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Boat Rocking in the Art Islands: Politics, Plots and Dismissals in Sharjah's Tenth Biennial

[ ["Maportaliche/It Has No Importance" by Mustapha Benfodil. Image courtesy of the artist]

On April 6th, Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Director of the Sharjah Biennial was summarily dismissed by Sharjah ruler Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi. The Foundation is the umbrella organization that oversees the reputed Biennial. The reason, according to the Foundation’s statement, was the “public outcry” in response to a work exhibited in the Biennial. Although initially left unidentified, within days it became clear that the main work at the centre of the controversy was Algerian artist and writer Mustapha Benfodil’s work entitled “Maportaliche/Ecritures Sauvages” (It Has No Importance/Wild Writings). Benfodil’s piece, installed as part of the “Plot for a Biennial” show consisted of an installation of mannequins in football uniforms emblazoned with Arabic phrases that were deemed blasphemous. In the piece, two teams of mannequins sat in a public space in Sharjah’s Heritage area. The first team wore white shirts imprinted with the artist’s own literary texts. Included in the prints was a monologue from Benfodil’s play “Les Borgnes” which takes place in a mental institution and which recounts a young woman’s experience of kidnap and rape during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. The second team wore green and red gear, the Algerian flag’s colors and contained texts borrowed from Algerian pop culture: jokes, recipes, proverbs, and folk songs. In the sound part of the installation the artist used recent recordings of protests that took place in Algeria as part of the “Arab Spring” which began this past winter.

To explain the removal of Benfodil's piece, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the Founder and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation stated that it was "sited in a very public courtyard, a place where children play after school, where families wander together on the weekend and where people pass on their way to religious services at the neighboring mosque. This work paired language that was sexually explicit with religious references in an overt and provocative manner." According to Benfodil, however, the sound part of the installation, which gives the effect of an actual revolt taking place in Sharjah, and the graffiti of slogans referencing the protests that took place in Tunisia and Egypt also contributed to the decision to censor his work.[i] In either case, Persekian’s immediate reaction to his dismissal in response to the “public outcry” over the work he oversaw was apologetic. As he told the UAE paper The National: "It was very foolish of me, I had not looked at it [the piece] carefully because I couldn't. There were so many works."[ii] The Director’s comments leave little room to ponder whether he would have included the piece had he given it the consideration it needed.   Within 48 hours of the dismissal individuals who had been part of the Biennial preparatory team drew up a petition. The petition declared that the international and local art community condemned the unwarranted dismissal of the Sharjah Art Foundation Director and the censorship of artworks in the Sharjah Biennial. Further, it stated that the decision to let the Directors go is “incommensurable and disproportionate with the alleged charges brought against him and the Sharjah Art Foundation” and indicative of “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”.

The petition concluded with a pledge by signatories to boycott the Biennial, the foundation, and all cultural initiatives in Sharjah if demands for public acknowledgement and discussion of censorship are not met. The petition has since been signed by members of the local, regional, and international world of art, from artists and critics to curators and scholars. As this article went to press the number of signatories stood at 1627. Most signatory comments on the petition pertain to what is understood as the Biennial’s important role in presenting a “humane” face of the region to the world through the admirable work of Persekian; some, in being a beacon of light and progressiveness in a region of the world where it needs it; and others as having served as a cultural leader and an admirable model for what can be done through art. Also notable is the number of times the comments express shock and outrage. Signatories are shocked because in their view a well-known and respected figure in the Middle Eastern and international art scene has been arbitrarily dismissed. They are also shocked by the way in which the Biennial has been censored and the dogma that was thought to be far bygone in the UAE-and precisely in Sharjah, turned out not to be so. Many others still expressed outrage at the unilateral decision of “autocrats” and “oppressors” to end conversation, self-reflection and critical thinking in this manner. Contrary to his supporters’ enthusiasm, Persekian disavowed the petition that his colleagues drew up in his defense: "I have not authorized the online petition that has been launched in my name by certain people associated with the Sharjah Art Foundation," he has said. "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."[iii]

