hybridity and global modern identities from the inside, then making the continuous struggles of their people visible on the outside. Their multilayered artworks address the fight for Black and Indigenous rights and seek to reclaim the prestige, values, and knowledge that have been forcefully put down by post and neocolonial narratives. They invite us to reflect on our role in colonial continuity and develop an activist mindset that is able to be self-reflective and critical: Is it really all in the past? Can you think of a moment your gain came at the expense of someone else’s loss?

The Seven by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, 2020

In this dream-like representation of a nineteenth-century portrait in the United States, seven identical faces look straight at us. The sitters tell the same story they have been telling for generations: facing us as a unit, ornate patterns adorning their clothes and home. They embody an assurance in their positions of power, looking comfortable in their privilege to wield their surroundings, including the exploding volcanoes in the background. Sunstrum shows that history is complex and layered: replacing their faces with her own, thus disrupting the narrative of the white colonial landowner and reclaiming the place of Black stories in building the landscape around them. This act of defiance reminds us of voices historically silenced and oppressed to the point of being rendered invisible. The focus on a family setting makes it intimate and personal. Would my ancestors be presented in blue or in red? And is that relevant to who I am today?

Emilia 3

Erasure by Robyn Kahukiwa, 2019

When you look at the painting, it takes a little while to recognize the layered words. If you look more closely, behind the dominant words in white color, black words also appear. They all represent names of regions in Aotearoa (named New Zealand by its colonizers) – indigenous place names in the background, colonial place names in the foreground. Through this artwork, colonial continuities and existing power dynamics, and the associated violent oppression and erasure of indigenous heritage become visible. At the same time, it depicts the enduring resistance and reclamation of Maori language, property, power, and identity. As an artist of Māori heritage, Robyn Kahukiwa resists and fights against the erasure of Māori identity in the contexts of violent resettlement and attempted forced assimilation and celebrates Māori culture and indigenous knowledge at once. Colonial traces are visible almost everywhere. Where do I encounter them in everyday life? And how do I deal with this?



by Rina Khatib and Mohammed Yousef Al Zarooni

‘What this edition of Sharjah Biennial shows unchanged is its positionality as a contact zone, where separate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’ at the crossroads of trade and migratory routes, both historical and contemporary… Sharjah has long been a crucible of whipbird cultures’ – Hoor Al Qasimi, curator of Sharjah Art biennial. On the surface, Hum II installation by Hajra Waheed and the game of Werewolf appear to be vastly different objects. However, they both share a common thread – the power of connection. Through their unique approaches to fostering social interaction, these objects demonstrate how historical thinking can help us understand and navigate the present. Hum II unites people through the transformative and healing powers of art, using a beautiful hum to connect individuals to memories of their own and those of others. Similarly, the Werewolf game relies on communication and critical thinking to uncover the truth and achieve common goals, by sharing knowledge and working together. Both objects provide a platform for individuals to connect with one another and work towards a common goal. While the Hum II installation aims to connect individuals on a deeper level, the game of Werewolf fosters social bonds and teamwork through fun and interactive gameplay. Ultimately, these objects remind us of the power of connection, whether through art or social activities, in bringing people together and creating a sense of unity.

Hum II by Hajra Waheed, 2023. Photographed at the Sharjah Biennale 15, 2023

As I walked into the installation, Hum II I was immediately captivated by its size, design, and intricate details. By transforming revolutionary songs into a beautiful hum, the artist has created a space for reflection and contemplation, a space for individuals to connect with memories of their own and those of others. In uniting the songs in a beautiful sound, Hum II unites us. As I removed my shoes before entering, a sense of freedom began to wash over me. Inside, the entire atmosphere was incredibly soothing: the colors, the plush cushions, the warm natural sunlight, and the music. After experiencing several thought-provoking artworks, the space offered a much-needed sense of relief. It is understandable to want to explore art that is inspiring and uplifting, not instead of but parallel to using art to magnify the hard realities – art never ceases to be a medium for clarity and expression of both the good and the bad, the yin and the yang. Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize that difficult histories and experiences cannot simply be brushed aside or ignored. Addressing the darker sides is essential to the collective healing process.

Hum Ii

Werewolf. Video taken in Sharjah 2023

As part of the SAWA Program Academy of Museum studies, we were invited for a picnic day at Sharjah desert where we rode quad bikes in the sand and watched the sunset. As we were preparing a barbecue for dinner the team came up with idea of ​​playing a group game called Werewolf. The game is centered around a captivating storyline where players try to deduce the identity of the werewolves among them, while the werewolves attempt to remain hidden and eliminate villagers one by one. Personally, I enjoy group games and the proposed idea seemed to be exciting. At the beginning, I did not understand the rules of the game and I asked help and guidance from my colleagues which they cooperatively helped and supported. Through Werewolf we were able to understand each member’s personality, way of thinking and sometimes beliefs. Afterwards I played it with my family at home, to bond together and bring joy and quality time as well. This exercise has widened my knowledge to experience it with my family at home, to bond together and bring joy and quality time as well. 


by Ilyas Abdikarim Abdi, Viola Attallah, Sina Meschke

A way to connect the Mangrove Tree, the Hawo-Tako Statute and the Benin-Bronzes in the Louvre Abu Dhabi is that they are all a testimony to the complex relationship between the past and the present. Each of these objects has a history and a meaning that are deeply rooted in the past but also relevant to the present. The Mangrove Tree of Khor Kalba are part of an ecosystem that has been used by people for centuries. The Hawo Tako statue and the Benin bronzes are both products of cultures and societies that were oppressed by colonialism and exploitation. By engaging with these objects and their history, one can gain a deeper understanding of the past and its impact on the present. Overall, the connection between the mangrove tree, the Hawo Tako statue and the Benin bronzes illustrates the importance of preserving and protecting the cultural identity and history of regions.

Statue of Hawo-Tako. Photograph taken in Mogadishu, 2023.

