From UAE to USA

April 7, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

10th International Sharjah Biennial Opening, March 16, 2011

I am very excited to have the opportunity at Open Space to feature some of the artists I was introduced to in United Arab Emirates where I recently  presented my Theory of Survival project at the Sharjah March Meetings (March 13-15). Also organized by Sharjah Art Foundation, the 10th Sharjah Biennial, entitled Plot for a Biennial, opened on March 16th with 65 specially commissioned works on view till May 16 , while a short distance away in the Emirate of Dubai,  ArtDubai opened with over 80 participating galleries (March 16-19).  Victoria and Albert Museum’s  Jameel Prize shortlist of artists was announced, the Abraaj Commissions  and Delfina residencies at Al Bastakiya were unveiled, while the Global Art Forum and Bidoun curated ArtPark projects, created an active art playground for over 20,000 viewers.  I was inspired by many projects and publications presented that engage with the “region,” which everyone has a difficulty pinning down, MESANA region (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) and soon to be added perhaps Central Asia; countries that are linked historically, and have become centers of conflict in the recent decade. There has been much written up about the exhibitions in the past few weeks and more will surely be published as many international curators and journalists were courted from Doha to Dubai, Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, to reflect on the developing art scene.

This was my third time in the Emirates, beginning with participation in the 6th Sharjah Biennial in 2003 (April 8–May 8), installing during the two weeks of the heavy bombardment of Baghdad to “shock and awe.” Last year participating in exhibitions at the Al Bastakiya Art Fair, and ArtDubai, the main conversation centered on the heavy hand of the Iranian regime in response to spontaneous uprisings after the 2009 presidential elections. Participating in the March Meetings this year organized by the Sharjah Arts Foundation, the main focus became the movement of dissent in the region, while the 10th Sharjah Biennial, also organized by the foundation, was dedicated to the spirit of change in the region. After three full days of presentations at the March Meetings, with the first invited opportunity for dialog about the unrest across the region, a few participants responded to the announcement of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates on March 15 to sending armed forces to help with Bahrain’s king’s brutal crackdown of the demonstrators (Reuters). A simple act of remembrance, a list of names of the Bahrainis killed in the recent conflicts was printed to be distributed silently among the audiences at the opening of the biennial the next day. Although no more than a handful of papers were distributed, one of the artists was arrested and detained for questioning by authorities for several hours, while the curators and organizers of the biennial had to get involved for their release. Living outside the region it is easy to forget the repressive nature of the regimes where no act of dissent is tolerated, even (or perhaps especially) in an art context.

A larger protest was announced on March 18th, with a team of over 130 artists, curators, and writers, organized by Emily Jacir and Walid Raad in cooperation with the Human Rights Watch, boycotting the new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi over labor practices in the construction of the building. The 2009 Human Rights Watch report “The Island of Happiness” documents “a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs.” The artists have been in conversation with the organizers at Guggenheim since 2010 with little actual affect, and felt they had to act now while the museum is building its collection, which would not be meaningful without well-known artists in the group like Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Akram Zaatari, Yto Barrada, Kader Attia, and others.

Politically charged, the exhibitions at Dubai and Sharjah become a collective response to the complexities of the times; the wars, the destruction, the boom, the continuous shifting landscape, the perplexing politics. And in spite of the limitations imposed by the ruling parties in the Emirates in the political discourse it allows, they are the only opportunities available for a much needed space for dialog, offering artists, scholars, and writers of the region and its diaspora a temporary space for creative exchange. The constant struggle for freedom of expression in the region is also evident in this year’s highly provocative “Plot for a Biennial,” where artists were invited to engage with charged concepts including “treason, necessity, insurrection, affiliation, corruption, devotion, disclosure, and translation”. The most recent casualty of the tight grip of censors over the biennial is Jack Persekian, director of Sharjah Art Foundation, who was dismissed by direct orders of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, on April 7th, following controversy over Algerian artist Mustafa Benfodil’s use of  sexually explicit Arabic slogans and poetry as part of his installation at the Sharjah Heritage District. The installation has been removed from the biennial, which is on view through May 16th.

