At midday on April 6, in Jerusalem, Jack Persekian was informed by a phone call from a colleague at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) that he had been removed as the organization’s director because of the content of a work in the Sharjah Biennial. The emirate of Sharjah’s official news agency WAM reported that Persekian’s dismissal came as a direct order from Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.
The tenth edition of the Sharjah Biennial, the Foundation’s primary international event, had opened less than three weeks earlier on March 16. Curated by Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, “Plot for a Biennial,” contained numerous works that addressed regional politics and 20th-century revolutionary movements, echoing the popular protests that are sweeping North Africa and West Asia.
The official reason for Persekian’s dismissal, however, is limited to the content of an artwork by Algerian artist-activist Mustapha Benfodil, Maportaliche/Ecritures sauvages (“It Has No Importance/Wild Writings”) (2011). The installation, situated inside a graffiti-covered open-air courtyard in the Heritage Area of Sharjah with a soundtrack of blaring Maghreb hip-hop, featured 23 headless mannequins facing off like two football teams, with portions of text in English and Arabic, written by Benfodil himself or taken from Algerian popular culture, printed on the back of their jerseys. Though there were many transgressive passages, the artist confirmed in a statement that the T-shirt with the monologue “The Soliloquy of Sherifa,” taken from his play Les Borgnes (“The One-Eyed People”), was what caused offense. A portion of the text printed on the T-shirt in Maportaliche/Ecritures Sauvages reads:
With each breath of the wind
I saw a hand lay on my panties
And rip my hymen five hundred times
Every night was a sharp body raid
Vaginal sacrifices for lustful gods
My nights were haunted by the cries of all those virgins that they had
With the penetrating words of Allah
The sperm of his Prophets
And the saliva of his apostles
[. . . ]
Benfodil describes the text as a “hallucinatory account of a young woman’s rape by fanatic jihadists claiming to be of the same radical Islamism experienced in my country at the culminating point of the Civil War in the 1990s.”
A public complaint that the work was an attack on Islam was filed to the Foundation on the evening of April 5, and by the morning of April 6 the foundation had removed Benfodil’s piece. The walls of the courtyard were completely repainted by April 7, at the time of this video.
Local sources told AAP that the outcry likely came from the many Emirati families who were attending a heritage festival in April in the historical neighborhood where the biennial’s exhibition spaces and Sharjah Art Museum are located.
No official notice from the Foundation’s president, or any other member of the SAF was sent to Benfodil, who found out about the removal of his work in an email from Rasha Salti. Neither Persekian nor the SAF has publicly defended the content of his installation or his right to freedom of expression.
In his statement released on April 8, entitled “Because art is free to be impolite . . .”, Benfodil defended his work:
“This [the graphic account of a young girl’s rape] has been interpreted as an attack against Islam. Allow me to clarify that Sherifa’s complaint refers to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally liberticidal god. It is the god of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, this sinister sect which has raped, violated, massacred, tens of thousands of Sherifa in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by the Coraniq ethics. Without wanting to justify myself, I must simply underline that my own Allah has nothing to do with the devastating destructive divinities claimed by the Algerian millenarian movements, those legions of Barbarian Beards who have decimated my people with the active complicity of our security apparatus.”
Persekian’s first comments about his dismissal, made to the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National on April 7, were: “It was foolish of me, I had not looked at it carefully because I couldn’t, there were so many works and so many things to produce—films and books and publications and videos, a million things I didn’t go through. I’m not in the habit of checking everything, and people just didn’t like what they saw in that work and took it out on me personally.”
In the days before the show’s opening in mid-March, Persekian himself removed one of the works from the Biennial, a film by the American-Iranian director Caveh Zahedi that Persekian described as offensive, given the many children who play in the plaza outside the Sharjah Art Museum. In that case, the Foundation had been advised by its legal counsel that the work might run foul of local blasphemy laws because it showed children kneeling to pray while a Bollywood song was playing in the film’s soundtrack. Some artists in the Biennial were critical of the last-minute decision and of commissioning Zahedi in the first place, but few have seen the purposefully provocative film. The SAF, which paid $15,000 for the work’s production, is trying to block the film from ever being shown publicly and asked that all copies be destroyed so that no one involved in the film will face prosecution in Sharjah.
The Biennial opened in a season of regional restiveness, and just one day after UAE police were sent into Bahrain together with Saudi troops to assist with suppressing a popular uprising there. On the morning of the official opening and press conference, which Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed attended, Ibrahim Quraishi (an artist not involved in the Biennial) organized a small protest, distributing small signs of the names of those killed in Bahrain. Security forces stopped the protest within minutes. Co-curators Salti and Aivazian were taken in for questioning but had nothing to do with the protest, and were released later in the day. Persekian had assured ArtAsiaPacific on April 6, just hours before his dismissal, that the controversy about the protest had blown over and had been forgotten.