Statue Mogadishu

This photo of the statue of the Somali activist Hawo tako (1920 –48) was taken outside the National Museum of Somalia in Mogadishu where I work. She was a brave woman and mother of six who did not fear Italian colonization at that time and all her fighters were female. She was also a Feminist activist who campaigned for men and women to becoming equal. Today, she still motivates the new generation and her story is taught to young students in school so that her bravery can inspire them. After her assassination by Italian soldiers, the government-built monuments throughout Mogadishu to honor her place in Somali history. Her monument was built next to the National Museum and show her holding a stone and a sword. A vivid representation of Somali women’s fortitude, power, and perseverance as well as their contribution to the nation’s development. She is also seen on the 100 shilling bill while holding a gun and a shovel and holding a baby strapped to her body.

Mangrove Trees at Khor Kalba-Mangrove Center. Photograph taken in Sharjah, 2023

This photo was taken in Khor Kalba, Mangrove Center, which is home to over 300-year-old Mangrove trees. Once I entered the Mangrove Reserve, my footsteps directly lead me to meet new friends – the Mangrove smiley leaves. I felt encouraged to walk along the trail and taste its saltwater dew. As my feet step along the wooden bridge, I entered the Educational Center. There I recognized that I was taking part in an extremely informative experiences about the recovery of the Mangrove Reserve that was led by the Environment Authority in the Emirates of Sharja to fight against Climate Change and contributes to Eco – Tourism. Despite all the beauties mentioned above, let us go back 10 years ago to imagine the misuse of human against nature and the bad impact on climate change which I can title as “Human Historical Colonization towards Nature Heritage”.

Khor Kalba

Benin Bronzes in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photograph taken in Abu Dhabi, 2023.

In my bachelor thesis I already dealt with the Benin Bronzes in Hamburg museums, when I saw the Benin Bronzes in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, I wondered what role the location plays in the context of these artifacts. These bronzes are outside of Europe but in a European institution, which requires careful contextualization. The Benin bronzes, a remarkable collection of more than 3000 pieces, were made by the Edo people of Nigeria between the 13th and 19th centuries. They are of immense importance to African art history, symbolizing Edo royal authority and cultural identity. These artifacts entered Western collections, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the late 19th century through the British colonial powers and have been the subject of controversy. Calls for their return to Nigeria have been repeated, urging Western institutions to address their colonial past and help communities reclaim their cultural heritage. The decision by the Louvre Abu Dhabi to exhibit the Benin bronzes further fuels this debate and encourages reflection about colonial history and relations between cultures. 

Benin Bronzes


by Lina Dolfen and Bayan Hilles

What does ‘thinking historically in the present’ mean to us? That’s the question that has been on our minds since the beginning of our SAWA journey. Even more so while visiting this year’s Sharjah Biennial under the same title. We felt it was mostly about how the past influences the present, especially the long-term effects of global systems of oppression. Discrimination due to race, gender, worldview, disability or other parts of their identity is still a lived reality for numerous people. Even more so for those who belong to more than one marginalised community. This intersection of oppressive systems makes women of colour one of the most targeted groups when it comes to violence and systemic discrimination. We found ourselves most drawn to artworks at the Sharjah Biennale 2022 representing their stories. By juxtaposing two of those, we want to make these oppressive structures visible, through visually telling stories of individuals as well as making the collective struggles of women emotionally accessible. While Donkor’s painting serves as a stark reminder of historical injustices that still shape our present, Waheed’s immersive sound installation represents a hopeful and empowering celebration of collective resistance in the face of adversity.

Under Fire: The shooting of Cherry Groce by Kimathi Donkor (*1965), United Kingdom. Oil on Canvas, 2005

In the early morning of September 28th 1985 Cherry Groce, a Black, migrant woman, was woken up by police forces looking for her son Michael. During the raid, she was shot and severely injured in her home in Brixton, South London, an area, which at the time, had serious social and economic problems. News of the shooting spread quickly through the large Black community, which had experienced a lot of institutional racism by the Metropolitan Police. This led to the second Brixton uprising in only four years. Kimathi Donkor highlights the moment of the shooting, which was a tipping point for the oppressed population. Stories like Cherry Groce’s are still reality, as we have seen for example in 2020 regarding the killing of George Floyd. Police brutality disproportionally affects Black people and people of colour. Cherry Groce and George Floyd are only individual examples of a larger problem that needs addressing.

Kimathi Donkor

Hum II by Hajra Waheed, 2023. Photographed at the Sharjah Biennale 15, 2023

Hum II is composed of seven songs that have become popular in social movements led by women across the world to fight against oppression. Waheed highlights how humming, throat singing, songs from both folk tradition and pop culture represent forms of collective mobilization and political resistance. At first, I felt small and alienated as I walked around this mysterious white cone-shaped structure but when I entered the installation, I discovered a warm space filled with natural light and energy. Listening to the songs feels like listening to a dialogue taking place between women in different parts of the world. With songs that would sometimes intertwine and overlap with each other, Hum II brings together women from across the world in solidarity against a common struggle. Traces are threaded here between geographical regions, multiple narratives and stories as well as the legacies of the past, how they shape the present and the hope for a better future. 

Hum Ii.2
Hum Ii.1 1

Sustainability (2022 Theme)

Good Health and Wellbeing

by Mohamad Moutaz Alshaieb, Eugénie Forno, Khawla Alshuweihi

“There is no good in a nation that eats what it does not grow.”

“لا خير في أمة تأكل مما لا تزرع”

Spain, Morocco, and Peru were distinguished in Expo Dubai by presenting the source of their food, medicinal and health stability throughout history so far. 

Visiting the Expo was a reflection of our regards and concerns about how we deal with sustainability in our domains. Indeed, Moutaz is an archeologist, he cheers the past to reflect on the present and understands agriculture to interpret social connection. Eugénie is interested in how to bring a more inclusive society through art in the bonds between humans and nature. Khawla’s domain is strategic planning for the museum field and using technology to display the legacy of the past to generations. 

Plants and nature bond us together: offering flowers, watching seeds growing with the family, making a health remedy, and going for a walk in a forest. Expo is a show of the countries’ narratives. However, we developed a more intimate approach, reflecting on our personal organic, philosophical and conceptual gardens. How and What can we learn from our ancestor knowledge to achieve good health and zero hunger? 

