Sharjah Art Foundation Jets Ahead on the Flying Saucer
By Nada Ammagui
Published on December 9, 2020
A multipurpose venue featuring a free public library, a design-oriented shop, a chic cafe with exquisite dishes, a lush sunken courtyard, a film screening venue, a panoramic view of suburban Sharjah, a multifunctional outdoor pavilion, a private “pods” area for intimate conversations, and a bustling calendar of public programs and exhibitions—this almost sounds too good to be true. The Flying Saucer, home to these spaces, is Sharjah Art Foundation’s most recent architectural acquisition, supporting its efforts to integrate out-of-use buildings of local cultural value into an emirate-wide ecosystem of artistic and cultural platforms. Having already acquired and refurbished over a dozen buildings on both the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman coasts of Sharjah, which it uses for year-round exhibitions, public programs, international festivals, and the renowned Sharjah Biennial, the foundation is rapidly becoming a leading regional art institution while actively contributing to local architectural conservation.
The Flying Saucer, built in the late 1970s by an unknown architect, has been a cherished part of Sharjah’s “collective cultural memory and identity” for decades. Formerly a French-inspired cafe and newsstand, then a supermarket and pharmacy, and finally a fast-food restaurant, it now serves the SAF’s permanent inner-city art venue. The building’s reopening, after undergoing major renovations starting in 2018, was announced to the public in September 2020 and inaugurated with multimedia artists Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent’s site-responsive installation entitled Nowhere Less Now3 [flying saucer]. The exhibition, which draws on the Flying Saucer’s space-age architectural style, enigmatic origins, and shape-shifting form, features various sculptural elements scattered across the venue’s spacious interior and a film portraying complex human ideologies through dance and movement. These elements engage with the peculiar history of the building and its stylistic preoccupation with the future to narrate an imagined interaction between aliens and humans.
Formerly a French-inspired cafe and newsstand, then a supermarket and pharmacy, and finally a fast-food restaurant, the Flying Saucer now serves the SAF’s permanent inner-city art venue.
While local residents have frequented the establishment for nearly 4 decades, very little about the Flying Saucer’s style and aesthetic seems to ground the structure in the surrounding environment. As a single-story cylindrical building with a modest central dome, intersecting V-pillars dotting the spanning window facade, and a bilayered, 16-point cantilevered canopy, it stands in contrast with the more subdued architectural aesthetic of the residential neighborhoods around it.
As a single-story cylindrical building, it stands in contrast with the more subdued architectural aesthetic of the residential neighborhoods around it.
Despite its architectural eccentricity, the Flying Saucer has retained its distinctive style over the years, only undergoing surface-level renovations to suit its various functions. When it was finally acquired in 2015 by the Sharjah Art Foundation, architectural consultant and founder of SpaceContinuum Design Studio Mona El Mousfy was hired to transform the space into a suitable venue for artist Hassan Khan’s site-specific installation—appropriately entitled UFO! UFO?—at Sharjah Biennial 12. For this exhibition, few structural alterations were made to the space; only the panoramic facade was colored using light filters.
After SB12 drew to a close, the space underwent more drastic changes in preparation for SAF President and Director Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi’s 1980–Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates exhibition for the National Pavilion UAE at la Biennale di Venezia in 2015. The exterior cladding, interior partitions, and superficial ceiling were all cleared to reveal and preserve the building’s original design. While the annex, built as a kitchen years earlier, was kept for this exhibition, it is no longer at the site today. A concrete floor was also added during this phase of renovation, embracing the concrete materiality of the rest of the building. The Flying Saucer went on to host several more exhibitions during this period before closing again in 2018 for further renovations.
By adding the Flying Saucer’s notably Googie, space-age architectural character to its repertoire, SAF welcomes a new, post-modern dynamic to its spatial architectural network. Not only does this addition expand the physical and conceptual artistic possibilities across SAF’s spaces, but it invites artist engagement with different parts of Sharjah’s cultural and architectural history, particularly with a building that is so iconic yet baffling. Because each of SAF’s buildings bears its own history, memories, and significance, artists can activate different aspects of the sites’ identities to connect with local communities.
By adding the Flying Saucer’s notably Googie, space-age architectural character to its repertoire, SAF welcomes a new, post-modern dynamic to its spatial architectural network.