Mustapha Benfodil, _Maportaliche/It Has No Importance_, 2011; Installation with 23 mannequins, printed T-shirts, audio, graffiti

Mustapha Benfodil, _Maportaliche/It Has No Importance_, 2011; Installation with 23 mannequins, printed T-shirts, audio, graffiti

3 Comments

  1. ADQ Says:

    AND HERE IS THE ARTIST’S ELOQUENT RESPONSE TO JACK PERSEKIAN’S DISMISSAL:

    Because art is free to be impolite…

    It is with a profound astonishment that I have heard that Mr. Jack Persekian, director of Sharjah Art Foundation, has been dismissed as “punishment” for allowing an artist invited to the Sharjah Biennial total freedom of expression. I am the artist in question. In this thrust, my installation « Ecritures sauvages » [It has no importance/Wild Writings] has been censored and removed from the Biennial. In writing this press release, I wish to express my profound indignation after this shameful act and my solidarity towards Mr Persekian and his fantastic team.

    I would like to clarify matters concerning the piece I presented at the Sharjah Biennial. Since the central theme of this 10th edition is betrayal, I wanted to question through my installation the resonance and dissonance between a writer and his society. As such, the installation works on three levels: texts, sound and graffiti. The central piece is a parody of a football match involving 23 headless mannequins. The T-shirts worn by one team are printed with extracts of my writings (novels, theatre, poetry), whereas the other team contains a hybrid of material taken from Algerian popular culture and other urban signifiers (songs, jokes, popular poetry, recipes, board games, etc). Of course, my texts (particularly the graffiti) are not terribly “polite”. In fact, I refer to the extent of social and political violence that surrounds me. This is what my literature feeds off.

    It is perhaps a fault of mine to have naively believed that life is not polite. And that art is free to be impolite and impertinent.

    The incriminated text is a monologue (The Soliloquy of Sherifa) which is taken from my play « Les Borgnes » [One-Eyed People], which has been performed in many countries, cities, festivals, in Paris, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Montreal, and in Algiers also (part of my series « Pièces détachées – Lectures sauvages » / Spare Parts-Wild Readings). Audience member and a part of the organisers have criticised this text as obscene and blasphemous. May be the words and the description can be interpreted as pornographical. The truth is that this sequence is an hallucinatory account of a young woman’s rape by fanatic Djihadists claiming to be of the same radical Islamism experienced in my country at the culminating point of the Civil War in the 1990s. The words may be chocking but that is because nothing is more shocking than the rape itself and all the words of the world can not tell the atrocious suffering of a mutilated body – and what is told here is sadly not a fiction. This has been interpreted as an attack against Islam. Allow me to clarify that Sherifa’s complaint refers to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally liberticidal god. It is the god of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, this sinister sect which has raped, violated, massacred, tens of thousands of Sherifa in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by the Coraniq ethics. Without wanting to justify myself, I must simply underline that my own Allah has nothing to do with the devastating destructive divinities claimed by the Algerian millenarian movements, those legions of Barbarian Beards who have decimated my people with the active complicity of our security apparatus.

    Finally, I would like to add that at this particularly intense juncture for Arab societies, it appears rather regrettable to spoil this opportunity to place Liberty at the heart of the debate and deal with the future from this point. Indeed, the curatorial team of the Sharjah Biennale highlighted the impact and pertinence of this challenge in tandem with the march of Arab peoples towards democracy. As such, I would like to pay homage to the curators, Rasha Salti, Suzanne Cotter and Haig Aivazian for their exceptional work and for trusting me.

    It seems to me a good sign of the cultural and political healthiness if Art meets the street and artists listen to the whispering of the real life. Moreover, a bit of imagination in positions of power is rather welcome. I really hope that, in its impetuous course, this cycle of Arab revolutions, which has shaken our tyrannical and medieval political regimes, will challenge our imaginaries, tastes, aesthetic canons and thought processes. May it contribute to refresh our signs and words. Our guardians of virtue would rather meditate this beautiful arab Democratic Spring and stop repainting the walls every time a kid draws on his insolent dreams.

    Mustapha Benfodil, Writer.
    Algiers 6 April 2011

  2. ADQ Says:

    Here is a link to very good piece on the situation in Sharjah as well: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Apr/14/The-end-of-Sharjahs-Biennial.ashx#axzz1JO64B8qt

  3. UAE Laws Online Says:

    Very informative article i was looking for some information about United Arab Emirates including Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman.

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