The Seeds of Life by Mohamad Moutaz Alshaieb

Seeds of life, Peru pavilion,
Expo Dubai 2020

This display of seeds, fruits, and vegetables in the Peru pavilion at Expo 2020 reminded me of my everyday mantra: nature is our saviour. For over 5000 years, the Peruvian people have demonstrated that a sustainable agricultural system is not only possible but also successful.

Looking at this display I reflected that we all have one thing in common wherever we come from, the dependence on agriculture and the need to take care of the earth to achieve sustainability in life. The farming practices of ancient Peruvian societies like the Incas are a world away from modern reliance on oil and gas as the main basis of the economy.

As I grow older, my awareness of the importance of saving nature and relying on farming has begun to increase more rapidly. Three years ago, I started growing culinary herbs and these plants still feed me as I feed them. Agriculture was the mainstay of the founding of ancient civilizations. and it is still our saviour on Earth after every new devastation threatening our planet.

Plant knowledge by Eugénie Forno

Plant seeds, Moroccan Pavilion, Expo Dubai 2020

When I took this photograph in the Moroccan Pavilion of Expo 2020, I thought this flower was Statice/Limonium/الخزامى البحري. It was part of a display dedicated to Moroccan plant species with medicinal and cosmetic purposes. I thought ‘ohhh Statice has healing power’ and I made a mental note that when I returned to Morocco I would make myself a medical infusion using it, as for example I use thyme/thym/ الصعتر نبات for a sore throat. But what do I discover? That the latin name Cichorium intybus L/ الهندباء البرية actually means “Wild chicory” and not Statice at all, which would be Limonium! Fortunately, I haven’t actually made my Statice infusion yet. 

Naming the plants, knowing their power, observing their development and sometimes their disappearance is important to me. And I feel, as artists or museum practitioners, that knowledge about plants and their functions can be valued. For example, some artists are changing their use of chemicals and industrial products to grow their own gardens and to reactivate the use of plants for pigment, natural dye… Or as we did at l’Atelier de l’Observatoire for the exhibition “Memory of cactus, mystery of cochinilla”, to use the dead fibre cactus to create paper or sculpture, the cochineal for its pigment, the cactus juice for photography etc.

Smart Nature by Khawla Alshuweihi

Smart Nature, Spain pavilion, Expo Dubai 2020

When I was inside the Forest of Intelligence in the Spain pavilion at Expo 2020, I felt a sense of ease and relaxation. This to me is the essence of being in the forest and I reflected on how is it important to make nature a central part of your own life. 

Nature remains an important part of life in Sharjah. Many families I know plant palm trees and sell wet (moist) dates grown in their garden or family farms. Natural resources can also be used in different ways such as traditional medicine that could be extracted from the leaves or seeds or flowers. For instance, Teucrium (الجعدة / اليعدة  )  which used to treat celiac disease, another use of plants is decoration from our cultural heritage is the Tulsi or Basil plant (مشموم / ريحان ). It has a strong floral smell that used to be used for decorating in occasions such as engagements. 

Another kind of natural resource usage is palm trees which Local Emirate families used to benefit from palm trunks to create their own cleaning tool named Broom (مكنسه / العسو  ) it is an old cleaning method. However, what I saw in the Spain pavilion was also about renewable energy, solar and wind. I believe the usage of solar energy is common and it depends on the natural region if it will be benefiting or useless. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, solar panels are used in various ways, such as powering the lights on family farms, illuminating road lights, and even for the operation of speed cameras or speed radars. 


by Senya Khudyakov and Balqees Almhaysin

What is sustainable design? How do I come up with effective ideas? Do I need professional education, or can it limit my own creativity? And how are these sustainable solutions presented to the public?

These questions come into play especially when talking about sustainable consumption. Many countries are already facing a waste crisis that requires action here and now. While experts and designers take their time developing complex logistics and high-tech ways to optimise our consumption, people on the ground come up with creative ideas to reduce damage with little resources.

How can the design process itself and its presentation become more sustainable? How can we bring specialists with know-how and access to power into a sustainable dialogue with those who have little influence on a global scale but know the problem from the inside? What do you think each side can learn from this exchange?

Simple solutions to complex problems by Senya Khudyakov

In this photo from the Madagascar pavilion at Expo2020 you see a coaster made of something that most of us simply throw in the rubbish – bottle caps. When I saw it, I was fascinated by how something useful and long-lasting could be created in such a simple and effective way.

To me, this is an exciting example of creativity that does not require formal education or complex ideas. Maybe the craftsman did not even consider sustainability while making this object but had to deal with all this rubbish out of necessity and so upcycled bottle caps into a coaster. This direct exposure to current problems requires immediate action and encourages creative solutions.

Burqet Tabak (ball pit) by Balqees Almhaysin

When you first look at this photograph its subject can appear obscure – is it beads, yellow chickpeas, a piece of abstract art? It is actually a pool of yellow plastic balls or as I know it from my childhood Burqet Tabaat (ball pit). 

The photo was taken in the second exhibition hall in the German Pavilion at Expo2020. It was designed to promote 100,000 ideas for a sustainable future. When I found the 100,000 plastic yellow balls in the pit felt like so much empty talk. 

Instead of being inspired by sustainable practices, I felt critical: why did they choose plastic balls to represent sustainability? I wondered if I would redesign this showroom what would the alternative be? This led me to reflect on the issue of responsible consumption and production as one of the Sustainable Development Goals and how it can also be understood in terms of the responsibility of knowledge production.


by Rafal Al Sarraf and Laura Hinrichsen

Thinking about the goals for a sustainable future, we can find ourselves distracted by many challenges. Sometimes the goals just seem impossible to achieve or the means to achieve them are too sophisticated. What can a gigantic screen of high technology, as presented in the Alwasel Dome, help me as an individual to achieve great things? 

We were lucky to experience the Dubai Expo 2020 within a very special group of people, the SAWA Museum Program participants. All from different backgrounds, we share the same ideas: We want to change museums for a better future. The common goals that we are discussing in the group are empowering every single one of us in our daily work back in our home countries.

Comparing our experiences at the Expo, we found ourselves looking for the same answers. Connections start between humans. They can start small, but only if we make more and more connections (al-wasl) and start working towards common goals together (sawa), will we be able to generate the power to change the future. 

