In Defense of the Sharjah Art Biennial
By Maria Goldverg
posted: 05-13-11
Mustapha Benfodil's offending It Has No Importance/Wild Writings
Image Source

The Sharjah Biennial, the oldest and most respected biennial in the Middle East hosted by the eponymous Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, is about to close its doors this Sunday, May 16. It remained opened for two months, and has, in that brief time, also become the focus of a whirlwind scandal concerning the contention between the contrarian secularism of modern art and the devout religiosity of the region's general population.

The situation that occurred was simply this: the offensive nature of a displayed work, It Has No Importance/Wild Writings by Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, passed unnoticed under the eye of director Jack Persekian. The piece was composed of headless figures arranged in a field as though in the midst of a soccer match. The t-shirts worn by one team bore quotes from popular Algerian culture while the other team displayed excerpts from Benfodil's previously written novels, plays, and poems. The offending bit of text adorned just one of the t-shirts. It read:

"With each breath of the wind I see a hand on my pants and hymen torn / Every night was a sharp body raid / Vaginal sacrifices for lustful gods / My nights were haunted by the cries of all those virgins whom they had / Scratched, molested, maimed, bitten, eaten / RAPED KILLED / After being blessed / By the penetrating holy word of Allah / The sperm of his Prophets / An the spittle of his apostles."

The fact that a text such as this would be offensive to the majority, if not the entirety, of the conservative Islamic population is far from surprising. Abdal Hakim Murad, the Sheikh Zayed lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, used this opportunity to discuss the importance of the recent stake modern art has set in the Middle East. He remembered Marcel Duchamp's famous response when asked to estimate how many people he thought actually enjoyed modern art by the art dealer John Bernard Myers: "oh maybe ten in New York, and one or two in New Jersey." The truth of that statement is often underrated: Duchamp's name itself has since become a a stable figure in the most art forums, but his opponents maintain the frustrated voice of those who favor the legacy of a mimetic tradition.

This contention between the conceptual and and anti-establishment sensibilities particular to the avant-garde and representational or symbolic art becomes obviously politicized when thrust into the context of an Islamic state such as the UAE. And it is this that the erudite professor, Abdal Hakim Murad would like his democratic and secular Western readership, so quick to decry the removal of an offending work of art, and the careless director, from the biennial exhibition to understand. He is right to note how remarkable it is that: a. the Biennial was never shut down and continued to attract a crowd after the piece and the Biennial's director were removed; b. that so many people, locals included, encountered the piece without there ensuing a larger fiasco; and c. the simple fact that a contemporary art biennial has existed for as long as it did, and continues to do so successfully, in the UAE. He couldn't be more right to remind his contemporary Western audience of how truly amazing it is that the Middle East has truly modernized as quickly as it has.

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