CONTEMPORARY CENSORSHIP IS A FUNNY THING. Art that mocks Christianity or displays hostility to Israel, is fine, thank you. But our institutions walk on eggs not to offend Islamic sensibilities. So it is cheering, to a point, to see a petition circulating on the internet to protest the dismissal of Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. He had the poor taste to include in the 10th Sharjah Biennial an artwork offensive to the religion of peace.
The artist is Algerian. His multi-media installation, in the words of the petition, “borrows the voice of rape victims at the hands of religious extremists in Algeria, who were using religious texts to justify their crimes.” The wording is careful. Religious extremists could be anybody, right? Think of all the marauding Jews, murderous Presyterians and Christian Science thugs making the news each night. Lest you draw any unpleasant conclusions from the headless figures, the petition includes this caution:
The work is very specific to the Algerian context and is in no way meant as an attack on religion or Islam in general.
There is a certain poignance to the caveat. Can you imagine that kind of polite hesitancy applied to offensive imagery in Western institutions, a university art gallery or a museum of contemporary art? The Jerusalem-born Persekian himself seems to regret having exhibited the work. After the sacking, he told the National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper:
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.
His discomfort is certainly understandable. Accused now of heresy and conspiracy, he stands a chance of winding up without his own head. Living in both Jerusalem and Sharjah, Persekian will likely need to spend more time in Israel. He is the founding director of Anadiel Gallery, the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem and producer of XEIN Productions.
The petition, accessible here, reads in part:
We, the undersigned, are deeply alarmed by the worrying and dangerous shift by those occupying positions of power in the Emirate with regards to artistic and intellectual expression. These actions set a deplorable precedent, one that may further legitimate institutional and self-censorship. Both of which we strongly oppose.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey