Translation, Treason, Transfiguration: The Biennal as an Agent of Political Consciousness

Rasha Salti, Nancy Adajania

The extract that follows is taken from a conversation that took place between Rasha Salti—scholar of Arab cinema and co-curator of the tenth Sharjah Biennale—and me, in May 2012. Rasha had curated the Sharjah Biennale the year before, and I was in the process of curating the ninth Gwangju Biennale as one of its artistic directors. We were comparing notes from our different locales of experience.

Rasha had recently faced the censorship of Mustapha Benfodil’s work at the tenth Sharjah Biennale, in reprisal for critiquing the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and its patriarchal structures of systemic violence. This incident highlighted the problem of biennials functioning in authoritarian or conservative contexts, where spectacular cultural soft-power initiatives can draw attention away from the proscription of public debate.

My dilemma as a curator was of a different kind. Since the birth moment of the Gwangju Biennale was inscribed in a people’s uprising against an authoritarian regime, the tendency has been to fetishize this revolutionary moment as a once-and-for-all achievement of an imagined popular will-to-democracy. How then does one bear witness to turbulences of the present political moment that do not correspond with this foundational myth, and indeed, demonstrate that the “will-to-democracy” is always a work in progress? As one of my responses to this challenge, I folded a retrospective of the photographer-activist Noh Suntag into the ninth Gwangju Biennale. It included a melancholy photograph from Noh’s State of Emergency series (#5, 2006) that worked, for me, as a germinal moment of biennial self-critique. It showed a row of police helmets lying on the ground outside the Gwangju Biennale hall. They belonged to policemen protecting the US ambassador during a visit to an earlier edition of the Biennale. 

By refusing to resort to self-censorship—an occupational hazard undoubtedly faced by biennial curators—at a time when the insurrections in Tunisia and Egypt (the early phase of the Arab Spring) had only just taken place, Rasha courageously “spoke truth to power” and confronted the consequences of moral policing in a situation where the absence of a vibrant public sphere renders hollow the “publicness” of a biennial. The rows of police helmets are never far from the republic of the biennial. We would ignore them at our peril.

Nancy Adajania

Mustapha Benfodil, Maportaliche / It Has No Importance , 2011. Photo courtesy of Gregory Sholette.

Nancy Adajania [N.A.]: When you co-curated the tenth Sharjah Biennale with Suzanne Cotter and Haig Aivazian, what were some of the most urgent questions crowding the horizon of your curatorium? What were the various methodologies that you and your colleagues deployed to find exhibitionary and discursive manifestations for these urgencies?

Rasha Salti [R.S.]: We were three curators, living in the four corners of the world, expecting to curate the biennial while keeping up with our other professional commitments. We knew offhand that we could neither do our research together, nor labor to produce a single, finished text / position and discuss every single work. Instead, we came up with a much more realistic and reasonable scheme that accommodated for our singularities, respective experiences, penchants, and concerns. Rather than producing a taut, neat and organizing principle, we instead identified a constellation of keywords, or motifs that sketched a framework. Moreover, the physical space of exhibition included several buildings around the area in Sharjah known as the arts and heritage area. In other words, the visitor / spectator was invited to meander along a path, a journey, or a narrative. The constellation of keywords / motifs seemed even more appropriate as a guiding—rather than organizing—principle.
On my end, the principal urgent question that animated my contribution to the “curatorium” (fantastic word!) was the notion of traitor / treason. One of the most dramatic features of our hyper-capitalist era is the near bankruptcy of the political imaginary. The void it has left behind has been “occupied” by morality, hence the growing currency of politicized religiosity. Even the Left, in all its variegations, indulges in the language of morality. Treason is one of the most potent and salient tenets of a morally charged principle of organization; while dissent, in contrast, is secular. When I looked up the semantic range of “traitor”, its synonyms were said to range from “turncoat” to “insurgent”. In other words, traitor does not contain a moral judgement in itself; rather, it is a mirror of the political stakes and a measure of the so called traitor’s position vis-à-vis authority (or power). In today’s political landscape, and in the closure or bankruptcy of the political, treason seemed like a fertile terrain for subversion.

