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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Biennial exhibit led to director's dismissal: organisers

Organisers of art event say Jack Persekian's position was no longer tenable following a public outcry over an exhibit at the Sharjah Biennial.
Jack Persekian, who was dismissed as the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation last week over an 'objectionable' installation.
Jack Persekian, who was dismissed as the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation last week over an 'objectionable' installation.

Jack Persekian was dismissed as head of the Sharjah Biennial because his position was no longer tenable following a public outcry over one of the exhibits, according to the organisers of the art event.

The installation in question, by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, consisted of mannequins with T-shirts bearing text in Arabic and English that some viewers considered profane. The work, called Maportaliche/It Has No Importance, has been removed by the Sharjah Art Foundation, which runs the Biennial.

"In response to a public outcry expressing offence regarding the content of Mustapha Benfodil's work exhibited in the Sharjah Biennial, Jack Persekian's position as director of the Sharjah Art Foundation is no longer tenable," the foundation said in a statement.

"The work has been removed from the exhibition because leaving it on view was too risky from a legal and cultural standpoint.

"The Sharjah Art Foundation recognises Mr Persekian for his many contributions to the growth of the foundation, and to the advancement of the arts in the MENASA region."

Mr Persekian, who has been involved in four Biennials dating back to 2005, was dismissed on Wednesday. He told The National his dismissal had followed complaints about one of the exhibits.

"I didn't read all the fine print in it and some of the content I missed was objectionable," he said.

The three curators of the Biennial have spoken about the dismissal for the first time. Benfodil's work was selected for display by Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, who said in a joint statement that Mr Persekian had always shown a deep awareness and respect for cultural and religious sensitivities in the region.

They added: "This awareness and respect was shared by us, the curators of the Sharjah Biennial, who are responsible for the selection of the work in question: a work which borrowed the voice of the victims of rape at the hands of religious extremists in Algeria (during the civil war that took place there throughout much of the 1990s), who used religious texts to justify their crime. It defies the silence of nameless and forgotten victims."

They said the work was very specific to the Algerian context, and was in no way meant as an attack on religion or Islam at large.

"We tried to make all of our selections with utmost responsibility and prudence. We see now that we misjudged the limits of the tone with which to address sensitive topics and the importance of carefully contextualising artwork.

"As two of the Biennial curators that chose the artist and work, it is our duty to share the burden of responsibility with Mr Persekian."

The third curator, Suzanne Cotter, who was not involved in the selection of Benfodil's work, said she wished to express her regret at Mr Persekian's dismissal and her support for her fellow curators.

"Mr Persekian's leadership and his remarkable achievements in establishing the Biennial as a beacon of artistic production and debate in the Middle East has been inspirational to artists, curators, cultural critics and thinkers throughout the world.

"Similarly, Ms Salti has made invaluable contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Arab culture, through her work as a curator, writer, thinker and translator, not least in her role as co-curator of the Biennial with Mr Aivazian.

"I deeply respect their judgement and share their adamant belief in and sensitivity to audience and context, and in their appreciation of the Sharjah Art Foundation for its guidance and trust."

Benfodil's work had been displayed in Hamdan bin Mousa Square in the Heritage Area, but all trace of it has been removed. Even graffiti that had formed part of the display has been painted over.

The Biennial guidebook describes Benfodil's work as a mixed-media installation with 23 mannequins, printed T-shirts, audio and graffiti.

The description of Maportaliche/It Has No Importance says: "The installation engages themes of transgression and betrayal, exploring the resonance and dissonance between a writer and society, cast as a match between 'cultural input' on one side and 'literary output' on the other."

The section on Benfodil in the Biennial catalogue is headed: "Savage readings, savage writings. An 'anarchist' in Sharjah."

A BlackBerry message broadcast has been circulating containing links to pictures of some of the graffiti, which the anonymous sender describes as "profanity". Another picture shows the text from one of the T-shirts which contains sexual references.

Benfodil is a 43-year-old writer and journalist from western Algeria. He wrote a book on his experience as a reporter in Iraq called The Last Six Days of Baghdad - Report of a War Journey after visiting the country twice during the war.

He is the author of numerous theatrical plays including Clandestinopolis and Eau Pea, and several poems. In 2008 he received a scholarship from the French National Book Centre and moved to the Limousin region of France, where he finished writing the theatrical play Les Borgnes.

He works in Algeria for the French newspaper Al Watan. Last January he was arrested for being in charge of a gathering of young citizens from the municipality of Staouéli. He lives and works in Algiers.

* With additional reporting by Caline Malek and Ola Salem

Published: April 10, 2011 04:00 AM

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