How Tosin Oshinowo is putting Sharjah Architecture Triennial on the map

Already famous for its art scene, Sharjah, in the UAE, is now carving a spot on the world's architectural map through an exhibition curated by brilliant Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo.

Author: Luisa Nannipieri


Already famous for its art scene, Sharjah, in the UAE, is now carving a spot on the world’s architectural map through an exhibition curated by brilliant Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo. An especially meaningful Triennial, as the emirate puts the spotlight on practitioners coming from the Global South and advocates for the ideas born in and from scarcity to be heard.

The title of the second Sharjah Architecture Triennial (closing on March 10th) is: The beauty of impermanence – An architecture of adaptability. As the curator, renowned Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo, clearly stated in her opening speech: “It is a metaphor that draws attention to the built environment design and technological innovations in the Global South. These solutions are born out of conditions of scarcity and work within the limitations of the natural resources available.”

Henry Glogau and Aleksander Kongshaug, Resource Autonomy, 2023
Henry Glogau and Aleksander Kongshaug, Resource Autonomy, 2023

This exhibition “is a collective effort to shift the narrative”, from a cornucopian and unattainable model, to a more sustainable and accessible path towards the future. On a more personal level, for Oshinowo, it is also “a representation of an understanding that I have of growing up in Lagos. So many things in Lagos don’t function as they should, but the city has yet to collapse. It might not be thriving in the sense of what we consider a global notion of progress, but it still functions. It is a notion I wanted to unpack.” 

Organized for the first time in 2019 by the son of the Emir of Sharjah, Khalid Al Qasimi, and his twin sister Hoor, the Triennial remained under the patronage of the Sharjah Art Foundation after Khalid’s sudden passing, that same year. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who is also the director and president of the Art Foundation and The Africa Institute, has worked on this second edition together with a gifted team of international advisors, such as Mona El Mousfy, Rahul Mehrotra, Mariam Kamara and Yinka Shonibare CBE. Their support and joint efforts in developing Oshinowo’s proposal are one of the secrets behind the successful outcome of the event, together with the local team resourcefulness. 

Inside the Al Qasimiyah School, the Triennial’s headquarters based in a renovated old school
Nifemi Marcus-Bello, Context in Design, Design in Context, 2023

As several participants pointed out to WAAU, the curatorial team’s credibility and engagement played a big role in their decision to take part in an exhibition centered on sustainability, in one of the top oil producers states in the world. Also, while during the process the attendees were all invited at least one time to visit Sharjah in small groups, to explore the emirate and were asked to pitch contextualized proposals, the curator kept an open mind and took some fresh decisions. In the case of the Ecuadorian practice Natura Futura, for instance, most of the granted funds went into completing one of their projects. The construction of the first modern and sustainable houseboat for the community living on the Babahoyo River. “It seemed to me a really fine way to appropriate the objectives of this Triennial, sowing worldwide the seeds of awareness that can make a difference through architecture,” Tosin Oshinowo recalls.

Nifemi Marcus-Bello, Context in Design, Design in Context, 2023
Al Borde, Raw Threshold, 2023

A collective conversation

In total, the exhibition showcases the works of 29 architects, designers, artists, foundations or fashion designers from 25 countries. More than a third of them come from Africa or its diasporas. The others are from the Middle East, South America, South Asia and a minority from Europe and North America. “I’m very good at knowing what I know, and what I don’t,” admits Oshinowo. “I’m from Nigeria, and I had been called to work on a global narrative. So, the best thing I could think of was to ask people from different regions to submit their suggestions. The advisory board help has been essential in this aspect. Its diversity is reflected in the diversity of the participants and especially helped in overcome the language barrier.