يد واحدة لا تصفق – One Hand does not clap by Rafal Al Sarraf

The visit to Expo2020 in Dubai was a very intense day with a lot of new knowledge to receive and comprehend. Yet, when we were supposed to pick only one picture it was nearly impossible to find any! I found myself looking for a photo that joints different aspects, different abilities, talents and cultural backgrounds until I found this one of us sitting together in front of the stage at the German pavilion. 

I believe that being together (SAWA) is an essential part of the sustainability process. As Arabs say ‘One hand does not clap’ which means one cannot literally do anything all by her/himself, especially those huge targets such as creating a sustainable world or at least trying to.

Laura and I found ourselves looking for the same answers. She thought about the alwasel dome which when translated means the connection dome. This also refers to relationships and getting together, joining under one cause that we share. It reflects the same idea that I personally was thinking about – connecting is what really matters to achieve great things.

Alienation at Dubai EXPO 2020 by Laura Hinrichsen

After a long walk across the Expo with so many thoroughly conflicting impressions, I found myself under the gigantic dome that houses the logistical as well as thematic centre of the site: Al Wasl Plaza. 

The Expo’s motto “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” manifests itself in the beating heart of al Wasl Plaza. In Arabic, Al Wasl means “connection”.

The dome spans a space that can cover and encompass thousands of people who can gather under its roof, under its idea. The loud music and colourful projections draw people in. Most look up, take movies and photos, jostling each other.

I was impressed too. But my feelings were rather one of alienation than of connection. I was wondering: what does this place, these ideas, have to do with me?


by Sally Muhammed, Mariam Mahmoud, Danae Yolanda Diettrich

The idea of a tree and a book at the centre of a circle highlights the sense of being at the heart, the roots, and the core of something. The book is a symbol of education, while the tree is a symbol of growth and the circle is a symbol of togetherness.
We sit in a circle around a tree, all equally close to the centre, all sharing the experience of togetherness in a manner similar to the Majlis in the Arab culture where community members gather to discuss local issues.
The tree selected by Sally was planted to represent women but, for us, it also represents limitless growth. Many seeds of small educative acts have to be planted for a tree with strengthened roots to grow and we all have to continually water it for it not to die. Understanding that quality education is the root that we should collectively be nurturing creates a rich environment where the branches of gender equality will grow. Equal opportunities, balanced roles and well-distributed responsibilities all made possible by educated members of the society are a result of those carefully planted seeds. We share this task as one alone cannot fulfil it. It needs ideas and the effort of many acting in unity for this tree to live and flourish.
Bringing these ideas together generates the inspiration that would pave the way for positive change and impact on and by local communities to develop sustainably.

The future is female by Sally Muhammed

Women’s pavilion at Expo Dubai 2022

In the centre of the Women’s Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020 is an enormous tree that signifies growth. The exhibit is called ‘New Perspectives’ and around the walls are interactive exhibits dedicated to women. 

This prompted me to reflect that girls must believe in their voices. Women’s greatest achievements often start with small actions that can grow into the enormous tree. Like this enormous tree we need roots as much we need wings.I am so happy about the time I had to visit the Women’s Pavilion at Expo Dubai2020. The pavilion aims to challenge stereotypes while inspiring visitors to become change-makers themselves. I strongly believe that this commitment towards women is so important.  We cannot run our countries or our businesses, or educate our kids, as we did before. The world is changing and women need to be part of that change.

Knowledge is power by Mariam Mahmoud

The book Roundabout, Sharjah 2022

This is Sharjah’s most famous roundabout in the heart of the cultural square – the Book Roundabout. It is surrounded by cultural buildings like the Palace of Culture and the Sharjah Library. I pass by this massive book every day on my way to work. Starting my day in the continuous pursuit of progress, which for me means working hard, begins by “revolving” around this roundabout has provided me with a great deal of inspiration. Going full circle around a book helps me organize choices and seek direction serving as a daily reminder that true guidance is through education.The immensity of this book in comparison to my small hands had always reminded me of how huge of a responsibility it is to acquire and pass on knowledge. The amount of people sharing the road, travelling on the same journey reminds me that acquiring knowledge is unquestionably a collective responsibility.

Discussion circle by Danae Yolanda Diettrich

Discussion within SAWA, Sharjah Art Museum 2022

This was a typical day during our SAWA experience: sitting together, in a museum, sharing knowledge and impressions. 

I took this image after we entered the exhibition “Memory Sews Together Events That Hadn’t Previously Met” at Sharjah Art Museum. I went into the exhibition with ambiguous feelings towards art. My art history studies left me feeling like I had lost my joy for art and feeling in awe, in a negative way – “Ehrfurcht” as we say in German. Coming out of the exhibition I felt like I had freshly fallen in love with art again. Questions we were supposed to think about and reflect upon with a fellow SAWA participant reduced my fear of contact. Discussing our experience, asking the curator questions, as captured in this photograph, and answering our own questions afterwards was the cherry on top.

This is what quality education is: multi-perspective, sharing experiences and knowledge and togetherness. SAWA is quality education, quality education is SAWA. And these are the wonders quality education can achieve – bringing back a lost love.


by Nadine Aranki, Jihad Chitaouy, Giulia Russo

Sustainability has become a buzzword with less and less meaning. Taking care of the people and of the environment starts at the bottom, at the level of families and communities – for instance with everyday reusing and recycling practices. 

Restaurants and small businesses can do their part too to save water and space otherwise consumed through intense agriculture. Grassroots knowledge and ways of doing provide inspiring examples for living with a low impact on the environment and on communities.

If we combine practices from the past with modern technology, how could our cities and urban spaces be more livable, affordable and environmentally friendly?

Grassroots care by Nadine Aranki

EcoPapel, a Cuban project highlighted at the Cuban pavilion in the Dubai Expo 2022

During my participation in the SAWA museum academy, I took part in a visit to the Dubai Expo 2020.  Walking around the Cuban Pavilion, EcoPapel caught my attention. This project, which is family-run, produces handmade bags, diaries and cards using recycled paper and rainwater.

My father once told me that, until recently, disposable items did not exist in our homeland, Palestine. Not that long ago he used to refill glass bottles and pots to store milk and yogurt.

