SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates
AS American ground troops were entering Baghdad last month, a risk-taking international art exhibition opened here on the Persian Gulf, roughly 400 miles south of Iraq.

The sixth Sharjah Biennial, which closes Thursday, has differed from its predecessors in many respects, most having little to do with the distant war. It was marked by a regime change of its own, as a new director - a 23-year-old female art student, no less - attempted to transform a quiet local art show into an exhibition of cutting-edge work by a global retinue of artists.

"It was a great challenge," conceded the director, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi.

Never mind that this was the first exhibition she organized. The real challenge was to represent current international art practices without running afoul of Shariah, the Islamic code that governs most aspects of daily life here, and the local censorship council that enforces it. Of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai with its glittering hotels and shopping malls, Sharjah is among the most conservative. Business and errands are conducted around calls to prayer, and practices tolerated elsewhere in the country - like the sale of alcohol - are forbidden here. Many images commonplace in art magazines simply would not
play well in Sharjah.
As she spoke about the biennial, Sheikha Hoor fidgeted with the headscarf of her burka. "I'm afraid I'm out of the habit of wearing these," she said apologetically, in a British accent. She was sitting in the Sharjah Art Museum's new cafe, created at her behest for the exhibition.
Having recently completed her undergraduate degree at London's Royal Academy of Arts, Sheikha Hoor was appointed director last October when her complaints about the limitations of the five previous biennials led her father to suggest that she do something about it.
The Sheikha's father is Sheikh Sultan bin MohammeD al-Qasimi, who since 1972 has been the ruler of Sharjah. Under his patronage, Sharjah has emerged as the cultural center of this oil-rich country, with several museums dedicated to art and history, ranging from a touristy heritage center to the marble halls of the Sharjah Art Museum.
"At first, I was made a member of the biennial's organizing committee," she said. "I was much younger than the rest, and the only woman, so my voice was not really heard. Then I was made head of the committee, but still, I was not heard. Finally, the committee was dissolved, and I was
named director."
Now that her voice had been heard, she had less than five months to create an international exhibition from scratch. The sheikha turned to British friends. Peter Lewis, a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, agreed to curate the biennial and tapped colleagues with expertise in specific areas. Working from several locations, the organizers sought to transform a biennial that had ignored contemporary practice in favor of late modernist styles, as realized by local artists.
"Bringing the biennial into the international fold was a very bold move," Mr. Lewis said. "Sheikha Hoor may be young, but she sees art from the perspective of an artist, and her intuitions are very good. My job, really, was to help her to realize those intuitions."
The resulting exhibition - titled "Art in a Changing Horizon: Globalization and New Aesthetic Practice" - is an ambitious undertaking. Handsomely installed at the Sharjah Art Museum and the city's expansive new Expo Center, it is much larger than previous biennials. Culled from more than 2,000 submissions, and bolstered by numerous invited artists, it includes 116 participants from more than two dozen nations.
It is touted as the first exhibition to put artists of the Persian Gulf region into an international context emphasizing new media. While some artists here have long created installations and videos, among other recent forms, those media have not been widely embraced by curators or
critics. Museums here have virtually no track record in showcasing such art.
The biennial is strong in art from Great Britain and the Middle East, with a smart selection of artists from Europe and China. But the United States seems an afterthought, with roughly a dozen artists offering a scattershot perspective on American contemporary art.
The Palestinians are represented by several artists working on political themes, ranging from Rula Halawani's grisly and strident photographs of Israeli forces in Ramallah last year to Rashid Masharawi's video, commissioned for the biennial, in which a woman hums and knits in a leaky room as she contemplates the Israeli flag outside her window.
In an exhibition so inclusive of Middle Eastern artists, the absence of art from Israel, which the Emirates do not recognize as a state, stands out. "It is a regrettable circumstance," Sheikha Hoor said.
While American artists are few, the American landscape is a frequent subject. The British artists Charlotte Cullinan and Jeanine Richard, who collaborate under the name Art Lab, recorded a languid drive through the Mississippi Delta in the weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, as if finding
solace in a road trip.
