We arrived at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) on a hot Saturday afternoon, to experience the SAF Urban Garden. We navigated through a maze of pathways of stunning clean modern structures with rugged coral walls that house the various exhibitions for the Sharjah Biennale.It’s a great place to wander about if you’re interested in art and want to be outdoors. One of the pathways opened into a courtyard, which happened to be an art installation/children’s activity called ‘XYZ’ by Eduardo Navarro. The SAF urban garden is located right next this on the left.
The Urban Garden was conceptualized as a community space to encourage collaborations between artists, landscape architects and people from the community. Discussions started in September2013 about the function and workings of the garden. It was officially opened in March 2014 with a market and lots of people. Flyers were distributed everywhere, including the neighboring Souk Al Arsa to get the local community involved. The garden was popular among visitors for a couple of months until the harsh summer took over, after which the heat made working outdoors impossible. Things picked up again in October, and the garden has bloomed in double since its inception. This seasonal cycle allows opportunities for varied types of activities all year round.
The space is enclosed on all sides by the walls of an old traditional Emirati house, Bait Al Hamdan Bin Mousa. This serves as an ideal location for the garden but also came with its challenges. For example, the floor of the house is concrete and requires great efforts to be dug up. Only a few trees have managed to take root here. Most of the planting therefore is done on plant beds made of concrete blocks, palettes, tyres, etc.
The garden was inspired by free-to-all, community gardens from around the world. A community garden is basically a piece of land collectively owned and gardened by a group of people. They provide fresh produce and also neighborhood improvement by creating a sense of community and connection to environment. The budget for this project was limited as it should be for community projects. This encouraged them to reuse reclaimed materials like tires, palettes etc. creatively.
At present, the team is trying to create a programme that can be sustained all year round. Apart from gardening, they want to encourage the space to be utilized for workshops and events by the community. There have also been educational programmes for children such as gardening workshops, scarecrow making workshops, painting crates and creating labels for the produce. Another challenge is dealing with removing the psychological and cultural barriers that come along with sharing a community space. The community to which it is most accessible might not be interested or motivated enough to participate.
As for our experience, walking into the garden was a delight. There is a burst of colour from the flower beds and paintings. It is in stark contrast to the rest of the art spaces which are sober and mellow. We took the opportunity to soak up the sun with a bit of painting at the workshop they were currently hosting. They have sun umbrellas and fans to keep the space cool. It is definitely a great initiative, quite novel to the region. It is a step outside the trend of mall culture and all the activities surrounding it. We look forward to future events in this space and encourage others to visit it too. The staff at SAF Urban Garden encourages anyone to walk in and participate and are open to discuss ideas with garden enthusiasts for future events and activities.