But you’ll notice that there is only one participant from Francophone Africa, Thomas Egoumenides. It was Hoor Al Qasimi who saw his work in Tunisia and who suggested his name. When you think that in West Africa there are more francophone people than anglophones, I have to acknowledge that there were sadly some missed opportunities.” On the brighter side, the curator had been really pleased with the positive and optimistic energy coming from everybody she has interacted with, since the beginning: “The groups of participants were a really good and happy bunch. Which is interesting, because the people, the regions they came from, were always different. There was something very positive about this collective, a sort of conversation going on, that came across the work we can see here. I feel very proud of what we have shown, and I’m hopeful that this will continue to resonate with and influence people for a long time.”

Natura Futura, La Balsanera - Productive Floating House, 2023
Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari, THE POWER OF THE ‘INVISIBLES’, 2023
An experimental lab celebrating Gaza’s resilience and the people´s perseverance in rebuilding from ruins

The practitioners who came to Sharjah don’t have a lot in common with the stiff image of the global star architect that became a reference in the field. For Oshinowo, who thinks the professionals should work for the people, better understanding their needs and expectations, this was certainly a bonus: “I told the participants early on that I wanted a five-year-old, to come and be excited. It’s not a theme park, so it had to be layered in a way that an academic, a professional, a student or the general public could be intrigued from the exhibition and take something from it. 

I was passing by the Alan Vaughan-Richards courtyard (ed: Ola Uduku and Michael Collins work on the Nigerian-British architect’s archive) and I saw a little kid running out from the tissue structure without his shoes on and his father running after him. It turns out they were playing on the bean bags, underneath this very beautiful encapsulating place. I have to admit that, when they proposed the project, I couldn’t really imagine what it would feel to be inside it and look at those traditional patterns framing the sky. It is so peaceful, and it is a hit.”

Common spaces for the exhibit were built by Space Caviar using rental materials from local building companies
A tailoring lab as an installation to reflect on fast fashion impact on ecosystems and people in the Global South

Venice and Sharjah complemented each other

Earlier last year, DAAR also took part in the Venice Biennale curated by Lesley Lokko, who has been one of Tosin Oshinowo’s teachers: “When Lesley Lokko was officially announced, I already knew I was Sharjah’s curator, but it hadn’t been made public yet and I got briefly worried. We are both women, from the continent, but we have a very different approach. She has spent a long time in academia, and I have been a practicing professional.

I was concerned that we could be interested in the same subjects but, when I read her statement, I thought that it was really beautiful and that it was a conversation we needed to have. I was really happy that it was held before my exhibition, because she was grounding that we need to have more inclusivity. And it was important that she did it in that location.” Then, the participants list came out and Oshinowo found out that seven of the 29 practitioners invited to the Triennial would also be going to Venice: “The great thing about creatives is that no one practices mono-tune. The work they exposed in Venice responded to that theme and the works they have here respond to this theme. Which shows the strength of the diversity and the maturity of their individual practices and it is even better for the collective, as they are not stuck in a singular narrative.”

Limbo Accra, SUPER LIMBO, 2023
Beauty and grace can be found even in a gigantic unfinished mall
Limbo Accra, SUPER LIMBO, 2023
Beauty and grace can be found even in a gigantic unfinished mall

As a practitioner, Oshinowo thinks that conceptualization and critical theory are very important, but she truly wanted her exhibition to be about concrete architecture: “We wanted to have built initiatives, moments of occupation. That can only be achieved through architecture. We do have some conceptual projects, but they are all tied by this strong narrative that is addressing progress, climate crisis, contextual solutions, creating a body of works that is very beautiful.” While planning the Triennial, the curatorial team pinpointed three extremely fluid themes, strands, or categories encompassing the proposed works. They were called Renewed Contextual, Extraction Politics and Intangible Bodies. 

