When Matter Becomes Cultural Politics: Traps of Liberalism in the Tenth Sharjah Art Biennial

Angela Harutyunyan


In the core of cultural politics is ultimately the act of naming. In fact, cultural politics itself is nothing but a negotiation of language, assignment of concepts, construction of frames as well as demarcation of the boundaries of what is to be included and what is to be left excluded from discourse. Constituted through statements and utterances that become legitimized in societal, cultural, institutional and legal frameworks, cultural politics is a terrain upon which struggle for identity, representation and recognition takes shape. As such, its inception and basic premises rely on the liberal bourgeois notion of the public sphere as a consensual site of contestation and reaffirmation of identity, representation and recognition, with tolerance in mind. In this formulation, the notion of the public sphere as theorized by Jürgen Habermas as a space of non-intervention by the state and market interests with the ultimate result of reaching a majority consensus is articulated.[2]

The industry of cultural politics with its insistence on identity and representation has more often than not coincided with various economic liberalization programs, “open door” policies, globalization of financial markets and accumulation of the public good into private hands of ruling elites in various post-peripheries, from the former socialist bloc countries to the Middle East and beyond. These newly emerging economic structures seek cultural representation in the public sphere in order to render themselves concrete and visible, while translating material struggles into the domain of cultural representation. Thus, structurally and with its demand for adequate representation of various identities (be those religious, gender, race, or class based, or professional, national, international, transnational, cosmopolitan, etc.), cultural politics is a hegemonic discourse that with its proliferation and expansion into new territories has followed the trajectories of the global capital, which seeks to render itself in cultural terms. The form that its re-enactment in different contexts has taken has varied and even created the illusion of singularity and local contextual specificity. Even though the content of cultural politics may assume various shapes according to locally specific articulations and discourses, its structural condition remains as a homogenizing principle. The ideological operation of this liberal discourse is to relocate struggle from the materialist domain of class into the domain of cultural representation that a variety of enterprises in Western Europe and North America and beyond have been engaged with.

With the institutionalization and internationalization of what came to be termed contemporary art practices in the Middle East since the late 1990s and early 2000s and the production and circulation of specific desires for identity and representation that rely on the mechanism of post-colonial counter-transference,[3] the region has become a fertile ground for the operation of cultural politics. The operation of post-colonial counter-transferences as transferred onto the field of cultural production, representation and reception, is based on the misconception and misrepresentation of the Other. For instance, a curator from Western Europe proposes a local artist to present his or her authentic voice to international audiences, whereas the production of authenticity by the local artist always already incorporates the expectation of the curator that the artist imagines. Because of the distinct colonial history of the region as well as its position as a figure of difference (in relation to Western Europe and North America), cultural politics with its liberal framework of tolerance achieved through debate and dialogue could be accommodated comfortably both within the already existing and newly created institutional structures of art production and reception. The resurgence of cultural politics in recent years in debates, interventions, actions and other practices surrounding contemporary art, its institution, production and reception in much of the Arab World and the Middle East has created a polarization in various spheres of cultural practice. Here, usually, cultural politics is enacted and exercised between various generations of artists, critics and their hangers on who represent the different poles of the debate, those who “speak” in the name of the nation, authenticity and tradition, those who “argue” in the name of contemporaneity and those who act in-between.[4] It is not that before the age of cultural politics there were no inter-generational, inter-ideological and even formal debates surrounding art and culture in various contexts of the Middle East, but that now, these debates are framed in the name of cultural politics as a legitimizing instance, as a figure of authority that licenses utterances, practices, attitudes and positionings. Petitions are signed, articles published, press conferences arranged, exhibitions curated, and all in the name of cultural politics.