I realized then, that caring about the environment can be rooted in neighborhoods and families. I was reminded of the beauty of ways communities care for Planet Earth. 

The EcoPapel practices of showing care felt far removed from the trendy language of sustainability otherwise displayed at Dubai Expo. Grassroots care, as shown by my father and by EcoPapel, is in harmony with one’s roots, everyday practices and transmitted knowledge. For me, protecting our planet is a daily practice that is possible on small and large scales.

A new standard in farming by Jihad Chitaouy

I work at the Museum Mohammed VI for Water Civilization in Morocco. The Director is a professor in hydro-geology and often complains about the enormous amount of water that agriculture consumes in Morocco. 

As I was walking through the German pavilion at Dubai EXPO 2020, an innovative farming method caught my attention. It described itself as 100% local, 100% fresh, and most importantly requiring 95% less water.  I learned from our guide that this method is used by restaurants in Berlin and thought this is a good solution to save water and the huge space required for agriculture. By providing a practical framework for sustainable agriculture, this innovative method can help farmers produce better crops, adapt to climate change, increase their productivity, set goals to achieve their sustainable performance and target investments to address their greatest risks. 

Old Dubai by Giulia Russo

As I was walking through old Dubai one Thursday evening, I was struck by Shindagha’s contrasts and contradictions: the reconstructed traditional architecture contained modern boutiques. Its squares were filled with lively crowds but the window shutter suggested vacant buildings. Did anybody call this place home, with a bed to fall asleep in in the evening, when the last joys and sorrows of the day drifted away like water down the Creek?

I wondered whether we like the past to be…past. Distant from us, and as polished, clean and neat, as we want it to be, ready to visit whenever we feel like it – in a book, in a park, in a restored citadel or in a museum. 

But what if we tried to truly learn from ancient ways of living and give them a new life: how could this make our cities more sustainable – environmentally, socially and financially?


by Marwa Hamada and Joana Schroeder

Do you take drinking water for granted? What would you do if your water accessibility breaks off overnight? The value and importance become clear once the water supply breaks down. That can happen for many reasons like building a dam in Ethiopia that leaves Egypt without water or a pipe burst in Kiel.The latter was fixed within a day and only ensured that the water stock in the supermarkets was empty. 

Water can also have a great political power and a religious meaning. What happens if there is no water for the ablution for prayer? Or the dispute over water in case of building a dam leads to war because of a dispute over who has the power to control the River Nile? We should think about what we can do to safeguard this valuable resource and what policies can ensure equitable access to water, both for humans and for ecosystems. Water is a human right and essential for all life.

Water and Life by Marwa Hamada

This water cleaning game was one of the exhibits in the German Pavilion at Expo2020 in Dubai. You move your finger across the touch screen to control bacteria, which transforms plastic particles into compostable bioplastics. This relates to the sixth Sustainable Development Goal – clean water and hygiene.

A verse in the Holy Qur’an first drew my attention to the issue of preserving water: ‘And We made from water every living thing,[1] “وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاءِ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ”. Water is the source of life on Earth and access to clean water is a basic human right. Everyone in the world understands the value of clean water and the importance of preserving it. 

In my home country of Egypt, there was a recent panic about a possible water shortage. There were fears that the construction of a new dam in Ethiopia could reduce the water flowing down the Nile. The Ethiopian dam causes frequent water cuts, which can last for a day or two, and everyone seemed to suffer as a result of this new and shocking issue, as Egyptians have always had access to Nile water.

Innen hui, außen pfui! / Inside nice, outside ugly? By Joana Schroeder

During the first digital SAWA meeting we were told to bring refillable water bottles to Sharjah. I naturally did so because I carry one around with me all the time anyway. But in Sharjah it wasn’t always easy to find an opportunity to refill. I often found myself pouring drinking water out of disposable plastic bottles, which were constantly restocked in the hotel room, into my reusable water bottle. Then I found this water dispenser at a metro station in Dubai and I refilled my bottle with nicely chilled water.

For purchased water the material of the bottle, transport routes, and volume of the water bottle matter for the environmental balance. Tap water can be the best solution in regions where it is drinkable. There is no plastic, not much carbon emissions and no chemicals that could rub off from the plastic. The Sharjah experience made me aware that I often take the availability of drinkable tap water for granted in Germany. The quality is excellent – it’s the most monitored product in the food industry. 

[1] http://www.parsquran.com/data/show.php?sura=21&ayat=30&user=eng&lang=eng

The Pandemic (2019/2020 Theme)

The Objects in Dialogue project was held for the first time during and after SAWA 2019/20. SAWA participants selected an artwork/photograph/object that possessed a potent memory of their time spent in Sharjah. Six months later, they paired their initial selection with an object that reflected their situation now. In bringing these two loci of memory together, participants opened up a dialogue between their past and present selves.

As they were writing at the time of the global pandemic, the project also captured many of the experiences of being in lockdown in one’s home country. In particular, the constraints on experiencing new places or the denial of access to in-person intercultural dialogue were themes that reoccurred in many of the participant’s works. Although initially conceived as an exercise to allow the participants to reflect on their own journey during SAWA, it now lasts as a record of the programme’s own exploration of how to be together remotely.

Lockdown necessitated a change in many of the SAWA participants’ working lives – from creating in the museum space to creating online. This project sought to take some of the curatorial techniques used in physical exhibitions, such as the bringing together of objects in dialogue, from which this task takes its name, and explore their applicability online. In doing so, it sought to explore the liberating potential in the shift from museum-maker to online content creator. The persona of the blogger offers a freedom to reflect one’s own positionality often denied by the institutional voice of the museum.

Dialogue by Khawla Al-Midfa

Martyrs, Faisal Laibi Sahi (1978) Oil on canvas, 70 x 450 cm, Barjeel Art Foundation


This artwork caught my attention as it had a mixture of emotions in one piece. I was left wondering was it a funeral for one person or a few people? Do they bury the martyrs with fresh fruits? Why are all the men bald? Is it to show they are sad? The one lady without a “hijiab” looking at the viewer makes you think of her look, her eyes telling you she is thinking of the future and what is hidden for all Iraqi people. The whole group in the artwork, the men and women walking together represents the strong relationship between the Iraqi community.