Wolfgang Staehle of Germany offers a more discomfiting view of the attacks. In September 2001, he trained a Webcam on lower Manhattan with a live feed projected onto the walls of Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea. By chance, the camera transmitted the destruction of the World Trade Center
towers. Here the 24 hours of Sept. 11 are presented in real time, with a new image uploaded every minute or so.
Given the organizers' emphasis on new media, it is no surprise that video is a favored medium. William Kentridge of South Africa took top honors in the juried awards for "Zeno Writing," an elegiac black-and-white animated video infused with images of war and nationalism.
But whimsy is more often the tone. Appropriating dozens of movie scenes in which falling hands grasp at ledges, Derek Ogbourne of Britain creates 25 minutes of perpetual
apprehension. Similarly, Guillaume Paris of the Ivory Coast isolates bits of cartoons so that falling characters never land, explosions become abstract compositions and Pinocchio
drowns, never to become a real boy. Mr. Paris's work drew laughter from some of the children visiting the exhibition, although they were just as perplexed as most of the adults by some videos, like those of Franz Wasserman, in which he bit the heads off bugs and covered his own head in adhesive tape.
Takayuki Yamamoto of Japan taught Sharjah schoolchildren how to appear to bend spoons through telekinesis. Seen on video, they stare down the utensils with convincing aplomb. "People told me I was crazy to come here now," Mr. Yamamoto said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many visiting
artists. He added: "Everyone is talking about the war. It's interesting that people here see it as something on CNN, just like at home."
Zain Mustafa, who was born in Pakistan and lives in New Mexico, asked participants in an American antiwar rally to write messages for people in the Middle East on cotton kurtas. These Pakistani shirts and their messages are displayed on a clothesline, arrayed by size, from child to XL.
The organizers permitted protest about the war. But keen to avoid controversy in an exhibition that was already taking considerable aesthetic risks, they asked that artists new to the region be sensitive to local norms. Although popular culture here is inundated with the suggestive imagery of
American movies and Indian soap operas, museums are more circumspect, refraining from the display of nudes or other subjects that might give offense. At the curator's request, several artists willingly removed or altered work.
Nobuho Nagasawa of Japan withdrew a proposal involving a Muslim prayer rug. Howard McCalebb, from New York, covered the genitals on a reproduction of a Leonardo da Vinci nude that was part of an installation.
The Chinese conceptualist Chen Lingyang was asked to remove photographs and a video depicting her nude body and gentials as she menstruated.She complied, but in a way that suggested lessons learned about censorship in her native Beijing. The photographs were locked in a case with a chalk inscription reading, "The way to allow the works of Chen Linyang to be exhibited in the biennial is by locking them in this Arabic traditional case."
Other artists took umbrage. Philippe Terrier-Hermann of France submitted a video, titled "Romans," which included a rough seduction scene ending with a passionate kiss. It was certain to be questionable under Shariah law, which forbids public kissing, and was removed on the opening night.
Mr. Terrier-Hermann said a government official scratched the DVD of "Romans," effectively ruining it. "They explained that it was censored because you could see a deep French kiss," he said, adding, "I respect their position, but I believe that if they call this biennial `international,' they have to accept the art we see in Europe."
Mr. Lewis suggested other motives might have been at work. "Some of the artists took this question of cultural sensitivity and responded badly, in an adolescent fashion," he said. "Philippe Terrier-Hermann told me there was nothing objectionable in his video but a light kiss, which misrepresented it entirely. Just as we wanted to avoid controversies, there are those who seek them out."
By treading lightly, the organizers hoped to make a case that international art could coexist with local customs. There is a commitment to increasing the presence of contemporary art in Sharjah: Sheikha Hoor plans to turn an idle power plant into a contemporary art museum, a project
she will oversee while in graduate school in London, and during the biennial Sheikh Sultan Mohammed presided over the opening of a new art college, administered in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Arts.
Among the students will be the sculptor Kareema Al-Shomali, the sole woman from the Emirates represented in the biennial. An accountant and mother of four in her late 30's, Ms. Shomali is self taught. Soon she will give up her job to seek the formal education she hopes will make her a
more professional artist. And she hopes to take part in the seventh biennial, already being planned by Sheikha Hoor and Mr. Lewis.
"The biennial must be changed," she said. "If we keep it as it was, it will not be international. This is better," she continued, gesturing at the art around her. "This will stay in mind."   

Grady T. Turner is a critic and curator based in New