Detail of Noh Suntag’s retrospective, developed as part of 9GB. State of Emergency # 5, 2006. Police officers protecting the US ambassador during a visit to the Gwangju Biennale disarm themselves in front of the exhibition hall. Photo courtesy of Orlando Thompson.

N.A.: What are the risks of interpretation and communication involved, when developing a biennial-level project in the Arab world? How do you retain an awareness of the “right to take offence” that may be exercised by political interests or bodies of religious opinion, while also attempting to address some of the urgencies of the region, which are by and large not articulated in the Arab public sphere?

R.S.: I have now come to say “the much-regretted tenth edition of the Sharjah Biennial” because I am so sorry at the outcome. Obviously, no one ever intended to offend—neither the artist, nor the curators, nor the director of the foundation under whose patronage the biennial functioned. The work by Algerian artist and writer Mustapha Benfodil, which instigated an incendiary campaign, was grossly misinterpreted. Perhaps it was a mistake to display it in an open space in the vicinity of a mosque. At least, I have committed to admit that was my mistake. However, the supposedly “blasphemous” statement was an excerpt from a testimony that had been recorded, by the artist, of a woman who had been raped by radical Islamists and was throwing their own words back at them. In other words, the work critically addressed the moral high ground of radical Islamist discourse and the complacency of Arab regimes with it. Lost in the fray of the “scandal” and accusations of blasphemy was that the indignation of the so-called Sharjah “public sphere” was actually against the words of the Salafist rapist. The artist merely made them “visible”, and the curator made them visible “next to a mosque”. Issuing clarifications was utterly ineffectual. It was almost pointless to publish clarifications. Rare were the journalists who were interested in engaging with the artist. The summary dismissal of Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation then, was excessively cruel, intentionally humiliating and intransigent. It was so “spectacular” that it overshadowed all possible discussion of misunderstandings, the maligning of intention, or meaning.
In all honesty, I was shocked, dumbfounded even, and at a loss as to what I ought to do. There was a week, six or seven days, separating the news of Jack’s dismissal from the public issuance of a petition expressing outrage at his dismissal and making all sorts of appeals to protect his rights, to absolve his reputation and to propose a boycott of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Two days later, Jack published a disavowal of the petition. Case closed. Case closed? When I say that I was shocked, I mean that I was emotionally distraught. When I say that I was dumbfounded, I mean that I realized, every hour and every day that went by, that people around me knew a lot more about the situation than I did, or that was communicated to me. When I say that I was at a loss, I mean that I could not tell rumor from fact, speculation from information. When Jack published his disavowal, it was clear that the Sharjah Art Foundation’s lawyers had deployed their power to close the case. In fact, most people—artists, intellectuals, and critics wanted the case closed. They wanted to move on. Some close friends (artists and fellow curators) advised me to travel to Sharjah, to ask Sheikha Hoor al-Qasemi, the ruler’s daughter and effective head of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) for a meeting, to apologize, and to bring the scandal to a more “decent” closure. Others suggested I propose to face the angry mob in an open discussion.
Of all the institutions in the UAE and the Gulf, the SAF had earned a great deal of sympathy from protagonists in the region. On the one hand, they were not as bombastic, arrogant and loud as other institutions endowed with means; and on the other hand their institution- and capacity-building intentions seemed more genuine. They carried the frugal promise of resourceful partnerships, along with “comfortable” means of production; a rare occurrence in the Arab world. They also operated at a safe distance from the market. Many practitioners were upset with me for spoiling the potentiality of collaborating with the SAF. The “incident” was not uncommon, neither in the history of exhibitions and biennials worldwide, nor in the UAE. Some deemed it was bound to happen. We (the curators and the SAF team) were pushing boundaries, and in the year of the Arab insurgencies, something had to give. The authorities in the UAE were extremely wary after the eruption of the insurgency in Bahrain and the participation of their army in crushing that insurgency. I was very skeptical of what a public discussion, facing the “angry” mob, could have produced, but more importantly, I was not sure the SAF wanted to set up something like that in the first place.