The latest strand includes Sandra Poulson’s work ´Dust as an Accidental Gift’, reproducing with cardboard and starch the entrance of Luanda’s Kikolo Market and prompting the visitors to reflect on their ability to navigate the non-paved landscape and on the perception of progress instilled by the colonizer’s mentality. “Sandra’s project is not about buildings,” points out Oshinowo, “It is about the ephemeral, an acknowledgement of the city and our humanity and our occupation within our environment. It gives the opportunity to pause and think: what do I value? It is something that could influence an architect more than seeing Sumaya Dabbagh’s EARTH TO EARTH technical structure, made of mud bricks that create this amazing space that bounces sounds. There are actually many moments of push and pull in this exhibition.” 

Wallmakers, 3-Minute Corridor, 2023
Sandra Poulson, Dust as an Accidental Gift, 2023

One of the peculiar aspects of the Triennial is the care the organizers put into the overall design of the event. Knowing that, not only because of the climate conditions in Sharjah, they couldn’t realistically aim for a carbon neutral exhibition, they decided to work toward a zero-waste event. Tosin Oshinowo especially stressed to the participants that they had to consider the life of their projects at the end of the Triennial, and Space Caviar, the Italian-British practice charged with setting up the venues, was chosen specifically with this approach in mind: “We had an open call for the exhibition design because we wanted to know what was out there. Space Caviar’s proposition was very promising, as they developed the idea that the exhibition should go back from where it came from and not contribute to carbonization.” 

At first, the designers suggested to use sand as base material, but they quickly changed their minds during the research and development process, as it was too challenging and not so practical to execute. They finally approached local construction companies and industries and persuaded them to rent all the necessary materials that could later go back to the market. “Knowing when to stop is the strength of a good designer”, says Oshinowo. “and their proposal has remained faithful to the original concept. There is this awareness in their work that even we, humans, have become cattle in this capitalistic and consumeristic system. Even we have been consumed. Our lack of awareness of this mechanism is a problem that we need to tackle.”

51-1 Arquitectos, Play You Are in Sharjah, 2023
This Peruvian studio occupies public spaces with a playful and mobile architecture, which changes as the day passes by, chasing the shadows
Hive Earth, ETA’DAN, 2023
How to decompose a simple raw heart wall to create new spaces

Advocating for systemic changes

Impermanence became a key concept behind Oshinowo’s curatorial approach. Observing Sharjah’s essentially foreign population, she focused on the transitional civic state of migrant workers, who can’t stay forever in the emirate and will never acquire citizenship. “I know that living with this impermanent civic status is uncomfortable, but a lot of generations have done it. So much of our modern world is based on generational transfer of assets, cementing ourselves in a location, being established, leaving a concrete legacy. And it made me think that, if we only consciously respected the Earth we are only passing through, we would approach life in a different manner. There is a kind of freedom in not trying to physically anchor ourselves: living our life consciously thinking that we can’t keep and transmit any physical thing, what would be the most meaningful thing that we would do, and we would retain? I think we would then reduce our global impact collectively. 

Hive Earth, ETA’DAN, 2023
How to decompose a simple raw heart wall to create new spaces
Hive Earth, ETA’DAN, 2023
How to decompose a simple raw heart wall to create new spaces

But to do so, we need to have systemic changes. We are using everything we have, and nobody is thinking about the other end. There is so much emphasis on convenience and consumerism but at what expense? This is not sustainable. Even as an architect, as a designer, when we look at a window we should ask ourselves: where does that glass come from? What is the implication of using that particular product? When I was in school, they told us a building should last 25 years, and never told you to think at the end of life of the materials. We should tell students that the building should be able to adapt to a different use after 25 years. Would you choose the materials differently if you thought that the building would have to continue to evolve its form, and that its functions may change? We really need to rethink everything differently, because what we have been sold doesn’t work.”

Oshinowo, who is currently approaching the refurbishing project of a 75 years old department store in Lagos with this new mindset, believes she has learned a lot from the participants of the Triennial and their projects, and considers that her value system has completely shifted while she was curating the exhibition. “The way I design will definitely never be the same again,” she assures.


Images by Luisa Nannipieri

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