Posted 06 April 2005
"One of my main concerns in life has been the issue of identity, of the notion of who I am, where I belong and where I want to be".
Sharjah Biennial 7 is the only international contemporary art event of its kind in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Entry is free, and the event has been designed to involve students as well as the rest of the community. In 1993, Sharjah (the third Emirate in economic significance in the UAE) hosted the first Biennial and since then has hosted 6 sessions over 12 years.
Jyoti Kalsi has contributed the following article to the "Gulf News" Dubai daily ("Surrounded by Art", 6th April 2005, tabloid supplementary cover story), including an interview with Jack Persekian:
The Sharjah Biennial 7 will showcase paintings, videos and art installations from the region and the world More than 70 artists from 36 countries will take part in the Sharjah Biennial 7 which opens today.
They will present their interpretation of the event’s theme of Belonging through paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs and installations, many of which have been commissioned for the event which continues until June 6.
For the first time since its inception in 1993 - the event is being hosted at two venues, the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Expo Centre.
Also for the first time, a contemporary art education programme has been designed to actively involve students and the local community in the event.
This includes an international symposium on biennials, discussions on the theme of belonging and a variety of student workshops. Entry is free and trained guides are available at the venue for free guided tours.
Sharjah Biennial 7 - the only international contemporary art event of its kind in the GCC - was conceptualised and organised by head curator Jack Persekian.
Born and brought up in Jerusalem, Persekian is the founder and director of Anadiel Gallery and the Al Ma’mal Foundation of Contemporary Art in Jerusalem. He played a key role in establishing and developing the contemporary art movement in Palestine and in putting Palestinian and contemporary Arab art in the international limelight.
He is an adviser to the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and has been a curator for several prestigious exhibitions around the world.
A week ago, I met him in his office at the Sharjah Art Museum. The place was bustling with activity as artists and artworks began arriving from various parts of the world. In between supervising the special construction work being done at the Sharjah Expo for certain installations and ensuring that the artworks were displayed just as the artists wanted them, Persekian took some time off to talk to Tabloid about the significance of the theme and what the event hopes to achieve:
Tabloid: What was your vision of the theme?
Jack Persekian: I was honoured when HH Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Biennial 7, appointed me the head curator for this event. We discussed many ideas before settling on the theme of belonging.
I am of Armenian origin, born in Palestine and an American citizen living in Jerusalem. One of my main concerns in life has been the issue of identity, of the notion of who I am, where I belong and where I want to be. When I came to Sharjah I realised that this theme is quite relevant to this environment. There are more expatriates than UAE nationals in this country and there is a great mixture of different people passing through this country who make it their temporary home.
To some extent this reflects the state of the whole world today. We are living more and more in transient places. We travel more and spend more and more time at airports and between spaces and places.
Yet on the other hand, there is so much conflict connected to identity, territory and occupation.
So at one extreme you have a struggle over belonging and identity and on the other you have the possibility that anyone can buy a home on the Palm Island [a huge real estate project off shore Dubai in the shape of a palm tree, which has become the symbol of recent construction development in Dubai – Azad-hye]
Hence the word belonging is loaded with meaning. I thought I would like to see how artists react to it - be it in a banal sense, as a complex challenging notion or just with cynicism.
Tabloid: What do you hope to achieve through this event?
Jack Persekian: Biennials are an important platform to hear what contemporary artists have to say. For artists it is a place where they can interact with each other, exchange ideas and crystallise their dreams and thoughts.
For us the event works on many levels. It opens doors to the outside world, putting Sharjah and the UAE on the international art scene.
It provides a platform for artists from around the globe to come and work here, be inspired by the region, relate to it and then become ambassadors of this place. It is also a great opportunity for local artists and art students to interact with and learn from some of the most talented and experienced contemporary artists. One of our chief goals is to engage the local community with this event.
Tabloid: How do you plan to do that?
Jack Persekian: With the support of the Ministry of Education, we will have students from UAE schools coming here every day for guided tours followed by discussions and painting sessions in the creativity room.
The Sharjah University College of Fine Arts has taken a week off so that the students can work with the visiting artists, helping them with the installation of their works and in the process gaining invaluable insights into art. We will also hold workshops by various artists at the College of Fine Arts and American University of Sharjah.
We have also planned interesting talks and seminars and an artists-in-residence programme, where two artists will live and work here for the duration of the Biennial and all art lovers are invited to join them in creating interesting artworks.
We also have a reading room, where visitors can find a wonderful selection of books on art and philosophy. The books and the seminars will be in English and Arabic.
Tabloid: How did you select the artists?
Jack Persekian: My two associate curators and I looked for artists who in the past have explored notions of identity, homeland, mobility and displacement. Biennials are about contemporary works, so all the exhibits are recent works by the artists. We also commissioned some site-specific works for the event.
My expertise is in artists from this region, so Arab artists and UAE artists are well represented.
Tabloid: What were the most difficult and the best part of putting together this event?
Jack Persekian: It was a great challenge to have an overall vision and to communicate it so that everyone on the project felt a part of it.
The most difficult part was to convince myself that I can live up to the challenge and deliver. The best part is to see my concept materialise and to know that people from all over the world feel it is worthwhile being involved in it.
Tabloid: Could you mention some of the highlights among the exhibits?
Jack Persekian: Every artist has something to say and every exhibit we have is interesting.
But I cherish the projects by artists who came down early to think through their ideas with us and tried to understand the place, the venue, the region and culture and created specific artworks for this theme and venue.
Tabloid: What has been the role of artists during the Palestinian conflict? What kind of response do they get during exhibitions abroad?
Jack Persekian: In general, the role of art and artists, like that of all intellectuals, is to challenge dogmas and notions of stagnation, provoke thought on issues pertinent to society, elaborate on the aspirations of people and articulate what the future could be.
In Palestine, artists have always been in the forefront of the liberation movement. They started by creating a consciousness of identity among people and their role has evolved with time.
Through their depiction of issues that affect Palestinians they have played an active role in having the voice of Palestine heard worldwide.
The response to Palestinian artists abroad is overwhelming. People see news about the region all the time and are curious to meet the people living through it.
Tabloid: Where does Arab art stand in relation to the international art scene?
Jack Persekian: Today there is intense focus on this region, either because of wars and conflict or because of thriving economies like that of the UAE.
Arab artists, especially the younger generation, have addressed these issues quite articulately through their work.
Arab art is in tune with international art and many artists from this region are making an impact on the international scene.
Upper-left photo: Sharjah Biennial 7 head curator Jack Persekian (from Jerusalem).