The debate on agency, cultural production, artistic practice and mainstream vs. marginal is framed within the liberal discourse of cultural politics even before the debate initiates, thus glossing over the material conditions in which operators in the art world function in both local and transnational contexts. It is precisely within the cultural political debate that dichotomies between brave outspoken artists and autocratic rulers, between the good intentions of contemporary art to enlighten society, to mend social problems and to reveal oppressive systems of domination and their monarchic or corporate patrons, is both exaggerated and intensified. Both sides of the cultural political debate –be those the rulers or sponsors vs. the contemporary artists, or the latter vs. the “fine artists”– have high stakes in this polarization since within this discursive framework legitimation is achieved through “othering” each other. In short, the contemporary artist needs the traditional fine artist armed with modernist notions of authenticity, tradition and originality in order to establish himself or herself as the heroic other. It works the other ways around as well. In a related and similar operation, a monocratic ruler of an Emirate in the Gulf needs the veneer of the contemporary artist’s work and the art event as well as the phantasmagoria of contemporaneity to project himself as an enlightened king. And this is an act of cultural politics at its best. The contemporary artist needs the generous funds from oil and sweat money to realize a work or gain the symbolic capital of the big well-produced event in which transplanted art audiences discuss, debate and have occasional cocktails, in order to gain recognition within a framework whose terms and conditions he himself did not set. Yet, the artist needs to distance himself from the ideological and economic framework in which the event operates, and specifically, from the benevolent emir who acts as the main patron of the event.

The emergence of cultural politics at the heart of the debate on art and culture in the context of the Arab World does not merely follow the neoliberalization of various economies and the emergence of economic governmentality but also a parallel, yet not unrelated paradigm of cultural diplomacy and so-called “soft hegemony” that has engulfed the post-9/11 era and has recently entered a new stage with the UAE acting as the prime funder of artistic production and representation from the region of North Africa and the Middle East. As Hanan Toukan states, “It is within the framework of international cultural diplomacy that the transnationalization of contemporary arts production has been financially enabled in the parts of the Arab region that produce some of the most interesting works around which much of the Gulf art industry revolves.”[5]

A good case in point, in which cultural politics with a liberal framework and in the context of a transnational art event was reiterated in the name of free expression, is the tenth edition of the Sharjah Art Biennial in 2011 curated by Suzanne Cotter and Rasha Salti with Haig Aizavian and produced by the Sharjah Art Foundation. The scandal that arguably received more coverage in the art press than the Biennial itself overshadowed the discussion upon the merits and pitfalls of curatorial work and artistic production.[6] It was triggered by the dismissal of the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation since 2006, Jack Persekian, over Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil’s work. The latter entitled It Has No Importance and installed in the public space of the Heritage area, was deemed offensive by the public in Sharjah and removed from the site, once the flown over and transplanted art audiences, myself included, embarked on their return flights.

Allegedly, the work contained graphic language enacted by a rape victim during the Algerian revolution, an excerpt from a play written by Benfodil himself. I will not go into the factual details of the incident since it has been extensively covered and discussed in the press. Neither am I interested whether Benfodil’s work was indeed the only reason behind Persekian’s dismissal, or whether there was an inner or inter-emirati politics that conspired against the powerful director of the Foundation, or it was simply time to de-identify the institution from the person. Instead, what concerns me here is the way in which matter becomes cultural politics and more specifically, the ways in which a specific rhetoric of freedom of speech and expression, anti-censorship and cultural sensitivity was being formulated around the art event and the subsequent incident. This rhetoric was produced and enacted by those condemning the act of censorship as well as those who argued for sensitivity towards local contexts. At times, such as in the case of Salti’s and Aivazian’s statements, these two positions overlapped. In a statement issued on April 7, 2011, they offer: “We believe the mission of art is to defend freedom of expression, challenge prevailing misconceptions and defy the complacent silence of injustice and despotism. We are also adamant believers in dialoguing with audiences in a manner that is aware and respectful of social sensitivities.”[7]

What followed were multiple statements by international art and cultural organizations as well as individuals, more or less unequivocally condemning the act of censorship and expressing support for the fired director. On one occasion, AICA, the International Association of Art Critics, published the following statement:

…In this regard, on behalf of our membership, we strongly condemn the censorship of Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil’s installation ‘Maportaliche’ / ‘It Has No Importance’ during the Sharjah Biennial. Art that is socially and politically engaging often raises difficult, challenging and provocative questions but in an open and free society the right to freedom of expression has to be respected.[8]

The iteration of this rhetoric was wrapped up and entangled with the avant-gardist notion that art should be a radical, daring gesture that would act as a provocation on general morality and common sense.