The dismissal and the series of events that have unfolded since are, if anything, emblematic of the very paradoxes and ironies on which the United Arab Emirates’ growing role in the international art world is built. What the incident and its surrounding controversy embodies and bluntly accentuates most of all is the sometimes uncomfortable yet always symbiotic relationship between art and the politics that brings it into being. The dismissal and all that has revolved around it is also, arguably, the post-1990 contemporary Arab art world’s most challenging moment to date. For what is at stake here are issues that pertain to art’s presumed civilizing mission, its tool in cultural diplomacy and its role in what has been termed the “humanity game”, in reference to “universalist assumptions about humanity and the agentive capacity of art to build bridges of understanding in contexts of so-called civilizational conflict.”[iv] Overall the recent events compel us to confront--yet again--the discomforts that come with reflexively thinking about the role of art and its relationship to culture and the society in which it plays out. Moreover, at a time of revolutionary fervour, old equations and accepted norms are being actively scrutinized and radically challenged: the Arab world’s most important contemporary art festival and the logic on which it ran is also turned on its head.

Persekian’s distancing from the petition drawn out in his defence is in reality in tune with the rationale on which his position at the Foundation and on which the Foundation itself has stood. Censorship and art have a long history in democratic and non-democratic settings alike. It plays out in different forms and on many levels. Persekian himself was acutely aware of this. Speaking of his personal experience on the matter to date with the Lebanese Daily Star in 2008 he had this to say: “Nudity has always been an issue, even though I could see some artists pushing the limits. This is my second time around for the biennial and I have never seen any official come around interfering with what we present. But when the director, Hoor al-Qasimi, and I see that there is something that might infringe on local sensitivities, we have a discussion with the artist and leave it up to him or her to decide how to deal with it.”[v] The statement suggests that Persekian has long been aware that the possibility of censorship was constant, even if negotiable. The petition drawn out in his defense stakes a claim in the debate on censorship by expressing anger at not having been able to converse with the censors before the decision was made: “ [it] is very unfortunate that there has not been a more open and mutual exchange, a position which has previously garnered Sharjah much respect from artists, cultural practitioners and intellectuals the world over.”  Following this logic, what is considered “local public cultural sensitivities” by the petition and the Foundation alike in the context of Sharjah becomes framed by the nuances that intricately define a supposedly complex situation like this. In such a context, “discussions” over censorship end up afloat in a sea of relativist language, discourses, and rationale. Here the focus shifts from debating the principle of censorship itself to the extent or limits of censorship. Questions that immediately arise include how one negotiates the role of censorship in a place where the very act of censoring is enshrined as a necessary cultural norm and a social value by regime and society alike. Additionally, the question of where one draws the line between supposedly agreed-upon social values based on local cultural sensitivities and violent acts of suppression in the name of “cultural relativism” becomes ever more pressing.

Some artists have been disappointed with what they perceive as Parsekian’s decision not to lend his support to Benfodil or to compromise on the uncompromising values that link freedom and art. Yet because of his unwritten (or written) contract with his boss, the ruler of Sharjah, Persekian was unable or perhaps even unwilling to stick his neck out for the artist at the centre of this controversy. Quite ironically for some of us watching the events unfold, Persekian was actually consistent in his actions and role throughout. Further, it seems probable that it was the international art world elite that did not stick by its own end of the bargain. Going in to “contract” with the United Arab Emirates in order to build an industrial-type complex for contemporary art entails, one would assume, an acknowledgement of the fact that the UAE is a dictatorship-albeit an arguably benevolent one with a veneer of civility about it. Presumably, this acknowledgment would then consider what such a context implies for art making, exhibiting, and criticism, should one party “stray” from the terms of the “social contract” drawn by the rulers.

Only recently, the UAE responded to a request made of the Gulf Cooperation Council by Bahrain’s Sunni rulers to send in troops to participate in the crackdown on the majority Shia population protesting the repressive regime. The UAE also lent support to Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt until just before his forced resignation. In so doing, it has made very clear, once again, its position regarding the forces of change sweeping across the region. As has recently been noted in Foreign Policy, a chance was lost when questions were not asked that should have been about the UAE’s role in Bahrain by world leading institutions, many of which are based in democratic states that cooperate closely with the current regime in return for hefty wealth transfers.[vi] For the UAE's rulers draw legitimacy from the external links and financial interests shared with many in the international community, which have the effect of sanctioning much of the regime’s policies. Included in this implicitly supportive international community are the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and other world-class museums and galleries that that are increasingly establishing a presence in the country in spite of the petitions and protests that have been voiced by artists over the working conditions of those laborers building these new institutions.