So when you ask about a public sphere… There isn’t one per se in the Arab world. Arguably, the Arabic-speaking twenty-four-hour news broadcast media carry that pretense, but their political agendas are so obtuse and obvious, that there is nothing public, let alone “spheric”, about them. There are however, public spheres in the Arab world—plural, diverse, and multiple—on university campuses, in alternative art spaces, and in the blogosphere… None were genuinely interested in parsing the scandal, or proposing a platform for discussion. That said, and to be very fair: in the shadow of the Arab insurgencies, it was neither an interesting nor an urgent matter. I myself was reluctant, even embarrassed, to broach the subject when my beloved family and friends in Syria were in danger, fighting for their lives… when insurgents in Yemen were proving every day, against all expectations and odds, that they were smarter, and more creative than anyone had imagined in their wildest dreams.
I want to conclude my answer with this observation. The UAE is a country organized according to absolute power. It is a federation of “emirates”, where each is ruled by a man, by convention amongst ruling tribes. There are no bodies to circumvent the authority of each rule, no systems of accountability, and certainly, no transparency. There is court intrigue, there are rumors, with hearsay, projection, and speculation on the whims, the favor and the disfavor of a given ruler. There is no possibility of a public sphere. There is a portent, or a semblance, of open space, platforms, but all is contingent on the whims of absolute authority. Somehow, we had been “distracted” from that reality: the biennial and the art scene (art fair and art market included) created and entertained the illusion that there was a public sphere. In that respect, the biennial “crashed” against that illusion.

Detail of Noh Suntag’s retrospective at 9GB. From the Forgetting Machine series , 2006–2007. (Decaying photographs of the insurgents of the Gwangju Uprising, 1980, at the Gwangju Cemetery. The uprising heralded the democracy movement in South Korea; the insurgents were brutally massacred.) Photo courtesy of Orlando Thompson.

N.A.: Elsewhere, you have spoken about the effigies of nationalism, of how some Arab states have manipulated history and distorted the possibilities of the present by generating partial, even mythological narratives of the early postcolonial past (the cult of Nasser in Egypt, for example). Do you find that a new sense of citizenship, in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, would involve a self-critical look at these effigies or unquestionable foundational myths? Will this proceed, in your view, from a more liberal perspective? Or will it instead be a case of new dogmas (the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists) simply replacing the old ones?

View of Noh Suntag’s retrospective at the Ninth Gwangju Biennale, 012. Photo courtesy of Nancy Adajania.