Looking back at 1978, Iraq was undergoing so many political events. One year later, Saddam Hussein took over from President Al-Bakr. Two years after 1978, Iraq & Iran began a war which lasted for 8 years. These events made me imagine how our families would want to hear the updates from the radio stations. It made me imagine my father sitting with his little kids (they were 5 at that time) anxiously listening to the radio with the latest news. How important is it for us to attend these exhibitions and go through the artwork and try to dig into the history of the MENA region. –

Banana with blueberries cake, Khawla Al-Midfa (2020) Digital picture, 800 x 800 px


We were scared and uncertain of the Covid-19 situation. I was always saying when am I going to wake up from this bad dream. Slowly new rules and regulations were set into place to control the situation. I felt the only thing that made me connected to everything in this world is the internet. I always loved cooking and baking. During the quarantine period, a lot of well-known restaurants started sharing their recipes online. Most of them also made amazing short videos. I used this time to improve my skills. The best feeling was when a cake turns out delicious and my family likes it. I came to a conclusion that internet should be a basic right for everyone. Looking back at the history in 1918 with the Spanish flu when tens of millions were dead and people back then followed the social distancing. Schools and restaurants were closed, I wondered how people lived their life, how they endured being away from everything they enjoy in this life! I think we now have the connectivity in a way that people couldn’t even dream about in the form of the Internet. –

New Normal

I have been hearing this term everywhere nowadays. So what do these two words mean? While searching the internet I found this definition: “A previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected.” * Looking at Faisal’s work, it was back then a normal funeral where people would gather and say goodbye to their loved ones. It is a form of unity and being together in sad times. People would gather and stay together for three days in the Muslim community. One of the traditions is that the family would help preparing food for the mourners.

Relatives would then be always around to help endure the pain and loss. While with the Covid-19 crisis, the new normal for any funeral is to video call your loved ones and send your condolences through the internet. This is how you show you love them because you want to keep them safe. I think while this is the safest way to show your love and care, it deprived people from a caring touch or a hug. In my opinion, human contacts affect our bodies and brains. We humans are social creatures and during sad times you would want your loved ones all around you! –

Dialogue by Lea Asbrock

Head, Marwan (1975-76) Tempera on canvas, 195 x 260 cm, Barjeel Art Foundation, Picture by Lea Asbrock

Gallery Suction

I was immediately struck by Marwan’s head painting. The expressive closeup face shot, with the eye in the centre of the piece looking right at me, created a suction that I couldn’t resist. The painting transmitted a unique aura that cannot be depicted in this photographic reproduction. What can be observed in this photograph though is a component that altered my encounter with Marwan’s piece. When Khawla and Khawla sat in front of the work an interposition has been created that shifted my focus from the painting to the interaction that was happening in front of me. By letting his protagonist captivate the spectator’s gaze, Marwan provokes a dialogue that can be conducted from different perspectives. The wild brush stroke combined with vivid colours stands in sharp contrast to Khawla’s and Khawla’s black silhouettes. Not being able to see their faces leaves me curious about their reactions to the work. –

Self-portrait, Lea Asbrock (2020) Digital picture, 500 x 600 px

Me, Myself and I

Following up on the first object I chose from the time in Sharjah, I decided to in a way reenact the scene and refer it to my state of mind during the virtual SAWA. I chose to photograph myself in front of a photograph that functioned as a kind of icon for me during times of lockdown as it embodies a specific attitude towards life that I’ve been missing then. This photo was taken in India a few years ago by a friend of mine. Looking at it brings my longing for new adventures to awareness which increased immensely when I was trapped in my own four walls. Not being able to meet my SAWA colleagues in person for the second part of our common journey made me reflect on how important these personal encounters are for me. Sitting there by myself can be read as a metaphor for this desire. –

SAWA Encounters

My encounter with Marwan’s work made me reflect on the art canon which has been present for me ever since I started exploring art history. With few exceptions my art appreciation was Eurocentric which suddenly became clear to me when I entered the exhibition ‘A Century in Flux’ at Sharjah Art Museum. I was thrown into an emotional roller coaster. I felt excitement and sadness at the same time as I was amazed by all the astonishing artworks that were new to me while feeling blue about having missed out on such an important part of art history. My experience entering the exhibition space with my European identity and encountering a variety of MENA identities, manifests itself in my photographic coverage of the situation.

Marwan embodies the encounter of the two identities as he was born in Syria and later lived and worked in Berlin. Meeting Khawla and Khawla in front of Marwan’s painting can be read as another layer of the different identities encountering each other whereby the museum space functions as a contact zone. While the first picture represents my exploration of multifaceted encounters in Sharjah, the second photograph embodies my encounter with myself and my desires during the time of virtual SAWA. –

Dialogue by Sara Nserat

Ring, Lieutenant Basil Henriques (1916) Ring, ca. 1,5 cm diameter, Tank Museum Bovington

Ring made by Tank Man

Displaying a wedding ring surrounded by WW1 tanks made me curious to know its story. At this point of my tour, I was overwhelmed by the rare tank collection and their technical development so I needed an emotional story to refresh my soul. The bloody battlefield of the Somme was the first battlefield outing of the Mark I tank and Lieutenant Basil Henriques was one of the men to command one. He was looking through the periscope when his tank came under artillery fire. A glass prism in the periscope was shattered an Henriques suffered severe facial wounds. Despite his injuries, he was fortunately not blinded. He kept the largest splinter and had it mounted in a gold ring which he presented to his new bride, Rose Loewe. The story made me think how Henriques was able to think of his new wife after a day of terror, confusion and loss. He made a present to her out of something that had nearly blinded him. –

A wedding in quarantine at the Dead Sea, Unknown author (2020) Stillframe from a video, 400 x 728 px, Retrieved from AlMamlakaTV