But perhaps the story here is in the parts more than the whole. After all, powerful non-democratic nations do invest in art as a marker of ‘civilization and humanity’ the way democratic ones do. For instance, one of Iran’s prized collections is often described as the most important collection of modern western art located outside of the art capitals of Europe and the United States. The collection was accumulated in a relatively short space of time, by Farah Pahlavi, the former Iranian Shah’s wife as part of the opening of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979 (the same year of the Iranian revolution). It includes works by Bacon, Picasso, Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein and Warhol. Yet in the eyes of cynics, the Sharjah Biennial, for all the marketing by itself and its fans as a truly open space for critical dialogue on contemporary art practices, remains an autocratic regime’s futile attempt to market a humane and civilized face to the rest of the world. For the less cynical, including a significant cross-section of young Middle Eastern artists today with accessibility and the social mobility needed to engage with a significant sample of the “global” art world’s institutions, curators and critics, the Sharjah biennial provides the space and the money needed to forge a new place for art and its relationship to society. Its main contribution being in reconfiguring the artists’ traditional location in society through engaging with the most pressing social and political concerns of the day by pushing forth the artist’s role as – in the words of Persekian – “the intellectual, the critic and the avant-garde.”[vii]

But what is the significance (or not) of the Sharjah Biennial—a non-commercial initiative committed to exhibiting artwork without regard for market value and with an emphasis on art as process and critical discourse as opposed to marketable product— being based in the United Arab Emirates? And what might this fact hold in attempting to problematize the notion of the movers and shakers of the status quo in the region showcasing work and debating its critical relevance in Sharjah? The changes seen in the recent role of the Emirates as an art centre (Saadiyat Island, the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Art Dubai, Christie’s, to name the most prominent) and supporter of experimental practices in an international platform (the Sharjah Biennial) is in some sense a reflection and a culmination of the politically motivated space that has been developing in between the new markets on the one hand and the civil society formula as the conduit for international cultural diplomacy and soft power on the other. The latter has operated in the region since at least the late 1990s. It is within the framework of international cultural diplomacy that the transnationalization of contemporary arts production has been financially enabled in the parts of the Arab region that produce some of the most interesting works around which much of the Gulf art industry revolves. These countries include amongst others Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and more recently Syria and Jordan. Interestingly, owing in part to its openness to trade and commerce, Gulf cities like Dubai for instance are regarded as a necessary component in developing a regional art scene as they are places where “the sun rises,”[viii] which alludes to their unrestrained liberal economy, aggressive take on societal development, and self-appointed position as center for arts of the region. In such a context, pushing forward, under the cultural diplomacy umbrella, the establishment of local cultural and arts NGOs to enable the emergence of a specific kind of avant-garde scene becomes a regional enterprise. If seen through the role of internationally funded local cultural mediators focusing on communication, art education, and artistic training, the opportunity to have work circulated in the Emirates inextricably ties the civil society project and any potential for radicalism it holds with the unrestrained liberal market and its values.

It has been argued that in the era of neo-liberal globalization, corporate and state powers have transformed the institutions and conventions of contemporary art so as to adapt art’s social functions to the needs of the new world system.[ix] This includes above all a process of producing and exhibiting that valorizes culture within the larger remit of “cultural policy”—a professionalized form of art where some have put forth, politics becomes the art of display.[x]