In addition, it is ironic that the theme of the Biennial that engaged various sites in Sharjah was treason, insurrection and corruption. Entitled Plot for a Biennial, the conceptual framework of the event played with the double notion of plot, as a cinematic and literary device, an evolving of a narrative in a theatrical sense and as conspiracy. Responding to the curatorial propositions variously, the artists produced works that either dealt with the proposed curatorial framework directly, referred to it indirectly or ignored it altogether. Through these resonances and dissonances they created a variety of interconnected threads that could only be deciphered by biennale-goers/viewers after walks through the sites and venues. The viewer’s experience was affected by the chosen duration of engagement with specific works and the memorial reconstruction of these engagements. In the labyrinthine structures of the Heritage site as well as the reconstructed old houses in which works were displayed, there lay hidden plots, conspiracies and acts of treason which were manifest only if one could “read all the fine print.”[9]

It is when the local population read all the fine print that Benfodil’s work appeared to be an act of treason, an offensive gesture that created a rupture between the inhabitants of the place and international art audiences. As it turned out, the controversy over Benfodil’s work was not merely based on its content, but also the specific positioning of it in the Heritage site where “children play after school, where families wander together on the weekend and where people pass on their way to religious services at the neighbouring mosque.”[10] Not only was the site a “culturally sensitive” location, a public space where the local residents would spend time, but also the artworks installed in public areas appeared to be more or less the only ones that were received by the residents since it was often too intimidating for the locals to enter the Sharjah Art Museum, at least in the presence of the international crowd. However, since it is quite obvious that there is no one public for the Biennial, it should also be noted that there are various hierarchies within the publics, such as those Sharjah residents with passports, and precarious foreign workers whose “bare life” is exposed to the biopolitical order of wealth and status within the Emirates. Thus, which one of these publics initiated the outcry against Benfodil’s work and which one of these publics is empowered to articulate a demand or a complaint, remains a question, however one with a likely answer.[11]

No doubt, while not a planned plot, the incident surrounding Benfodil’s work enacted the title of the Biennial in a very ironic way, thus unwittingly becoming a performative tableau vivant in which the gesture of treason in the work turns into a plot in life. This logic is always already inscribed in the very gesture of treason, in the heroic avant-gardist figure of the daring artist who exposes injustices, violence and maladies of a given society. He does so in a way that the gesture becomes a blatant slap on society’s face. According to Vardan Azatyan whose text “Against Betrayal” was published in the context of the Biennial’s Manuals of Treason, the figure of the traitor/author as gesture “is based on the seduction of negative dialectics: the declaration of oneself as negativity, as an exposure of those structures that have produced you.”[12] Thus, as Azatyan continues to argue, treason as gesture is inherently situated within the liberal framework of transgression that completes the very norms it claims to transgress. It does not question “the connection between the critique it proposes and the latter’s material environment.”[13] In declaring his/her own negativity as a gesture, the traitor is caught up in the fascination with the effect of the affect that the gesture produces. Again, if we refer to Azatyan, who in turn refers to Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza’s life, it is in the liberal environment that heterodox acts can flourish. In this vein, if Benfodil’s work could be accommodated within the liberal framework of the Biennial itself and act as a gesture of cultural politics within that framework only (within the curatorial agenda, amongst the international visitors, published reviews in the art press and so on),[14] it could not be accepted as a tolerable act of transgression in the non-liberal context of Sharjah. Instead, here it acted as an offense directed towards the fundamental principles upon which a specific religiously conservative community is bound. Once the temporarily assigned liberal framework of the art event collapses with the departure of international artists, curators and journalists, the real of the locality becomes manifest. Since the inherently liberal framework of the art event within the material and social conditions in the UAE is virtual, mobile, temporary and transportable, once it vacates the site, it gets transported into another temporary space of debate on censorship, free expression and the artist’s right to act radically.