A Jordanian Wedding During Lockdown

A Jordanian couple who lives abroad intended to marry in March. But as covid-19 outbreaks swept through Jordan, the government imposed a curfew and banned everyone from leaving home, except for medical cadres. They closed the kingdom’s land and air borders, and took over 34 hotels to convert the passengers into quarantine centers. To go along with the restrictions, the couple were faced with having either postpone or cancel the wedding. Instead, they decided to bring forward their marriage without a banquet or any guests and wearing face masks as a precaution. When the video spread on social media platforms and went viral, I closely related their story to Henriques’. The couple turned moments of fear and isolation into hope and solidarity and spread happiness across the local community. Although it can be very hard to find hope in their cases, they managed to stay strong and positive and find it. Hope encouraged them to look forward confidently and get what they desired. –

Love and War during Wartime

Visiting the Tank Museum Bovington, the home of tanks has been always on my bucket list. In November 2019 I had the chance to cross it off my list. The museum halls took me on a journey back in time to the 1920s. The First World War hall was very captivating due to how the museum designers succeeded in putting the visitors in the atmosphere of the war. At the same time, they were very creative in showing how we humans are always wishful and seek to find the light at the end of the tunnel. This concept was clearly told through a romantic story of a “Wedding ring made from smashed periscope glass of WW1 tank”. The ring was made from a shard of periscope glass that took a direct hit and struck a First World War tank commander in his face.

During the pandemic in Jordan, a video went viral on social media platforms showing a wedding party taking place in a hotel used as a quarantine center. The video shows the groom and the bride celebrating their wedding party in their hotel balcony with no attendees, wearing face masks as a precaution after their planned wedding party was cancelled. Another thread of hope we humans strive to catch in times of struggles and difficulties.
Both situations highlight the fact that going through tough times makes us stronger and always encourage us to stay positive. People in difficult times always seek survival, happiness, and hope. Happiness aids our survival in several ways, it makes us optimistic, more confident and fearless.

Dialogue by Laura Hermlin

Madonna of the Oranges, Ismail Shammout (1997) Oil on canvas,
100 x 80 cm, Barjeel Art Foundation

Madonna of the Oranges

When visiting the Sharjah Art Museum for the first time and strolling through the different exhibition rooms this painting caught my eye. The colourful orange background of the wall had a great attraction for me. The pictured woman seemed strong and proud and I was immediately captivated by her whole appearance. The painting really stood out not just because of the bright colours but mostly because of the depicted figures themselves. At first, it reminded me of a Christian picture of the Madonna and Jesus but this impression and perception obviously did not fit into the environment. I was kind of surprised to see something like that in an exhibition about modern Arab Art. I stood in front of the picture and started to think about what exactly this woman was feeling and also what she embodied.

The artist, Ismail Shammout, is Palestinian and uses this intended transformation to embody optimism and positivity by depicting a young woman, referring to his own life and difficult fate during the Nakba. The founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, was personally touched by the work of the artist the first time he saw it, which is why Shammout plays a major role in the collection. I studied art history but I was never really attracted to Christian art. That is why I liked the new interpretation of a classic composition which was also placed in a context entirely new to me. –

Aretha’s Greatest Hits, Aretha Franklin (1971) Vinyl,
32 x 32,2 cm, Atlantic Records

Aretha’s Greatest Hits

This is a vinyl record by the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin which collects together her greatest hits. I only got the record two years ago but I grew up with her music and was always surrounded by it. Aretha Franklin as an Afro-American female singer is a symbol of my childhood and stands for empowerment, female power and strength. This is also visually reflected on the cover with its bold orange, red colours and with her gaze turned directly at the camera. She is descending the stairs in a red dress with a black pattern while she is framed by two escalators.

The picture was already used as a cover in 1971 for the single “Rock Steady“. At that time Aretha was at the height of her career. My mother immersed me in the music of black women at a very early age. Now that Black Lives Matter is in the public focus, black music and culture gains even more importance and is more current than ever. For me this object is closely linked to the current events in the world while also giving me peace and security. –


This year everything is about connection – losing connection, avoiding connection and also gaining connection through new ways and methods. For me there is definitely a connection between these two objects: they are both a representation of female empowerment and grace. This can be seen above all in the similarity of the pictorial quality and colour. Both objects represent and depict women in a strong way, either as a Madonna who stands for an optimistic, revolutionary future or as a female singer who symbolizes the civil rights movement through her music and soul.

Both objects and symbols embody femininity, which is however strong and detached in every respect. Feminist thinking and the idea that as a woman you can be everything and have power are topics that have interested and influenced me a lot in the last few months. Not only in the context of Black Lives Matter, but in general. In this context, the connection through social media and different communication channels has always been crucial. The topic of connection has also played an important role for me within SAWA and has shown that no matter where you are in the world, connections are possible if you stand up for them. –

Dialogue by Khawla Aqeel Al Awadhi

Concours, Maliheh Afnan (1961) Oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm, Barjeel Art Foundation

A Different Angle

This painting is normally not the type that would capture my attention. I’m usually attracted to paintings depicting people, emotions, sunsets, or bright colours. It was when a security personnel I met in the gallery told me about what he sees in this artwork that made me look at it from a completely different angle. “Look closely and you’ll be able to read something”, he said. After carefully observing it, I noticed that what I first saw to be random numbers or symbols were actually words and letters, and I was able to read a few words in Arabic including the artist’s name in the bottom right corner. This inspired me to look into the artwork and its creator Maliheh Afnan, who it seems was fond of incorporating texts in her works. It’s fascinating how two people can look at exactly the same thing yet read it so differently. –

Coffee cup by Khawla Al Awadhi (2020)
Digital picture 586 x 866 px

A New Ritual

It was in March 2020 that Covid-19 cases in the UAE started increasing and the Emirates went on lockdown. Everything from dining in to social gatherings was not only banned but seemed frightening to people. Before the pandemic, one of the very normal things most people enjoyed and did often was having coffee with others in shared spaces. Personally, it was a ritual to have my evening coffee at or from a café with a friend or family member every other day. During lockdown I’ve discovered many hidden talents and personal interests, one of them was coffee making. Due to the generous amount of free time I had specifically around the time of virtual SAWA, I started stacking up on various coffee beans and machines, and endlessly reading and watching videos on how to make good coffee. The new ritual has now become having my family (household) gathered in the living room and serving them home-made coffee. –