Over the weekend of April 8–10, there were attempts by the SAF’s staff to have Persekian’s dismissal reversed, to no avail. Friends of several members of the foundation’s team have told AAP that key staffers on the curatorial team have already quit in protest, though their resignations have not been accepted by the SAF. A Foundation spokesperson, replying to the questions posed by the National, denied there had been any staff departures.
The co-curators of “Plot for a Biennial” released two statements over the same weekend. In a letter dated April 7, Salti and Aivazian expressed their “distress at the summary dismissal” of Persekian, and they took responsibility for the selection and display of the works:
“All contention on the selection, display and production regarding the biennial’s works of art should be addressed to the curators of the exhibition, as we carry the burden of responsibility immediately. All attacks, contriving ill-intention from the work of art, aimed at delegitimizing Mr. Persekian’s exemplary directorship, stellar professional achievements and contribution at making Sharjah a serious international platform for the arts, are unfounded and purposefully misleading. They amount to character assassination and impute, unjustly ill-motives to an innocent man who has dedicated his career to seeking productive dialogue between varying ways of thinking.”
Suzanne Cotter released her own remarks, expressing “deep regret at the dismissal of Jack Persekian” and offering her support for her co-curators. The two statements implicitly exonerate Cotter from any involvement in the selection of the artist, which is perhaps a strategic move on her part to stay away from the controversy, as she is also the curator of exhibitions for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—which, though only in its planning and construction phase, is embroiled in an international outcry and artists’ boycott over the labor practices of Saadiyat Island’s developers.
The comments also contradict the three curators’ shared insistence, just weeks earlier during a walk-through of the Biennial, that there was no division of labor between them and that all decisions about the selection of artworks had been mutual and collaborative. Those public comments—typical for the curatorial team of a mega-exhibition—were themselves contrary to several artists’ reports of having been in contact only either with Cotter or Salti and Aivazian. In an email response to questions from AAP, Benfodil confirmed that he had only been in touch with Salti and Aivazian, whom he praised as “absolutely courageous, committed and professional” and who, “at no moment required me to do anything or set any restrictions.”
Persekian’s dismissal has angered and disappointed many in the regional and international art community. He is a longtime supporter of regional artists, beginning with his exhibitions of international and Palestinian artists at Anadiel Gallery in Jerusalem in the 1990s and later at the Jerusalem nonprofit al-Ma’mal. After curating the seventh edition of the Biennial in 2006, Persekian was offered the position of the Foundation’s director. During this tenure, he raised the Sharjah Biennial’s profile by involving international curators and a better roster of regional and international artists. Persekian was instrumental in expanding the Biennial into the SAF, which along with organizing the festival, supports artist residencies, the production of artworks and publications, and the annual March Meeting, a conference of artists and arts professionals from North Africa and West, South and Central Asia.
Prior to the announcement and the removal of Benfodil’s work, the SAF was esteemed as one of the most active and progressive institutions in the region, all the more exceptional for its location in the religiously conservative emirate of Sharjah. For years, Persekian and the Foundation had successfully negotiated between the free speech of artists supported by the Foundation—almost none of whom are UAE citizens—and Sharjah’s government.
The organization was believed to be sheltered from excessive political meddling in part because the Sultan’s daughter Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi is the SAF’s president. The Sheikha, who studied at London’s Royal College of Art, is known to have had a particularly strong working relationship with Persekian, who acted as her advisor and mentor. She was reportedly in London at the time he was dismissed and did not comment for more than a week.
In her first public statement on April 13, Hoor al-Qasimi defended the actions of the Foundation in agreeing to remove Benfodil’s artwork after “the public took enormous offense.” She cited the work’s problematic content and its position in a public courtyard, “where children play after school,” as well as its proximity to a mosque, as the reason for its dismantling. And she firmly criticized the content of the work, as well as the Foundation’s staff: “This work paired language that was sexually explicit with religious references in an overt and provocative manner. Like all organizations that present art in the public realm, it is the duty of the presenters of the art to work closely with the artist to determine if said work is suitable to the public context. In this case, this due diligence did not occur. Mr. Persekian has publically [sic] accepted responsibility for his failure to have seen the work in question. As those who work with the not-for-profit or government arts sector understand, the duty of due diligence and proper governance rests with the office of Director.”