Hanan Toukan poses the question of censorship in relation to radically different cultures compared to those of liberal democracies at the core of the debate over the incident in Sharjah and Persekian’s subsequent dismissal. She states:

Questions that immediately arise include how one negotiates the role of censorship in a place where the very act of censoring is enshrined as a necessary cultural norm and a social value by regime and society alike. Additionally, the question of where one draws the line between supposedly agreed-upon social values based on local cultural sensitivities and violent acts of suppression in the name of “cultural relativism” becomes ever more pressing.[15]

However, I believe that posing the question of censorship and its negotiation with local cultural contexts still remains within the paradigm of the enactment of cultural politics. (It also supposes that there is no similarly engrained cultural need and mechanism for censorship in the liberal West.) There is a way to break from its hegemony, if one focuses attention on the very material conditions upon which art is represented and consumed in the context of the UAE and its economic and ideological relationship to sites of cultural production such as Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah, Tehran and others. But this is a topic of another discussion that the parameters of this review permit.

[1] I am grateful to Tammer El-Sheikh for his suggestions and insightful comments upon reading the draft of this paper.

[2] Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into the Category in Bourgeois Society. MIT Press, 1991.

[3] I have borrowed the term from Vardan Azatyan who uses it to denote a vicious circle of misconception and misrepresentation; the colonized subject imagines itself through the eyes of the colonizer according to the image of the latter that this subject has constituted in its mind. Mentioned in a private conversation.

[4] Bassam el-Baroni proposes a typology of art career tracks, which he calls fine art, contemporary art and fine contemporary art. Interview with Bassam el-Baroni by Hassan Khan. Part I and Part II, in Art Territories, April 25, 2011. http://www.artterritories.net/?page_id=2063

[5] Hanan Toukan, “Boat Rocking in the Art Islands: Politics, Plots and Dismissals in Sharjah’s Tenth Biennial,” in Jadaliyya. May 02, 2011.

[6] In a note published on April 17th Salti and Aivazian express their discontent over the issue: “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.” “Sharjah Biennial 10: Curators’ Final Statement”, in Universe in Universe,

[7] Rasha Salti & Haig Aivazian’s Statement, “Reaction to the Termination of Jack Persekian as Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation,” http://sharjahcallforaction.wordpress.com/rasha-salti-haig-aivazians-statement/

[8] http://www.aica-int.org/spip.php?article1164

[9] Colin Simpson, “Sharjah Biennial chief sacked over one work,” in The National. April 7, 2011. http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/art/sharjah-biennial-chief-sacked-over-one-work

[10] From an email sent to the Biennial artists by Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, President of the Sharjah Art Foundation, on April 13, 2011.

[11] HG Masters writes in Asia Pacific: “Local sources told AAP that the outcry likely came from the many Emirati families who were attending a heritage festival in April in the historical neighborhood where the biennial’s exhibition spaces and Sharjah Art Museum are located.” “Director’s Ouster Jeopardizes Sharjah Art Foundation’s Future,” April 18, 2011.

[12] Vardan Azatyan, “Against betrayal” in The Book of St. Ejneb, in The Manual for Treason. Commissioned by the 10th Sharjah Biennial, Norgunk Publishers, Istanbul, 2011, p.53.

[13] Ibid.

[14] It is not accidental that after multiple petitions initiated by “anonymous public” as well as the curators’ statements after the censorship of the work and Persekian’s removal from the position of the Foundation’s director, the work became a prime example of cultural politics within a liberal framework, as an epitome of free expression and an authoritarian refusal to engage in dialogue. Salti says: “The significance of what’s happened is that an artwork that proposes a very bold and defiant engagement with the language of Islamic jihadists can cause so much fury and outrage that it annihilates the possibility of discussion.” Quoted in “The End of Sharjah’s Biennial?,” Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, The Daily Star, April 14, 2011.

[15] Toukan, ibid