Sheikh Abruptly Fires Sharjah Foundation Director Over Controversial Political Work

Sheikh Abruptly Fires Sharjah Foundation Director Over Controversial Political Work

Remember when we reported that the United Arab Emirates' Sharjah Biennial presented a riveting picture of how Middle Eastern artists are interpreting the region's political unrest? Well, now Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the city-state's ruler, has fired esteemed Sharjah Foundation director Jack Persekian. And the sacking has apparently been triggered by the political content over one of the works, though nobody is saying which work it was.


The Foundation released the following statement to ARTINFO: "In response to a public outcry in connection to a work on exhibit in the Sharjah Biennial by members of the public expressing offense to the content of that work, Jack Persekian's position as Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation is no longer tenable. The Sharjah Art Foundation recognizes Mr. Persekian for his many contributions to the growth of the Foundation, and to the advancement of the arts in the MENASA region. The work has been removed from the exhibition."


"It was very, very abrupt," Persekian told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National. "It completely knocked me over. It was the result of people objecting to the content of one artwork.... 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."


The Biennale had recently faced controversy over work by Iranian-American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, which Persekian had pulled from the show following objections that certain scenes — including one of children kneeling to prayer while a Bollywood song played — could be construed as blasphemous. However, the former director told the National that this work was not the cause of his firing. "With the Zahedi film, because I was tipped on its content I could intervene and stop it," he said. "But with the other work I didn't read all the fine print in it and some of the content I missed was objectionable." He declined to say which work had caused the new uproar.

Unconfirmed reports had it that the work removed was Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil's "Maportaliche" / "It Has No Importance" installation, featuring two teams of mannequins clad as soccer players facing off. The shirts of the players were covered in text, some of which might be interpreted as blasphemous.

Because of the wider unrest in the region, things are on a hair trigger. Politics also penetrated the official opening of the Biennale, when artists in town for the show held up the names of those killed in the current unrest in Bahrain during the Sheikh's visit, to protest the UAE's sending of troops to shore up that regime.