Jack Persekian knows firsthand about the hamsin of revolution and the counter desert storm of repression blowing across the Middle East. On 6 April the Jerusalem-based artistic director of the 10th Sharjah Biennial was abruptly fired on orders from Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the autocratic ruler of the Persian Gulf emirate Sharjah, after a “public outcry” over a controversial contemporary art installation, according to a statement from the Sharjah Art Foundation. Mustapha Benfodil's installation 'It Has No Importance' includes sexually explicit Arabic-language slogans, some making reference to Allah.
Thanks to Persekian, Sharjah – the third largest of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates – became a focal point for contemporary art in the Middle East. This year's Biennial, which ran from 16 March to 16 May, was the third directed by Persekian.
Persekian, an east-Jerusalem Armenian who also holds an American passport, has developed a reputation for cutting edge installations and projects. In 1998 he founded the Anadiel Gallery followed by the al-Ma’mal Foundation of Contemporary Art, both in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and went on to curate exhibitions in Spain, Bonn, Stuttgart, Berlin, Sao Paulo and elsewhere. He started working for the Sharjah Biennial in 2004, and was appointed the head curator for the 2005 Biennial.
Last October Persekian, together with Michael Rakowitz, used the roof of the Swedish Christian Study Center by Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate to reprise the Beatles’ famous January 30, 1969 breakup performance atop the Apple Records building in London, with traditional Middle Eastern instruments including an oud, qanoon, darbuka and rabob, as well as guitars, bass and drums, beating out Let It Be.
With courageous foresight, Persekian made the revolution sweeping the Arab world the theme of the 10th Sharjah Biennial. But he crossed the fine line between frisson and offense. The controversial mixed-media installation “It Has No Importance”, by Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, features a group of 23 headless mannequins dressed in football uniforms, some with wording printed on their jerseys, facing off to begin a football match. As part of Benfodil’s installation, Arabic graffiti was daubed on the walls around the figures, which were arrayed in a courtyard near a historic mosque in Sharjah’s Heritage District.
Mustapha Benfodil/ Maportaliche/ It Has No Importance. 2011.
The Sharjah Art Foundation said that Persekian’s job was “no longer tenable” as a result of “the public outcry over the work.” The press release added that the work was removed from the biennial “because leaving it on view was too risky from a legal and cultural standpoint.”
The firing came as a surprise to Persekian, who declined to be interviewed but told this reporter “Look in the Internet. Tell the truth.” Speaking to the Abu Dhabi English-language daily The National, Persekian said his dismissal was “very, very abrupt. It completely knocked me over”.
He also apologized for allowing the offending work to go on view: “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, a million things I didn’t go through. I’m not in the habit of checking everything, and people just didn’t like what they saw in that work and took it out on me personally.”
Persekian had previously self-censored a film by American-Iranian director Caveh Zahedi which contained material that could have been considered blasphemous.
The sacking of Persekian drew a wide response in the Arab art world. Posting on Twitter, Art Dubai fair director Antonia Carner said she is “saluting Jack Persekian & the @sharjahart team for their phenomenal, game-changing contribution to the UAE arts scene & beyond since 2003-4”.
In a statement to The New York Times’ Arts Beat blog, the Biennial curators Rasha Salti and Haig Aivasian, who had chosen Benfodil’s work, defended Persekian. They noted that he had no direct role in selecting the controversial piece, that the installation was not intended to be offensive and "was not meant as an attack on religion or Islam at large". Rather “It defies the silence of nameless and forgotten victims".
Salti and Aivasian explained that the graffiti “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 ‘90s – who used religious texts to justify their crime.” While standing by Persekian and the work itself, the curators admitted the difficulty in judging where to draw the line: "We see now that we misjudged the limits of the tone with which to address sensitive topics and the importance of carefully contextualizing art work.”
Ironically Persekian had originally been hired to add pizzazz to the Sharjah Biennial’s format. The art show began in 1993, based on the model of the Venice and Cairo Biennials, in which participating countries are invited to put up their pavilions. The Sharjah Biennial continued in this format until 2003, when Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the daughter of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammed Al-Qasimi, took over as the Biennial's director and changed it to a show curated only by invitation. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi was awarded joint 90th place with Persekian in Art Review's 'Power 100' list in 2010.
While fired in Sharjah, Persekian remains active in the Persian Gulf arts scene. Together with Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas, he still co-directs the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, which was established in 2008 with the aim of developing the emirate into a centre of international and regional culture.
Clarification: Jack Persekian was Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and was appointed Artistic Director of the Sharjah Biennial in 2004. He was not one of the curators of this year's Biennial. The curators of the Biennial did not choose an overall theme.