[-empyre-] Fwd: [spectre] Fwd: Fwd: Removal of Works from Azerbaijan Pavilion in 54th Venice Biennale

Isak Berbic isakberbic at yahoo.com
Tue Jun 14 08:04:49 EST 2011

Regarding censorship at Sharjah Biennale:

You can find an article in the local english language newspaper here:

and another article on artinfo:

and then the petition with 1,600 signatures by the international art community: (appalled by the firing - and thus promising to never work with Sharjah again - if it does not address the issues of censorship publicly) (I believe they ["Sharjah"]  did hold a press conference at some point, but as I was not there I cannot say to what was discussed) 

I cant help but think of Mapplethorpe, Ofili, Serrano…

The artwork that caused the controversy at Sharjah Biennale by Mustapha Benfodil had written in the form of a graffiti and tee-shirt prints phrases deemed explicit and blasphemous by the people who put in the grievance against it. The work was installed on a city wall in the heritage area of the old town of Sharjah, in the proximity of small public squares, playgrounds, old bazars and mosques. This meant that the passing audience such as the general public, worshippers from the mosque etc. encountered the work, became infuriated and filed a grievance to the ruler against it. Here is a translation of some of those phrases they mentioned in their grievance: "women have been raped and murdered by verses from the Kor'an, then fu$%ed with god's holy penis; the government sucks my c$%k; f#$k the police". The context for this work has to do with Algerian conflicts and apparently these phrases quote other texts, poetry, reference football chants, and so on...

There is one key misconception regarding the Sharjah Biennale case. The large exhibition is intended to be a public city event, with the mission of promotion of culture in the community. It is complex to explain what that entails in this context, partly due to the nature of society and government structure here, the funding of arts, and partly due to the power local citizens have on matters (especially when they put forward a grievance to their ruler directly); as was the case here. The culture here is conservative, but the people are slowly changing (liberalizing). The UAE is a small country founded on private property, a sheikdom, ruled over by a ruler. Most is funded by the ruler and the government, which in theory looks out for best interest of his people. The arts foundation, the university, the museums are all subsidized and funded by the ruler and the court - and hence by the government - and hence are responsive to their citizens. This is also
 why the government can maintain such authority on all activities - since they pay for everything. This is an expensive city-wide event with more than one hundred participating artists, new commissions, flown-in artists and vip's form all over the world, fat printed catalogs... After the opening of the Biennale the upset people wrote a chain email petition to remove the work based on the fact that the work was 'offensive' and not appropriate in the public space. The petition also demanded for the dismissal of the director for not stopping the work form being shown and for bringing "filth" to the country. Many people forwarded the petition and took it all the way up to the court and the ruler himself. The ruler responded by doing what they demanded. So in a strange way, there is something backward-democratic that happened there. After this petition and the controversy the other petition [condemning the firing] was forwarded all over the world.
I am disappointed by all that has occurred: the censorship, the firing, the 1600 international art professionals who promised to never work in Sharjah again, the atmosphere and subsequent self imposed censorship which will remain here.

I also hope with some more information that I have further complicated the issue and the opinions for the readers here.

Isak Berbic

From: simon <swht at clear.net.nz>
To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Sent: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 1:35 PM
Subject: [-empyre-] Fwd: [spectre] Fwd: Fwd: Removal of Works from Azerbaijan Pavilion in 54th Venice Biennale

 I'm assuming that others have received this via spectre - but I am forwarding it just in case it doesn't make it in to the flow of the discussion, to which it appears particularly apposite.

-------- Original Message -------- 
Subject: [spectre] Fwd: Fwd: Removal of Works from Azerbaijan Pavilion in 54th Venice Biennale 
Date: Wed, 08 Jun 2011 11:18:38 +0200 
From: Francis Hunger <francis.hunger at irmielin.org> 
To: Spectre <spectre at mikrolisten.de> 

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: beral madra <madraberal at gmail.com>
Date: 2011/6/8

please distribute
I was invited by the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan to be the advisory curator of  the exhibition of Azerbaijan Pavilion in 54th Venice Biennale. From September 2010 on I have worked with Mr. Chingiz Farzaliev, who acted as commissar and local curator. All the works of these artists have been evaluated in meetings in Baku and Venice. Aidan Salakhova has presented her sculptures in every detail which have been produced in Carrara and these works together with the works of the artist have been published in the catalogue and announced in the website from April 2011 on.
31st of May, when I came to the pavilion I was informed that  Ministry of Culture has found Salakhova’s two sculptures which were installed in the entrance of the Palazzo controversial to the prestige of the country. 
Aidan Salakhova   and me, we felt very concerned and responsible of the image of the exhibition and respecting the position of the other artists we tried to be positive and find a solution. As it could not be removed during the opening days, the sculptures were covered with textile. Until 5th of June, every day   we have discussed with the authorities and responsible people of the pavilion and explained that: 
-Removing the sculpture will mean “censorship” and it will do more harm to the image of the country than the sculpture itself; it would be much effective, if the officials would place a label next to the sculpture and declare that the authorities are not acknowledging and approving the form, message or concept of this sculpture, that it is the interpretation of the artist. 
-The concept of the sculptures has been misinterpreted and misjudged by the authorities or by their advisers; all symbols, signs, objects Salakhova is using have a historical and traditional knowledge and anchorage.
-The meaning and message of this work is extensively explained in my catalogue text and is eventually the artist’s interpretation of “being woman under the religious dictums”; here the religion is not only related to Islam but also to Orthodoxy and other religions, which before Islam introduced the veil;
-The selection of artists and the works have been made by me and by Mr. Farzaliev with utmost responsibility and prudence; during this process there was not one negative hint that came on Salakhova’s work. 
-The Venice Biennale is a platform for extreme artistic freedom, for sensitive topics, for limitless criticism; therefore all countries must consider and accept this context before participating.
However, we were not able to convince and stop the removal of these sculptures.
In my 25 years of curating profession, I have never experienced this kind of conflict. However, lately I am observing - probably most of my colleagues also do - the growing intrusion of the political and official power on contemporary art production and on the artists and curators in many countries, including the developed democracies. Contemporary art production and its theoretical and critical context is being employed and exploited by the official power as well as by the private sector as a tool for high prestige and glory; but at the same time its content and concepts are not tolerated and acknowledged. 
We in the production sector of contemporary art are witnessing and enduring this use/abuse process. We release protests and supports for the victims of these attitudes. Journalists investigate and write about it. However, at the end the damage is done and the artist or the curator suffers.
In the case of Azerbaijan Pavilion, I think from now on this is the problem of the artists and curators living and working in Azerbaijan. I have done my best, to bring the Azerbaijan contemporary art production into the agenda of international contemporary art; however I must acknowledge that I was naive and I failed. The artists, art critics and curators in Azerbaijan should act and liberate art making, art production and creative criticism and take their long deserved position in the international art. 
On the other side, this is also becoming a general problem in the art world and I think the artists and curators should have an international legal protection against these conflicts.
Beral Madra
Tuesday, 07 June 2011

beral madra
curator, art critic
BM Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul
0090 212 2311023
bmadra at tnn.net
btmadra at dsl.ttmail.com

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