Sharjah’s little Biennial goes haywire- Director fired for artwork selection

This was meant to be a mild, balmy post about all the vicissitudes of March. All the friendliness, the bonhomie, the occasional psychosis, the work, the play, and the brilliant programme of cultural events that we've been benefiting from. But drama's always just around the corner.

Jack Pereskian, the director of Sharjah Biennial, has been fired. Abruptly. Without warning. In typically efficient UAE fashion, he learnt about it from subordinates. And why? His was the head that had to roll for a piece of art that was deemed offensive.

Let's start at the beginning. The Sharjah Biennial is one of the earliest exhibitions of art in the UAE. Like the name suggests, it's held once every two years. It started in 1993, long before Dubai DIFC's burnished quarters came around. Long beforeDubai's  Al Quoz's started spawning galleries. Long before the real estate boom, and novels about things and people utterly preoccupied with fornication and money. In short, it was considered the real deal.

But Sharjah couldn't resist. It's long been described as the emirate that time forgot, where hidden cultural jewels lie around the corner. We've all bought into it, desperate to give Sharjah an identity that doesn't rely on it being a housing compound for cheap expatriate hordes. The cultural jewels were all well and good. Then Sharjah decided to play, and couldn't handle the heat. In typical Sharjah fashion, it decided stepping out of the kitchen wasn't enough. It had to fire the chef, just for shits and giggles.

I'm not venting merely for the sake of it. I interviewed Persekian for a piece on contemporary arts in the Arab world that appeared in Shawati magazine, and realized he knew his stuff. Not just that, but he seemed genuinely passionate about developing the arts. Well, no more.

Gulf News was, of course, typically helpful in its statements. He wasn't fired personally by the ruler of Sharjah, but was rather 'relieved' of his post. Gulf News makes it sound like a bad case of constipation.

"His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, has ordered that Jack Persekian, Director of the Sharjah International Biennial, to be relieved from his post, an official source from the Ruler’s Office, said on Wednesday, according to WAM news service.

Persekian was the Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and has been involved with the Sharjah government since he was appointed as Artistic Director of the Sharjah Biennial in 2004."

Of course, other news reports weren't that toothless. Here's what the NYT had to say about the fiasco:

"The work, by an Algerian artist, Mustapha Benfodil, featured a large group of headless mannequins in what looked like soccer uniforms, some with wording printed on their shirts. As part of the work, graffiti in Arabic was also painted on the walls near the mannequins, which were arrayed in a courtyard near an important mosque in an area known as the Sharjah Heritage District.

In a statement, the Sharjah Art Foundation said that Mr. Persekian’s job was “no longer tenable” as a result of “the public outcry over the work.”

The statement added that the work was removed from the biennial “because leaving it on view was too risky from a legal and cultural standpoint.”

By the by, here's the work in question.

Excellent. Just when the UAE's trying to establish a reputation for a bona fide destination for arts and culture. The Louvre and Guggenheim on Yas Island are facing boycotts from artists for their use of cheap exploited labour. Dubai's holding steady, but there's no new projects in the works. Then Sharjah turns around and does this.

Yes, it appears there were public complaints, and some people apparently took offense. Regardless, you can't have your cake and munch it as well. And my deepest apologies, but it reeks of mendacity to spend money on UAE pavilions for Venice Biennal, when art here is not just being censored, but excoriated.

Decide. Either be an artistic destination. Or don't. Either encourage expression, or forbid it. But sometimes, the Orwellian doublespeak becomes a bit much to handle. I can vouch for the fact that Pereskian knew his business. The NYT can vouch for the fact that he wasn't personally responsible for the artwork. Firing him was convenient and a brilliant exercise in deflection.

Well, there's not much we can do. But this doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. This blog will no longer cover Sharjah's cultural events for the foreseeable future. It doesn't amount to much more than a token gesture, but I refuse to publicize events in a place that's a contradiction wrapped in a dilemma. It's a shame, because friends and acquaintances are doing some great stuff there. But cest la vie. I would offer a mild suggestion to Sharjah's artistic types: move to Dubai. And stay there. for while Art Dubai may be controlled and neutered, there's still apparently more leeway here than in Saudi's little fiefdom.