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  • Apr 18, 2011

Director’s Ouster Jeopardizes Sharjah Art Foundation’s Future


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.

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