The addition of the Flying Saucer to SAF’s growing list of venues also complements the historical and contemporary styles found elsewhere in the foundation’s architectural collection. The Sharjah Art Foundation, founded in 2009 and since led by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, daughter of the emirate’s ruler, comprises several permanent spaces that reflect a range of historical architectural styles from the 19th century to the 2010s. Spanning a vast geographical area, SAF encompasses galleries in Al Mureijah Square and Arts Square in Old Sharjah, Sharjah city’s town center and historical commercial hub, as well as art centers spread throughout the emirate of Sharjah, including in Al Hamriya, Al Dhaid, Dibba Al Hisn, Khorfakkan, and Kalba.
The Al Mureijah Square venues, inaugurated in 2013, consist of several refurbished historical homes and newly-constructed contemporary gallery spaces designed by the SpaceContinuum Design Studio. At Arts Square, the former homes of two prominent local families, Bait Obaid Al Shamsi and Bait Al Serkal, have also been refurbished to preserve their original character while accommodating for multimedia installations, small exhibitions, and the Sharjah Biennial. The nearby Sharjah Art Museum, though often used for the Sharjah Biennial, is programmed year-round by the Sharjah Museums Department.
The clustered houses, alleyways, and contemporary galleries of the Old Sharjah spaces embody the spirit of Sharjah’s historical commercial hub, dating back to when the local economy was primarily supported by pearl trading and fishing on the Sharjah Creek. Installations that are hosted here tend to draw on these historical narratives, like artist Carlos Martiel’s fishing net installation at Sharjah Biennial 14.
After visiting most of SAF’s exhibition venues across the emirate, I’m struck by the breadth of local historical narratives memorialized by these buildings and reactivated by the contemporary art installations which they host. From Suchitra Mattai’s Imperfect Isometry (2019) at Bait Obaid Al Shamsi, which considers the cultural and ideological network of exchange between her homeland’s and Sharjah’s histories, to Mohau Modisakeng’s Land of Zanj (2019) at Kalba Ice Factory, whose procession along the Gulf of Oman coast recalls migration patterns and memories between the Arabian Peninsula and the Swahili Coast, each exhibition is deeply rooted in the history of venue where it is displayed while drawing from surrounding contemporary realities. In doing so, SAF has re-incorporated local architectural landmarks into Sharjah’s cultural memory with a new contemporary artistic edge and propelled them into the emirate’s cultural and artistic future through their constant reactivation.
Each exhibition is deeply rooted in the history of venue where it is displayed while drawing from surrounding contemporary realities.
The Flying Saucer, like every building that joins the SAF’s emirate-wide network of exhibition venues, presents an exciting opportunity for the foundation to engage with more communities. It is one more public space where art enthusiasts can meet and mingle, where families can participate in workshops and events, and where the local art scene can continue to grow. The particular shape and history of the Flying Saucer will, I anticipate, invite more whimsical, speculative, and futuristically-oriented installations that look into the emirate’s future rather than its past. In a time where hope seems scarce, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s reactivation of this architectural icon bears a welcomed look to an optimistic future ahead.
The particular shape and history of the Flying Saucer will, I anticipate, invite more whimsical, speculative, and futuristically-oriented installations that look into the emirate’s future rather than its past.
7. Public space, Flying Saucer, Sharjah, UAE, 2020. Photo: Danko Stjepanovic. Images courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation.
Nada Ammagui is a Postgraduate Research Fellow in the Arts & Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi conducting research on histories of cultural institutions and contemporary art in Sharjah, UAE. She employs interdisciplinary methods, ranging from ethnography and archival exploration to data analysis and digital mapping, to examine the spatial and temporal dimensions of Sharjah’s art scene. She also writes a blog on research in the humanities to help young scholars navigate academic waters. Nada graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi with a B.A. in Arab Crossroads Studies and minor in Art History.
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Sharjah Art Foundation’s exhibitions are open to the public from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, Saturday to Thursday, and from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm on Friday. Visitors interested in viewing the ongoing exhibitions in Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Bait Al Serkal, Al Hamriyah Studios and The Flying Saucer, as well as the permanent installation Rain Room Sharjah, are encouraged to book visits in advance online.