When the Emirates sent in troops to aid the Bahraini government in violently quelling protesters in March, most participants in the Biennial that was proceeding simultaneously looked on in horror and felt powerless to act. During the official opening, artist Ibrahim Quraishi (not involved in the Biennial) attempted protesting along with a very small handful of people by distributing the names of those killed in Bahrain. Security forces clamped down on the artist within minutes and two of the show’s curators where taken in for questioning. But most participants went on with the business-as-usual of discussing works, networking, and accepting awards from the Sheikh. For drawing up petitions, declaring walkouts, and refusing awards has seemingly no place in the space to which they were invited as guests. The fact that there is neither a history of activism nor a developed civil society on which one can fall back during such challenging moments, makes it rather uncomfortable to make or to hear about possible forms of expression of anger. This has led to various discussions and a reaction from within the art world aimed at itself, by mocking the very idea of resisting through a petition in response to the outrage of dismissing the Sharjah Art Foundation over a contentious piece. Taking a swipe at Sharjah’s art world participants, one artist threw into to email circulation a supposed “press release” of the on-line arts journal e-flux which stated that an artistic action committee that had been set up by “born-again activists is advocating the return of more than $10,100,600 in donations Sharjah Biennial artists received from the Ruler of Sharjah this year because they now realize Ruler means Dictator."

The inability to act on the Bahrain matter in addition to the ponderous events that revolved around the petition from many signing it willingly, to some doing so grudgingly and others refusing to sign it altogether, testify to an implicit understanding that art and politics in Sharjah do not mix well. But for quite some time, art in Sharjah was deemed politically relevant, critically compelling, and intellectually charged by the biennial’s participants. The events which ensued in the aftermath of the Persekian dismissal show that the latter conception might have been accurate -- but only in so far as the art remains a field unto to itself-that is as long as it remains a product quarantined in conventional artworld structures bound by institutional artspeak. As soon as art starts its foray into society, it becomes a process with an uncontrollable capacity set in motion and the rules of the game change. Within this purview carving out that space for ‘the intellectual, the critic and the avant-garde’ which Persekian referred to becomes a difficult feat involving a constant balancing act between an aesthetics which is presumed to bear its own politics and a culture which cannot – ultimately – be excluded from the process of art.

Some of Farah Pahlavi’s modernist collection of western art was put on display when the museum first opened in 1977. But after the Shah's fall, the story goes, the collection was locked away by the Islamic government for fear of its corrupting influence. The collection has been shown either fully or in part only a few times since then. But generally the works remain in their vault only to emerge on special occasions of political pageantry. Benfodil’s piece and others that have been censored since have been locked away too, but what they probed and provoked by going “astray” might have, like Iran’s modernist collection, captured people’s imaginations. In that sense, the consequent dismissal of Persekian and the ensuing drama have set in motion a productive capacity to dismantle the conflation between intellectualism, radicalism and diplomacy that had come to pass. The Lebanese poet and critic ‘Abbas Beydoun once warned of the consequences of transforming art into a technical subject by disconnecting it from movements of protest. By not renewing its protest, art end ups living “in a time when culture becomes a secondary issue, and maybe, an additional credit for the politicians and the bureaucrats and even the priests and the mullahs.”[xi] It looks like the 10th Sharjah Biennial might have provoked a protest renewal in the Middle Eastern world of contemporary art.


[i] From an email conversation with the artist.

[ii] “Sharjah Biennial Chief Sacked Over One Work”. The National, 7 April, 2011

[iii] “Sharjah Art Foundation Defends Parsekian Firing”. Khaleej Times Online, 15 April 2011

[iv] Jessica Winegar , “Thee Humanity Game: Art, Islam and the War on Terror,” Anthropological Quarterly, Summer (2008)

[v] Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Forging a New Perception of Art and Its Function”. Daily Star, 13 June 2007

[vi] Christopher M. Davidson “The Making of a Police State”. Foreign Policy, April 14, 2011

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] “The Challenges of Artistic Exchange in the Mediterranean: Made in the Mediterranean,” in Fonds Roberto Cimetta, Fondation René Seydoux Pour Le Monde Mediterraneen, Relais Culture Europe and the European Cultural Foundation. http://www. Accessed 20 February 2009.

[ix] Stallabras, Julian. Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

[x] Leslie, Esther. “Add Value to Contents: the Valorisation of Culture Today”. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. 2006.

[xi] Abbas Baydoun, “Culture and Arts; Re: The Actual”. Paper presented at Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices in the Region, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, Beirut, 2-7 April 2002


1 comment for "Boat Rocking in the Art Islands: Politics, Plots and Dismissals in Sharjah's Tenth Biennial"


thank you, great piece!

giuseppe caruso wrote on May 03, 2011 at 11:35 AM

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