R.S.: The most remarkable thing about the so-called “Arab Spring”—which has stretched to other seasons at this point, for some—is how it has demonstrated that we are utterly unequipped to make head or tail of it. I have watched—with self-confessed sadistic pleasure—journalists, analysts and even scholars fumble, stumble and be proven wrong, terribly wrong; time after time, incident after incident. The elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but once you visit these countries, in other words, once you are there, reading newspapers, walking in the streets (public spaces), listening to people, you realize that the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold over power is being tested, not by imperialists or the G-8, but rather by the people, their electorate, and those who voted for other political representatives. Surely, the Muslim Brotherhood embodies the political aspirations of a significant portion of the population, but obviously not of the majority of the population. They are entrusted with governing these countries now, and will be held accountable. The elections and the manner in which governance is experienced, or regarded, is the real outcome of the first chapter of the insurgencies in Tunisia and Egypt, more so than the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections.
I say the first chapter of the insurgency, because people have protested as vehemently since the ouster of their despots as they did prior to it. These insurgencies are also pivotal moments.
They have forced elected governments to reckon with the limits of their power and authority. Essentially, the political has been brought back to the public sphere; to its foundational grounds, and it is being shaped by citizens. The Arab insurgencies have befuddled journalists and analysts because of their unshackling from dogma. The Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to reconfigure and coerce its ideology to prevail and make it hegemonic. Its opponents are fighting back, and they fight back using various and very different strategies as well as battlegrounds. This is one of the outcomes of the insurgency that’s radically new.
The idiom of patriotism in the insurgencies has sometimes been misrepresented as being nationalistic. The “revisionism” of the nationalist “effigies” has not yet surfaced, but I am confident it will come. For instance, the question of “Arab Jews”, or Jewish populations in the Arab world has been taboo in public discourse for at least three decades. Typically, the political movements that have not been dismissive of our Jewish populations have been the ultra-Left, but over the years, the question of pluralism—ethnic, cultural and religious—has been at best eschewed, and at worst, maligned. During one of the many rallies in Tahrir, I happened to listen to a young man giving a speech on a stage. He invoked “the people” but then went on to insist that Egyptians were “Muslims, Christians and Jews”… He did not have to mention “Jews”; the discourse over religious tolerance has been almost exclusively about Muslims and Christians, yet the very fact that he felt compelled to do so implies that he wanted to go further back in time in “revising” the question of tolerance and the plurality of Egyptians. In Syria, the insurgents have mixed the use of Kurdish and Arabic in posters and slogans to underscore the unity and plurality of the Syria they want to create. These are anecdotes, and they could be “moments”—not necessarily solid enough to be considered as evidence of how things have changed. I prefer to be optimistic, to acknowledge and to hold on to these moments so that they are not lost…

Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love , 2011. Photo courtesy of Gregory Sholette.

N.A.: Your work in film curation (whether curating film programmes, festivals or biennials) is very substantial and impressive. What kind of reception has your work received over the years? Could your work have been included in school or college curricula, or could it have provoked a lively debate in the public sphere?

R.S.: You are generous and charitable. I am not sure “substantial” and “impressive” are totally deserved. I don’t think any of the programmes have had the sort of impact you point out, be it on college curricula, or in provoking lively debates in the public sphere. I was told by many in Syria that the book I edited on Syrian cinema was much appreciated because it gave so much space to “primary sources”, that is, texts by filmmakers and interviews with them. The Syrian cinema retrospective, co-curated with Richard Peña at the Lincoln Center (entitled “The Road to Damascus”), received impressive attention from the media. It toured to interesting places across the world. Touring film programmes is very complicated, specifically because of the negotiations around rights. The MoMA film programme I referred to earlier, titled “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s until Now”, is unfortunately very difficult to tour, but I am hoping that institutions will want to go to the trouble.

N.A.: Since your affiliations are transregional, would you find yourself limited by some such definition as a “contemporary Arab subjectivity”, or do you find it enabling and open-ended as a cultural position?

R.S.: It can go both ways. There is definitely an element of “contemporary Arab subjectivity” that I experience every day and which makes for a cornerstone of my sense of being in the world. It is not all that I experience, nor is it all of my being in the world. An open-ended cultural position is something we, curators, create as much as it “comes to us”, or have to contend with.
Like most relationships, it is the work of both entities. I know I might sound naïve or overly optimistic, but I would like to defend the idea that these “ascriptions” are not entirely set in stone by the one entity—one which has more power and resources than I do.. Again, the Arab insurgencies are radically re-defining what Arab contemporary subjectivity means. This is an intense moment of radical reconfigurations and re-articulations. Most thrilling.

N.A.: Rasha, thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience with such generosity.

Slavs and Tatars, Friendship of Nations , 2011. Photo courtesy of Gregory Sholette.

[This text is excerpted from a conversation between the curators Rasha Salti and Nancy Adajania, “Translation, Treason, Transfiguration: The Biennale as an Agent of Political Consciousness” published in Take on Art, Issue 08: Biennale, June 13, 2012 (guest edited by Ranjit Hoskote).]