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Sharjah Biennial 10: Curators' Final Statement

By Haig Aivazian & Rasha Salti, April 17th, 2011

The flash dismissal of our colleague and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Mr. Jack Persekian has triggered a strong and widespread reaction within the regional and international art communities.

There are not many courses of action to take in response to such crises—one can either ignore the situation at hand and carry on, or stand up for one’s beliefs and principles. We both supported and signed the petition released on Apr 11, 2011 because we deemed it to be a reasonable means to harness a widespread worldwide expression of support. However, we neither spearheaded its draft nor its dissemination as alleged in an article in The National newspaper (Apr 13, 2011). The number of signatories and speed with which they were collected attests to a need for reaction far and wide, well beyond our position.

The petition’s demands seem fair: a clearing of Mr. Persekian’s name from the campaign of smear and vitriol he was a victim of; a public acknowledgement of his legacy; and a tangible commitment to dialogue –a practice Mr. Persekian’s directorship had fostered at the Sharjah Art Foundation.

In the week that has followed Mr. Persekian’s dismissal, a series of actions, reactions and statements were released in the press and on the internet. To us, as to all those who have spent the past year working hard on the making of this biennial, this was certainly not the nature of attention or engagement we had labored and hoped for. It is also not what we intended when we proposed the biennial be regarded as a platform for dialogue.

It is deeply disheartening to witness the biennial’s complexities, poetics and considerations overcast by this crisis, and its bold proposals contrived to the service of shock value. To shock was never our strategy, and offense never our intention. Without hesitation or reticence, we recognized the specificity of Sharjah’s terrains of cultural sensitivities. We maneuvered within these restrictions that we considered fecund starting points rather than inhibitive parameters, and hoped a discussion on whether we failed at engaging those parameters as well as Sharjah’s diverse audiences was possible. After all, half of us, namely Haig, has spent the larger part of his life in Sharjah, and thus is deeply imbued with its particularism.

From the onset of the crisis, we acknowledged our erroneous gauging of tone, language and framing in our presentation of Benfodil’s piece and remain entirely disposed in sharing the burden of responsibility of such an error.

Beyond the framework of the biennial and regardless of whether the petition’s demands are materialized, the more saddening outcome of the overall crisis is to have incurred such irreversible loss for all parties concerned, certainly most poignant to Mr. Persekian’s closest collaborators within the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Regardless of who is perceived to have the upper hand or being in the right, the visionary directorship of Mr. Persekian and the admirable achievements he had made possible in dedicated collaboration with HH Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi have been arrested in its upward soar.

What bodes for this new chapter in Sharjah’s cultural life is prefaced by this misfortune. It is our hope that in its desire to recover damage the Foundation would secure a platform for a transparent and frank dialogue about the place and role of art in society and the boundaries of engagement in Sharjah.

With this final letter we want to conclude this painful and sorry episode definitively. We walk away with a very heavy heart at the damage in which our biennial was mired. We take solace in having lived up to our moral duty in standing by Mr. Persekian, attempting to reverse the slander to which he was subjected. We take comfort in our commitment to shouldering responsibility, and we take pride and self-confidence in all of our artists, without exception. Our biennial was in its essence a labor of love. That will remain our memory and legacy.


Haig Aivazian & Rasha Salti
Chicago & Beirut, April 17th, 2011
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