The end of Sharjah’s Biennial?

BEIRUT: More than 1,200 people joined a protest against artistic censorship in Sharjah this week, within 48 hours of a petition being posted online Monday night.

The Sharjah Call for Action – signed by scores of local, regional and international artists, critics, curators and scholars, including such prominent figures as Mona Hatoum and Sophie Calle – is the latest in a series of dramatic, rapid-fire developments stemming from the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, which opened on March 16.

The petition includes 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. Kickstarted by writers in Beirut, it also highlights this city’s penchant for political activism.

Coming at a time when cities such as Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are channeling vast resources into arts and culture initiatives such as museums, art fairs and international exhibitions, the action calls into question the ability of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region at large to support contemporary art as a living practice and instigator of debate, rather than a commercial product or tourist attraction.

The petition comes in direct response to events set in motion on April 6, when Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, abruptly dismissed Jack Persekian from his post as director of the biennial and its umbrella organization, the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Persekian was reportedly fired due to public outcry over the work “Maportaliche/Ecritures Sauvages” (It Has No Importance/Wild Writings) by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil.

Installed in a wide public square located in Sharjah’s heritage area, the work includes walls strewn with graffiti, a sound system booming Maghrebi hip-hop and 23 mannequins dressed as two football teams and a referee.

The T-shirts on each of the mannequins are printed with literary texts penned by Benfodil, a playwright, novelist and poet as well as a visual and performing artist.

The texts range from jokes, recipes and tender love poems to “Soliloquy of Sherifa,” a monologue from Benfodil’s play “Les Borgnes” (The One-Eyed), recounting a young woman’s experience of rape during the Algerian Civil War by members of the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, which waged a well-documented campaign of terror and extreme violence in the 1990s. The language is rough, the installation is shambolic, but the work is nonetheless literary in merit.

Benfodil’s piece has since been removed from view, the mannequins taken away, the graffiti whitewashed in full. According to a statement, on April 7, by two of the biennial’s three curators, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, the authorities in Sharjah have altered additional works in the biennial and placed others “under review.”

“The significance of what’s happened is that an artwork that proposes a very bold and defiant engagement with the language of Islamic jihadists can cause so much fury and outrage that it annihilates the possibility of discussion,” says Salti.

“This is what’s really dangerous. No one was given the chance to explain or contextualize the work. People were accused, held on trial and sentenced within a span of hours, without any discussion.”

The Sharjah Biennial was established in 1993. What began as a relatively traditional and folkloric affair was radically revamped 10 years later, when Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, the ruler’s daughter, returned home from art school in London and complained of the event’s lack of vision. Her father gave her the chance to do something different.

Sheikha Hoor curated the biennial with one of her professors in 2003, and brought Jack Persekian on board in 2005. He curated that edition with Tirdad Zolghadr and Ken Lum, and has been the biennial’s artistic director ever since (Sheikha Hoor is now president of the Sharjah Art Foundation).

Over the years, the Sharjah Biennial became something of a creative laboratory and experimental platform, particularly for arts practitioners in the region. The current edition features two Lebanese curators, one Lebanese jury member, and three Lebanese prizewinners. Participation from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and the Maghreb – as well as from Iran, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – has been equally strong across different generations, styles and critical strategies.

The irony, of course, is that the current edition – titled “Plot for a Biennial” and curated by Salti, Aivazian and Suzanne Cotter – is by far the strongest biennial to date, including a preternaturally high number of stunningly beautiful, sensitive, pleasurable and provocative works.

The curators assembled the exhibition around key words such as treason, insurrection, corruption and devotion, shot through with a cast of imaginary characters including the traitor, traducer, translator and collaborator.

The result is a thicket of rich and redolent ideas. The biennial is thorny, complex, deeply contentious and occasionally contradictory. But coming at this particular moment in time, the emphasis on betrayal and subversion seems to have pushed the biennial to its breaking point.

“The region is going through a very turbulent time of extreme hopefulness and hopelessness,” says Salti. “Places like Egypt and Tunisia are going through hopefulness. Places like Lebanon are going through hopelessness.

“We have so far navigated through the absence of democracy in the region, living through conflict, enduring occupation. We have learned to find ways to engage with the paradoxes.

“Egypt and Tunisia have exploded their paradoxes. In other places, the paradoxes have come to the fore. Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya are at one juncture. Lebanon is at another.

“I think what’s happened in Sharjah is the result of the historical moment we’re going through. We’ve bumped up against the paradoxes inherent to the UAE.

“Whatever platform was there in Sharjah was a precarious platform because it’s a platform that doesn’t support dialogue. Is Sharjah emblematic of the UAE or not? If the UAE is positioning itself as a new place where art is possible, where the production of art is possible, where the discussion of art is possible, then what do we make of these incidences?

“This is the real difference between Sharjah and Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah,” says Salti, “the space for discussion. Everywhere works are censored in the region. But elsewhere the censorship leads to discussion.”

As it turns out, that discussion may now be happening online – in the comments attached to the signatures still flooding in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 14, 2011, on page 16.




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