Sharjah is so close to Dubai, yet so different. There’s nothing subtle about Dubai’s bright lights and towering glass and steel buildings; in contrast, the palette of the Sharjah skyline is softer and more welcoming, with its pale-pink and sand-coloured high-rises. The emirate has a special focus on culture, and in the Heart of Sharjah area – the old part of town – the Sharjah Art Foundation, founded in 2009, is flying the flag for contemporary art. It’s a great choice for a day trip, as you’ll need plenty of time to see all that the SAF has to offer.
At Al Mureijah Square, where the main SAF galleries can be found, take some time to admire the architecture, which includes restored historic courtyard houses. The former private residences, named after the families who once lived here, are centred around courtyards and connected by winding alleyways. Meander along here, and you might stumble across an urban garden. Alternatively, explore the interconnected roof where the gallery occasionally hosts exhibitions and the staff have communal dinners. The new gallery builds, with their simple exteriors, glass facades and skylights, complement the historic buildings and create a seamless transition between then and now. There’s also a small mosque on the premises that is still in use, along with traditional coral stone enclosures – beautiful but no longer constructed due to the impact on the environment.
SAF’s year-round programme showcases art by regional and local artists, as well as international names, in its many white-painted galleries. Past exhibitions include a major overview of Frank Bowling’s work, retrospectives of Anna Boghiguian and Amir Nour, a Yayoi Kusama exhibition and a show about the history of exhibition-making in the UAE. The gallery spaces themselves are light and open, and the Emirati climate gives SAF a definite advantage over many other global galleries as exhibitions can take place outside for much of the year. It means there’s often a continuity between the indoor gallery spaces and the pieces shown in the courtyards, which makes it even more fun to walk around the area.
As well as its open-air exhibitions, SAF is also home to an outdoor cinema, the poetically named Mirage City. The cinema is an artwork in itself; created by architect Ole Scheeren and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the venue is actually a small model of the foundation’s houses. The pleasant night-time temperatures and mild evening light in Sharjah make for a peaceful cinema experience, and the film programme is updated regularly. It’s mostly tied to art events, so check to make sure something is on before going.
After a few hours of gallery-browsing, you’ll most likely be ready to sit down for some food. Luckily, there’s a café and restaurant, Fen, in the SAF spaces by Al Mureijah Square, and it’s both very good and well-priced. Dishes include fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, a light chicken katsu with coleslaw and sesame seeds, and a delicious miso seabass topped with sautéed mushrooms and crunchy vegetables. It’s high-level cooking, and the surroundings are as attractive as the food. Take a seat under the courtyard roof in the traditional building that houses the restaurant to enjoy lunch in the shade.
Unlike in Dubai, where you’re allowed to drink alcohol in licensed premises, drinking is illegal in the more conservative Sharjah, so you’ll have to opt for a mocktail or one of Fen’s speciality lemonades to accompany the food – the basil one is especially good. SAF’s many cats, all of which have names, tend to congregate where the food is, so you might meet a new furry friend here.
In 2012, Random International’s Rain Room took the Barbican in London by storm. The mind-bending installation lets you stand in the rain without getting wet, and the darkness of the room, in combination with the soft sound of the rain, makes it an unusually soothing experience. Since 2018, the interactive installation has had a permanent home in Sharjah, where it’s delighting inhabitants of the desert city – a very different place to see the liquid artwork than in rainy London. The Rain Room is not in the same location as the main SAF buildings, but in its own building by Al Mujarrah Park, a 20-minute walk away. Make sure you buy your ticketed slot online before going so that you don’t miss the chance to experience the feeling of being dry in the middle of a downpour.
Though not a part of the Sharjah Art Foundation, the nearby Sharjah Art Museum is well worth a visit when you’re in the area. The three-storey building has one of the largest art collections in the Gulf region, and its permanent exhibition shows modern and contemporary Arab art. With free admission and an exciting programme, it’s a good place to discover prominent artists from the Arab world, and the impressive building also holds an art library.