Entrance of the Sharjah Art Museum with Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument, 2011, opening day of Sharjah Biennial 10, UAE, March 16, 2011.

Entrance of the Sharjah Art Museum with Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument, 2011, opening day of Sharjah Biennial 10, UAE, March 16, 2011.

Sharjah Biennial 10

Entrance of the Sharjah Art Museum with Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument, 2011, opening day of Sharjah Biennial 10, UAE, March 16, 2011.

IN RETROSPECT, the curators of the Tenth Sharjah Biennial were probably asking for trouble when they decided to create an exhibition about conspiracy, subversion, and betrayal in one of the purest autocracies on earth. Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti, and Haig Aivazian invited 119 artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers to participate in “Plot for a Biennial,” which was conceived as a film treatment, divided into vignettes, and arranged around themes (corruption, devotion, insurrection) and characters (traitors, translators, and traducers). Most of the works were completed well before the Arab Spring, but many appeared incredibly prescient by the time the biennial opened on March 16. Even the revival of older works, such as Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica’s commanding Videograms of a Revolution, 1992—an assemblage of video footage capturing the chaotic, euphoric collapse of Ceauşescu’s regime in Romania in 1989, when demonstrators occupied a television station in Bucharest—took on profound new meaning when seen just a month after protesters in Cairo stormed the headquarters of Egyptian state TV.

The bulk of “Plot for a Biennial” may not have been so revolutionary in spirit, but it nonetheless captured a crucial shift in the region’s politics. Throughout the exhibition, the engagements with memory and history that have characterized much of the so-called documentary turn in contemporary art seemed to have been transformed into poetic acts of imagination. Bouchra Khalili used tales of illegal immigration as a way of cartographically reconfiguring the Mediterranean in her eight-screen video installation The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–11. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige turned a long-forgotten story about a group of Armenian science enthusiasts into a modernist sculpture paying tribute to knowledge and progress, and an installation ruminating on such utopian desires, in Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument, 2011. A collaborative video installation by Shumon Basar and Eyal Weizman with Jane and Louise Wilson transformed the assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai into cerebral film noir in Face Scripting: What Did the Building See?, 2011. As a sly nod to a gay cruising spot, Rosalind Nashashibi’s Shelter for a New Youth, 2011, placed a traditional areesh, or palm shelter, in a public square, adorned with photographs of men’s crotches in tight trousers. And Amar Kanwar’s elegant nineteen-channel video installation, The Torn First Pages, 2004–2008, honored a lone bookshop owner and thousands of anonymous readers in Burma. Balancing political provocation and aesthetic pleasure, touching on sexuality, illiteracy, poverty, and powerlessness, the largest and most ambitious iteration of the biennial to date pushed hard at the boundaries of what can be said in a place like Sharjah, the most conservative emirate in the UAE.

This year’s was also the first truly curatorial edition of Sharjah, as Cotter, Salti, and Aivazian asked artists to grapple with the spatial and temporal realization of a thematic structure and the legacy of art as subversive act. And though the last edition hosted a parallel performance program, this time around, the biennial wholly integrated music, film, dance, and a dazzling array of printed matter, including trading cards made by the magazine Cabinet, a supplement to a nonexistent encyclopedia by Lynn Love and Ann Sappenfield, and a box set of multilingual booklets titled Manual for Treason. Filled with original writing, poems, playful experiments, faulty translations, and excerpts from the likes of Etel Adnan, Anton Shammas, Beckett, and Baudelaire, Manual for Treason, in particular, deeply enriched the biennial’s body of thought. One of the booklets, edited by Angela Harutyunyan and Aras Özgun, is dedicated to the Egyptian revolution; another, attributed to the improbably named Immanual Pourpre, opens with a poem by Suheir Hammad for Libya and closes, wryly, with examples of laws in effect throughout the Arab world that make it a crime to insult presidents, revolutionary command councils, religions, and so on.

All of which seemed like a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy on April 6, when the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad al-Qasimi, suddenly fired the biennial’s director, Jack Persekian, because one work—Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil’s Maportaliche/Ecritures Sauvages (It Has No Importance/Wild Writings), 2011—had provoked a flurry of complaints, tweets, and e-mails from young Emiratis. Installed in a public courtyard, the work featured graffiti, a sound system blasting Maghrebi hip-hop, and twenty-three mannequins dressed as two soccer teams and a referee, all of them clad in T-shirts printed with language ranging from found texts (recipes, popular jokes, and tender love poems) to a monologue recounting a young woman’s experience of brutal rape during the Algerian civil war. By April 7, Benfodil’s work was gone, with only fresh patches of white paint indicating where the graffiti had been (see page 76). Within a week, more than fifteen hundred artists, critics, curators, and scholars had signed a petition pledging to boycott all future arts and culture activities in Sharjah if demands for public acknowledgment of censorship and a discussion about Persekian’s dismissal were not met. Yet Persekian, in his first published remarks, said that he had, in effect, simply failed to self-censor the biennial beforehand, and distanced himself from the petition. The Sharjah Art Foundation in turn issued its own statement, dismissing the petition as inflammatory and misleading, instigated by people “who are not part of the Sharjah Biennial community.”

The various positions vis-à-vis the petition are probably beside the point, but what has become known as the “Persekian affair” has raised a number of urgent questions. How deep does self-censorship run in public art events in the Arab world? For how long have directors, curators, artists, and writers bypassed political and cultural sensitivities rather than tackling them head-on? Who rightly constitutes “the community” for an international biennial exhibition? More practically, how many of those who signed the petition against Sharjah will stick to their word? If a biennial in Sharjah can only exist without intellectual independence or artistic autonomy, without recourse to public discussion or debate, then maybe it isn’t worth organizing in the first place. Perhaps conspiracy, subversion, and betrayal were apt themes after all.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.