Controversies United Arab Emirates

“The Sharjah Biennial will go on”

Sheikha Hoor confident despite last month’s sacking of its director Jack Persekian

Reading the offending t-shirt (Photo: Haupt & Binder-Universes in Universe)

LONDON. “The Sharjah Biennial will go on. Apart from anything else, we have 40-50 people working for it and it would not be fair for them to lose their jobs. The biennial has always been part of my life; I grew up with it and have been involved since 2002.”

These confident words were spoken to The Art Newspaper by Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, a graduate of the Royal College of Art and the person who set the biennial on the way to being the Middle East’s most thoughtful, wide-ranging and influential contemporary art event. She is in an uncomfortable position, however, since it is her father, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, who summarily sacked Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, on 6 April over a controversial work of art in the current biennial (closes 16 May).

The work, It Has No Importance/Wild Writings, by the Algerian, Mustapha Benfodil, which has now been removed, was a combination of texts, sound and graffiti, with a parody of a football match, involving 23 headless mannequins. The t-shirts worn by one team were printed with excerpts of Benfodil’s novels, plays and poetry, while the other team’s t-shirts carried texts borrowed from Algerian popular culture: songs, jokes, poetry, recipes, board games, etc.

What shocked the public was a text on one of the t-shirts, in English and Arabic. It said: With each breath of the wind I see a hand on my pants and my hymen torn/Every night was a sharp body raid/Vaginal sacrifices for lustful gods/My nights were haunted by the cries of all those virgins whom they had/Scratched, molested, maimed, bitten, eaten/RAPED KILLED/After being blessed/By the penetrating holy word of Allah/The sperm of his Prophets/And the spittle of his apostles.

Benfodil explained that this is from his play Les Borgnes (The One-Eyed): “The words have been interpreted as an attack against Islam, but they refer to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally freedom-killing god. It is the god of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, a sinister sect that raped and massacred tens of thousands of women at the height of the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by the Koranic ethics. My own Allah has nothing to do with the destructive divinities claimed by Algerian millenarian movements.”

None of the three curators, Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti, and Haig Aivazian had noticed the offending text and neither had Jack Persekian. Speaking to the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, he said: “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.” (Persekian had previously self-censored a film by American-Iranian director Caveh Zahedi that contained material which could have been considered blasphemous.)

In fact, it was only when ordinary Emiratis started to visit this neighbourhood with their families and school groups for the 15 Heritage Days, when there is traditional music and dance, that the shocking words were noticed. People began texting each other and the message got to the ruler very quickly. But there was no public rioting and no works of art were damaged.

Sheikha Hoor said: “There was vulgar and obscene language in this work. It seems that the physical and cultural context of the site was not explained enough to the artist; there was a lack of dialogue.We do not want to offend the people: our work is for their benefit—we are publically funded. And while we appreciate the fact that people are coming from abroad, we must not forget the local and regional population.”

Since his firing, many in the art world have spoken in support of Jack Persekian, who has worked with the biennial since 2005 and has been an authoritative influence in the Middle Eastern art scene.

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7 May 11
20:25 CET


I do not feel that the art work 'Supply and Demand for Immorality' belongs in the public space, the outer wall of the Sharjah Art Museum, opposite the mosque. The English words and phrases are offensive and interestingly do not match the Arabic language artwork on the wall at the other end. I wonder why?

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