Two Worlds

Scenario 1 took place during 2019 SAWA and scenario 2 during 2020 SAWA. The 2 scenarios are only 8 months apart yet the feelings, experiences and worlds are completely different. Now that I take at a glimpse of last year’s “normal’’, it seems unfamiliar. It feels odd how it was ok to approach strangers in public places like museums to discuss an artwork, while today many are still afraid to simply get a cup of coffee from a coffee shop. To think that the amazing and then-normal 2019 SAWA memories such as a group trip to the desert or museum, or the casual sharing of a meal or a simple handshake are things that people fear today. It is scary that it only took 8 months for the entire world to go from normal to complete lockdown. Not only are we as SAWA participants unable to cross borders and regroup to complete the SAWA journey in Berlin, but today we can only see each other and have our classes and conversations through an online application, with no coffee, handshake, or group trips. –

Dialogue by Philipp Zobel

Al-Hisn Fort

Heat. Pressing sultriness.
I strolled through the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The sea was near, but its breeze wasn‘t reaching me. In front of me lay al-Hisn Square with its historic fort in the midst of a multi-lane road, between modernist housing blocks. How did this clash of historic and modern happen?

As I later found out, the building from the early 19th century had to give way to the new urban structures, but was rebuilt around 2000. My mind was occupied with the weather conditions and I stopped wondering, as my habitual unease about reconstructed buildings kicked in.

Some ten days later, we had a chance of getting a tour through the fort, the former seat of the emirate’s ruling family al-Qasimi. We were told about the huge importance assigned to this building as a place to experience the Emirate’s history in a nutshell. I started thinking anew, as I listened to the exciting explanations our guide gave to us. What really caught my attention

was the method that had been used for reconstruction, as memories, scattered images and tales were considered in an approach of oral history. Whereas my main understanding of authenticity focuses on historical, in this case material, traces, I recognised that today’s fort owns another layer of authenticity which is personal memories of this place.

Rambling the fort, I caught sight of another work of art I had seen and photographed in my first time at the place, a calligraffiti by eL Seed on one of the facades of a housing block. In a contemporary aesthetic that fuses graffiti and street art with calligraphy, eL Seed interpreted a 19th century poem by Ahmed Abu Sneeda. I looked over there standing in a building that took up another 19th century story, of the seat of Sharjah’s ruling family. In contrast, although reaching back to roughly the same period in time, the calligraffiti didn’t make me uneasy, as I recognised it as an authentically contemporary take on cultural legacy—a discrepancy that kept me thinking, once I realised.

Al-Hisn Fort, Philipp Zobel (2019) Digital picture, 800 x 600 px
Al-Hisn Fort, Philipp Zobel (2019) Digital picture, 800 x 600 px
Empty shelves in a supermarket, people fear that food supply could stop, Philipp Zobel (2020)
Digital picture, 600 x 800 px

“The situation”

Its cause is invisible. We cannot see a virus, but we transmit it unknowingly. This disease spreads rapidly through our global networks of exchange, from one person to another, uncannily. I guess the uncanniness of this pandemic led many people to call these months “the situation,” still ongoing.

This “situation,” intruded our public sphere and seems to be the first really global momentum in which the whole world is affected directly, personally—sadly with feelings of anxiety, insecurities, and helplessness—and at the same time watching the rest of the world reacting to it. Curfews closed public spaces worldwide, or at least narrowed down possibilities to exchange and discuss in person, to experience the world outside our own flats and houses, circles of friends, our nearest environments.

In this scale, we were lucky that our plans to have the second part of SAWA in Berlin were rearranged to virtual meetings: Lucky, again, because we have the internet at hand to at least use the digital realm. As all of us work in public institutions—museums of all sorts—, so each and everyone was affected personally and professionally by the pandemic. Given the opportunity through SAWA, we could hear from many dear people how “the situation” affected their lives: although our living conditions differ from one to another, the pandemic effected similar and familiar responses in everyone, regardless of which groups we belong to. Anyone has to cope with uncertainties, navigate unknown territories, and differing emotional states within the “situation.”

As SAWA regrouped in a virtual space, public spaces witnessed protests against the cuts in basic rights that were soon overshadowed by conspiracy ideologies. Usual habits and customary liberties had been shaken by virus containment measures, but critical manifestations instead centred on discourses of segregation, on a dangerous outside or certain “scapegoat”-groups that were blamed for “the situation.” The contrast could have hardly been harsher.

Spaces of belonging

Communities need to have stories – certain narratives that bring them together as collectives. Those narratives can build up commonalities and reassure the group members in sharing their history. As with al-Hisn, those stories crystallise, for example, in buildings and monuments that then embody these communities. But intangible practices form commonalities and feelings of familiarity as well, be they cultural habits, societal decorum, or protests that affect an immediate feeling of being a collective. Both buildings and practices form spaces of belonging, public spaces of a community.

For sure, spaces of belonging differentiate between those that are embodied by them and those who are (momentarily?) not. Eventually, they possess the potential to be claimed exclusively for one collective, hence to be turned against other groups via exclusion. I think of this as a dormant potential that may or may not be awakened over time.

As histories go along, at least in my understanding, there is rarely, or never, a single interpretation or view of anything. I resort to buildings to get a clearer picture: they get changed over time, annexed with other parts, their usage varies, … in short, there is not one stable identity to it, but various historical traces layered one

above the other. I assume this holds true for what I understand as authenticity, too, and may be the reason why I feel unease, when faced with reconstructed spaces of belonging. What layer do you hold on to reconstruct? Which materialised period and interpretation do you focus on when reviving a setting? How will you mark the gap between destruction and reinstallation? For sure, as stated, memories and stories may pave the way for another authentic form – but can you substitute historical layers with layers of memory? And how would you give form to these?

And then we witnessed (and still witness) what happens in times of disquiet, when certainties crumble. In this perspective, one may think of the pandemic as an accelerator to change processes, where we can observe in an unusually short amount of time how people reconfigure their stances. The uncanniness of “the situation” concentrated many a person’s ideas on familiarity and effected a retreat into the limited space of what is known and what belongs to one’s community, something you could hold on to in times of disorientation. Ultimately, this may as well alter our approaches and engagements with the past, something that will touch upon communities, authenticity, and our spaces of belonging.