The Sheikha’s statement later refers to another work whose audio component was altered so as not to coincide with the azaan, the call to prayer. She also revealed that another work was “inadvertently altered in the aftermath of the public’s negative response to Benfodil’s adjacent installation.” UAE residents suggested to AAP that the former was likely the audio component of a piece by Trisha Donnelly, which is also located in a nearby outdoor courtyard. In the courtyard of a building near the SAF, Ramin Haerizadeh’s large black cube, a temporary structure erected to house his installation of collages and neon sculptures, Beware of This Artist (2010), has reportedly been painted white, perhaps to deter any association between the cubic structure and the Kaaba, to which it has a strong visual likeness.
In an email to AAP, a public relations representative for the SAF confirmed that unspecified photographs with possible sexual content were briefly removed by technicians, but that the SAF’s management directed them to be re-installed. The same spokesperson declined to confirm or deny that it was either Donnelly or Haerizadeh’s pieces that had been altered, or name the photographs that had been taken down temporarily, “out of respect for the artists.”
Persekian’s ouster has artists, curators and others involved in the regional art scene gravely concerned about the Biennial and Foundation’s future. Given the summary dismissal of Persekian, a comparable, qualified replacement will be difficult, if not impossible, to find. Out of respect to Persekian, as well as concern about their own potential longevity in the role, candidates for the job are likely to be few. The expected departure of angered staff members will further hamper the organization’s ability to pull together next year’s March Meeting or the 2013 edition of the Biennial.
The SAF’s uncertain future will have unfortunate consequences for artists around the region. Its production fund enabled many ambitious, experimental works to be created that otherwise would not be, given the commercially inclined preferences of many regional galleries and the timorousness of most regional museums. The Sharjah Biennial and the March Meeting are also important platforms for artists of West, South and Central Asia to connect with one another and exhibit alongside their European and American peers.
A petition entitled the “Sharjah Call for Action” condemns the removal of Persekian: It explains that “[We] are deeply alarmed by the worrying and dangerous shift by those occupying positions of power in the Emirate with regards to artistic and intellectual expression. These actions set a deplorable precedent, one that may further legitimate institutional and self-censorship. Both of which we strongly oppose.” The two curators, Salti also vehemently decried the censorship of Benfodil’s work without any opportunity for discussion or negotiation.
The “Sharjah Call for Action” also proposes for a boycott of the Sharjah Biennial and the SAF. As of writing, there are more than 1,500 signatories. Salti and Aivazian were among the first to add their names, which led to the erroneous report that they had organized the effort, which they deny. Many of the artists in the current biennial were also among the first signatories, including Walid Raad, Rayyane Tabet, Naeem Mohaiemen, Melik Ohanian, Emily Jacir and Jumana Emil Abboud. Leaders of regional organizations have also signed on, including such as Christie Tohme of the Beirut nonprofit Ashkal Alwan, artist and Beirut Art Center director Lamia Joreige, ArteEast’s (co-sponsor of the 2010 March Meeting with the SAF) director Livia Alexander, and Claudia Cellini of Dubai’s Third Line Gallery. Nearly all of the comments on the petition pay tribute to the work that Persekian has done for the Foundation and contemporary art of the whole region.
The Sharjah Art Foundation itself has officially criticized the petition as “deliberately misinforming the public.” On April 13, Persekian released a short statement saying, “I have not authorized the online petition that has been launched in my name by certain people associated with the Sharjah Art Foundation. I am not an advocate of boycotting any institutions to effect changes in the Middle East art scene. I have always believed in the benefits of respectful dialogue and routine interactions to effect change. Those personal beliefs still apply today and going forward into the future for the Sharjah Art Foundation and its artists.”
Suzanne Cotter followed up on April 15 with another short statement urging that more attention be paid to the SAF’s achievements under Hoor al-Qasimi and Persekian in supporting regional artists: “The freedoms they make manifest, both real and longed-for, and their ability to negotiate the complexities of individual and collective experience is a reminder of their necessity in these tumultuous times.”
Salti and Aivazian released a final statement on April 17, expressing their regret that their curatorial endeavors at starting dialogue about the region had been overshadowed by the explosive controversy. “It is deeply disheartening to witness the biennial’s complexities, poetics and considerations overcast by this crisis, and its bold proposals contrived to the service of shock value. To shock was never our strategy, and offense never our intention.”
Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi closed her April 13 statement with the assurance that “our mission continues.” Whether in fact the SAF can carry out its mandate having alienated so many important and respected players in the region’s closely knit art scene—among them, Persekian, Salti and artists and curators upset by the official censorship—will be closely watched in the months to come. For now, there is no indication how the Sharjah Art Foundation will repair the rift with the art scene that it is supposed to support and showcase, or how it will fill the vacancy left by Persekian’s removal.