x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Petition over Sharjah Biennial sacking 'misleading and inflammatory'

Foundation accuses online campaign of deliberately misinforming the public over sacking of Jack Persekian.

The Sharjah Art Foundation yesterday accused the organisers of an online petition of "deliberately misinforming the public" about events surrounding the sacking of its director, Jack Persekian, and the removal of an artwork from the Sharjah Biennial .

The Sharjah Call for Action petition was launched by Biennial curators Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, who selected the controversial installation Maportaliche/It Has No Importance by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil.

Mr Persekian was dismissed by the foundation - which runs the giant exhibition - last week following a public outcry over the work.

"The Sharjah Art Foundation would like to respond to the petition currently being circulated in support of the former director," said Sara Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

"With its inflammatory rhetoric, assumptions and speculation, this campaign is deliberately misinforming the public with regards to recent events.

"It is most unfortunate that those responsible for this petition were less concerned with the insensitive placement of the work in a public courtyard and lack of contextualisation that the works in the Biennial should have received.

"This Biennial, founded in 1993, began as an effort to reach out to the local community and on this occasion has become a platform for opinions that show a callous disrespect for the deep commitment to culture and education that has characterised the Government of Sharjah."

She said considerations of public sensitivities often guided the choice and positioning of artworks in public spaces around the world.

"In general these considerations are part of the due diligence expected from the curatorial and directorial teams of any publicly funded institution. Such due diligence should not be simplistically confused with censorship."

The petition alleges that members of the team that runs the Biennial resigned after Mr Persekian's dismissal, but Ms Fitzmaurice said that was incorrect.

"There have been no resignations from the more than 30 current employees of the foundation. On the contrary, work continues on important education and outreach programs.

"Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, founder of the Sharjah Art Foundation, remains as the president and will step forward into a more active role for the present time."

Benfodil's work consisted of 23 mannequins wearing T-shirts bearing text in Arabic and English. The wording on the shirts, along with graffiti that formed part of the exhibit, offended some visitors to the Biennial, and an internet campaign attacking the installation and Mr Persekian was launched.

The curators said in a joint statement: "This letter is intended to express distress over the summary dismissal of Mr Jack Persekian from his post as the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation on the grounds that one of the artworks was deemed offensive by members of the public.

"The artwork in question was selected by ourselves, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian. We believe the mission of art is to defend freedom of expression."

They condemned the online attacks on Mr Persekian and paid tribute to his "exemplary directorship, stellar professional achievements and contribution at making Sharjah a serious international platform for the arts".

But they added: "We see now that we misjudged the limits of the tone with which to address sensitive topics, and that perhaps the work in question should have been more clearly contextualised."

Benfodil said: "It is with a profound consternation that I heard of the summary dismissal of Mr Jack Persekian from his post as director of Sharjah Art Foundation, as 'punishment' for allowing an artist invited to the Sharjah Biennial total freedom of expression. I am the artist in question."

csimpson@thenational.ae