On April 6, Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, learned via an abrupt phone call that he’d been unceremoniously fired. The reason given was a single controversial artwork included in the 10th Sharjah Biennial. Maportaliche / It Has No Importance (2011), an installation by Algerian artist, writer and journalist Mustapha Benfodil, has since been removed from the exhibition, which remains on view through May 16.
A public and conservative outcry, fueled by a viral text and email campaign, led the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, to remove Benfodil’s piece. Maportaliche / It Has No Importance consists of 23 headless mannequins dressed in soccer uniforms, installed outside in a public courtyard behind a prominent mosque.
As part of the work, Arabic graffiti painted on the walls of the courtyard, and a text printed on a mannequin’s white T-shirt, is sexually explicit and anti-government and -police. One of the shirts is printed with a poem, in both Arabic and English, that is also sexually explicit and references Allah.
A spokesperson from the Sharjah Art Foundation said that “leaving [Benfodil’s work] on view was too risky from a legal and cultural standpoint.”
Back home in Jerusalem, Persekian admitted that he hadn’t vetted every single art work in the show. “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 told The Nation, an English-language publication based in Abu Dhabi.
This is not the Sharjah Biennial’s first brush with censorship issues. In mid-March, right before the opening, a documentary about the biennial by Iranian-American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi was pulled from the show. Zahedi accused Persekian and the Sharjah Art Foundation of censorship, but Persekian worried that certain scenes-of children praying while Bollywood music played, for example, or dancing while the call to prayer sounded in the background-would result in himself, and his staff being arrested for breaking blasphemy laws.
Maportaliche / It Has No Importance, 2011. Mixed media installation, 23 mannequins, printed T-Shirts, audio, graffiti © Photo: Haupt & Binder