Sharjah Art Foundation: 'What is not' displays Khalil Al Rabah's most comprehensive work

The exhibition brings together the artist’s most significant works from the 1990s to the present


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Published: Wed 20 Apr 2022, 3:31 PM

Last updated: Wed 20 Apr 2022, 3:32 PM

Are you an art enthusiast who enjoys history and humour? If yes, then 'What is not' is just for you. The most comprehensive presentation of Khalil Rabah’s work, 'What is not', is on display till July 4 at the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, the exhibition brings together the artist’s most significant works from the 1990s to the present.

The exhibition presents an overview of his ongoing projects and major evolutions in their development. They include the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, Riwaq Biennale (RB), Scale Models and Collaborations: by in form, a new work commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.

'What is not' focuses on a selection of the artist’s significant ongoing and evolving works created since the 1990s. Emerging from his deep involvement and background in architecture, Rabah’s work draws on different methodologies to engage with themes of displacement, memory and identity to examine the relationship between humans and their surroundings as well as the nature of the global human condition.

With an approach that informs much of his practice, the artist has continually researched, revisited, revised and reimagined a body of work that questions the relationship between art and cultural institutions, and their ability to create meaningful content, particularly in the context of long-standing states of emergency and displacement.

"The ongoing investigations and research that inform Khalil Rabah’s work offer alternative histories and narratives that, while rooted in the deeply personal experiences of the artist in Palestine, are of fundamental relevance to broader examinations of the roles and responsibilities of cultural institutions that are taking place around the world today," Hoor Al Qasimi, says.

"It has been rewarding to work again with the artist who has, over the years, made important contributions to our programmes, including his commissions for Sharjah Biennials 10 and 13, elements of which are represented in this current survey."

A major new work, Collaborations: by in form (2010–present) commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation for this exhibition, conceptualises a collaboration between two of the artist’s long-term projects—the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind (1995–2025) and the Riwaq Biennale (2006–present), both also on view in the exhibition.

This new project is a three-storey structure representing Rabah’s unfinished home in Ramallah. It includes an installation of five geometric islands on the floor, constructed of unglazed tiles, each representing the plan of a room in a traditional domestic space. Suspended from the gallery ceiling, a selection of hand-embroidered carpets represents the site plans of village homes, coloured with the dyes of the flora that once surrounded them.


The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind is a major ongoing project that took root in 1995, was formalised in 2003, and is presented in this exhibition as nine topical divisions.

This multi-platform enquiry into the museumisation of the geography and history of Palestine traces alternative lineages of material culture to identity making, and addresses systemised erasure of the Palestinian narrative. The presentation at the Foundation includes projects that either led up to the formation of the museum or were instigated by it.

More significantly, it also presents the reimagination of taxonomical activities which originate in traditional natural history categorisations. So, the Earth and Solar System, Anthropology, Geology and Paleontology and the Botanical Departments evolve into The lowest point on earth memorial park (2017), Acampamento Villa Nova Palestina (2017), Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garden (2017–2021) and Area C Fields of Gold (1994–2017) respectively.

Rabah has created a section for this exhibition, the third edition of the 5th Riwaq Biennale. The third edition is a conjured number as there is no second edition of RB5: it is meant to create value through the illusion of an historical past. This section brings together major works created by the artist for or about the biennale since 2006, representing a critical inquiry into the nature of biennales, including the function and utility of the biennale and whether its role worked in congruence with architectural conservation and rehabilitation efforts.

Scale Models exemplifies the artist’s method of representing institutions by combining archival research, artefacts and artwork across mediums. For his Sharjah Biennial 10 commission Art Exhibition: Readymade Representations 1954–2009 (2011), Rabah began what is now an ongoing project where photorealistic paintings documenting Palestinian exhibition histories, provoke a multi-dimensional reading of international art world events. In this new solo exhibition at the Foundation, the work appears again as Art Exhibition: Readymade representations 2010–2014 (2022) comprising over 50 paintings from two series alongside a single-channel video. It includes paintings documenting the reception of his 2011 project in Sharjah, installed in a small gallery where the work is viewable through a vitrine-like window from the building’s exterior.

Alongside this installation is a video work with footage taken during Rabah’s presentation of these same paintings at the 2013 Thessaloniki Biennial, documenting biennial audiences in Greece viewing paintings of the audiences at Sharjah Biennial 10, while the original paintings are visible in the background.

In addition to his commission for Sharjah Beinnial 10, Rabah’s engagement with Sharjah Art Foundation has included presentations in the 2012 March Meeting, followed by a residency in 2014, participation in the group exhibition The Time is out of Joint in 2016, and a new commission for Sharjah Biennial 13 Palestine after Palestine: New sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind

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