International and local art community condemns unwarranted dismissal of Sharjah Art Foundation Director Jack Persekian and the censorship of artworks in the Sharjah Biennial.
On April 6th, 2011, Jack Persekian, Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation since 2005, was dismissed without notice by the ruler of Sharjah, HH. Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi. The sudden termination of Persekian’s post came after a public outcry over the perceived offensive content in an artwork exhibited in the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial by Algerian artist, journalist and activist Mustapha Benfodil.
The work of art in question borrows the voice of rape victims at the hands of religious extremists in Algeria, who were using religious texts to justify their crimes. The work is very specific to the Algerian context and is in no way meant as an attack on religion or Islam in general.
In the days following Mr. Persekian’s dismissal, a number of other art works have also been declared offensive, resulting in them either being taken down, altered or relegated to the status “under review”.
There has also since been a malicious campaign circulating through numerous social networks directed against Mr. Persekian, accusing him of heresy and conspiratorial intent. This campaign has sought to deliberately misinform the public, to undermine his integrity and the pioneering and generous work he has undertaken in Sharjah over the years.
Mr Persekian’s vision and contributions to cultural and artistic life, as well as the Foundation’s fostering and encouragement of vital debates in Sharjah, the region and the global art world at large is widely considered essential and productive.
Moreover, the curators have stated that further reflection on the local public’s cultural sensitivities, a visible public warning and more careful contextualization of possibly offensive material may have been useful and considerate. Yet, it is very unfortunate that there has not been a more open and mutual exchange, a position which has previously garnered Sharjah much respect from artists, cultural practitioners and intellectuals the world over.
We, the undersigned, 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.
We condemn the dismissal of Jack Persekian and find the decision incommensurable and disproportionate with the alleged charges brought against him and the Sharjah Art Foundation. We see his removal and the censorship of artworks as a mistake on the part of those authorities concerned, and the subsequent resignation of members of the Sharjah Art Foundation team as a profound loss for cultural, artistic and intellectual life in Sharjah and beyond.
We adamantly denounce dogma that puts an end to conversations, critical thinking and self-questioning by resorting to repression, the use of force and unilateral, autocratic decisions.
We ask that these events be publicly acknowledged and that guarantees are given concerning the intellectual sovereignty of the Foundation’s work, without which the future and liberty of artistic expression and cultural production in Sharjah and the region at large are seriously jeopardized.
In the instance that these demands are not met, we will have no choice but to boycott the Foundation, the Sharjah Biennial and any of the Emirate’s cultural activities.