Derelict ice factory in the desert transformed into UAE’s newest contemporary art venue

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Surrounded by a desert tundra, it was once used to store ice. Now, the Kalba Ice Factory has been transformed into the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) latest cultural institution.

The factory is located in the southern outskirts of Kalba, an ancient city on Sharjah’s eastern coastline. It was built in the 1970s and originally used as a mill for fish feed and a storage place for the ice that would transport freshly caught fish to Dubai, 120km away.

Now newly restored, it will open just in time for the 2023 edition of the Sharjah Biennial, which has risen to become one of the most significant contemporary art festivals in the Middle East.

The biennial, which opens to the public on 7 February, is titled Thinking Historically in the Present. It was conceived by Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian curator and art historian, and is curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi. The daughter of Sharjah’s Emir, Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, she founded the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2009 after witnessing Enwezor’s acclaimed curation of Documenta in 2002.

In repurposing the factory, Al Qasimi was committed to “preserving the industrial rawness of the factory space and protecting the unique ecosystem of the surrounding landscape”, she said in a statement.

Before its renovation, the gutted factory was used as an informal venue for recent editions of the Sharjah Biennial, mostly recently as the setting for performance pieces like the South African artist Mohau Modisakeng’s Land of Zanj, a centrepiece of the 2019 iteration.

The architecture studio 51-1 Arquitectos, based in Lima, Peru, were commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2020 to refurbish the abandoned factory. “[They] did so with the minimum level of intervention to allow temporary art installations in its naves without losing its powerful spatial qualities as an industrial ruin,” Al Qasimi says.

With this brief, 51-1 Arquitectos have created a 20,000 sq. m exhibition space. Carved into the factory’s interiors are studios, workshops and living spaces which will allow visiting artists to undertake residency programmes. The restoration has encompassed the local environment too; the factory is located next to Kalba Creek, which is now a designated mangrove sanctuary called the Al Qurm Nature Reserve. Resting on the shores of the Gulf of Oman and close to the Hajar mountain range, the sanctuary is home to rare species of birds, mammals and reptiles. At certain times of the year, endangered green turtles can be seen nesting on the nearby beaches.

The 2023 edition of the Sharjah Biennial runs 7 February to 11 June. The factory will play host to newly created work by artists Rebecca Belmore, Ibrahim Mahama, Pak Khawateen Painting Club, Doris Salcedo, Abdulrahim Salem, Kahurangiariki Smith, Inuuteq Storch and Nari Ward.

• Listen to a discussion about the 2023 Sharjah Biennial on The Week in Art podcast here

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