How Jack Persekian is bringing the world to Sharjah
JACK PERSEKIAN does not paint, nor draws, nor sings, yet he has an inordinate passion for arts. And his passion has taken him from a failed arts business to being a curator, producer and organiser of art exhibitions across the world.
This year, it has made him the artistic director of the Middle East's most prestigious arts mega-event: the two-month long Sharjah Biennial 8 (2007).
Persekian, an easy-going Palestinian of Armenian origin and a father of 3 children, traces his passion to his childhood days in Jerusalem, when he used to help his father, a famous bookbinder, in his workshop. "All the great institutions, the University, College of Fine Arts, Museum, would send him books to bind. It was amazing stuff, with high quality art work, images, calligraphy, the kind that no adults - leave alone kids - would have access to,' recalled Persekian. "It stayed in my mind."
Years later, after finishing his college, he joined a musical group for six years. In 1992, when a friend offered him a chance to go into business, Persekian, on the spur of the moment, said: 'Let's open an arts gallery.' "That childhood fascination was there in my subconscious, and when the opportunity came, it gushed forth," he said.
He ran the gallery for five years, though it was losing money. But it gave him a new direction. He studied art, read about it, devoured catalogues, started visiting exhibitions, talked with artists and began curating and finally producing art shows.
In 1998, he founded the Al Mamal Foundation of Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, and went on to curate exhibitions in Spain, Bonn, Stuttgart, Berlin, Sao Paulo and many other places. He started working for the Sharjah Biennial in 2004, and was appointed the head curator for the Biennial 2005.
"Sharjah Biennial is definitely the most important event showcasing contemporary art - in scale, number of participants, levels, exposure... everything," said Persekian in an informal chat with City Times, on the eve of the opening of SB 8 on April 4th in Sharjah.
The beginning of a movement
Sharjah Biennial started in 1993, based on the model of the Venice Biennial and Cairo Biennial, which is an exhibition that invites countries to put up their pavilions. It continued in this format till 2003 when Sheikha Hoor bint Sultan Al Qasimi, took over as the Biennial's director and changed it to a curated show only by invitation. "The format was changed to make the exhibition more interesting, because in national pavilions, you have good artists and not so good ones. It all depends on the interest and financial resources of the countries involved," Persekian pointed out. "We now have curators who choose the artists, irrespective of where they come from."
Each Sharjah Biennial has a theme, and this year the Biennial's theme proposes art as a way of creating a better understanding about our relationship with nature and the environment, while considering its social, political, cultural and subjective dimensions in an interdisciplinary way. SB 8 will focus on the renewed role of art in addressing a wide range of issues that alarmingly affect human existence on earth.
Persekian explained that for this year's Biennial three curators were hired: Mohammed Kazem, a local artist based in Dubai, Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and Eva Scharrer, a curator based in Basle. Their job involved going and researching artists whose work somehow have touched upon the exhibition's theme. "For example, the last biennial's theme was ecology. Which means we had to find artists who had previously touched upon that subject or done work pertaining to the issue and its many aspects, said Persekian.
Then, he added, comes the engagement with the artist. "What we try to do for the SB, which is unique, is not bring ready made work, but try as much as possible to commission new work that is specific for the Biennial and specific for Sharjah," he explained. "So, we invite the artist to come here, be in Sharjah, spend time, visit, talk to people, discuss and then come up with ideas for a work that is related to the Biennial theme."
SB 8 will feature 80 artists from over 40 countries, including 28 artists from the Arab world. Along with the two-month long art extravaganza itself, there would be live performances by artists, film programmes that also touch upon the exhibition's theme, and a 3-day symposium in which intellectuals, academicians, scientists, artists, politicians and others from different parts of the world would participate. "For me, however, the important part is the education programme, which also runs for two months," said Persekian. "This is in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, where buses filled with students from many UAE schools come to visit the Biennial. In 2005, we've had more than 70,000 school children, of all ages, visiting the event."
The Biennial encompasses a whole gamut of artistic fields and disciplines. From paintings, sculptures, photography, video, installations, sound works, film programmes to specific works... and much more. And the entire show takes place at many venues in the city: Sharjah Museum, Expo Centre, Qanat Al Qasba, Khaled Lagoon, behind Expo Centre, Rolla Square and others. "It's like an arts Olympiad, with different events going on at different venues in the city," said Persekian.
Different perceptions, different takes
He added that the artists this year have adopted different takes and approaches to focus on the Biennial's theme. "We'll have work that literally touches on the issues that are referred to in the theme," said Persekian. Issues like pollution, water, natural resources and abuse of natural resources; global warming; the result of wars in the region and their effect on environment; psychological concerns of how environment affects individuals, and living in such a context and having to have to deal with such issues.
"So you might find artists from the region whose work is more geared towards the personal, like suffering, the issue of identity, the effect of shifting of landscape, either through migration or forced exile etc," he explained. "And their work will reflect where they come from. For example, we have an artist who has painted garbage and all the leftovers of people. Then another artist is lining up 120 cars, around a big structure of 60 x 60 meters, 2.5 meters in height, all covered. And here, the artist is collecting all the fumes of the 120 cars that are backed against the structure, and inside the forming of a menacing dark, black cloud that you can actually see. Of course, all these varied works bring in a fascinating diversity to the exhibition."
Naturally, the Biennial will not be without its accolade. "Traditionally, we have had Biennial awards, and this year, too, there are two awards," he pointed out. "A committee of international jury will judge the work of two artists who will get prize money. Additionally, there will be a UNESCO prize for promotion of arts, organised by UNESCO, and they will be selecting an artist from the Biennial for the award. Plus, there is a Digital Young Creative award."
SB has, undoubtedly, emerged as the one of the most illustrious arts events in the Middle East. But none of this would have been possible, Persekian pointed out, if it wasn't for His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.
"Of course, the Biennial has come about because of the long and persistent efforts of Dr Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, who has for many years encouraged, supported, built and nourished a great many arts projects," Persekian said. "For example, he has built the first and, until now, the only College of Fine Arts in the whole of Gulf. There's no other place for fine arts but in Sharjah. He started the Book Fair in the Gulf when nobody knew about the concept. He started the Biennial in 1993 when no one else was doing even art exhibitions. That's why, it's the most important exhibition because it has built a reputation over all these years. It has worked hard to get this status. And it's not because it is paid for by money. You've to have passion for art and you have to build it. To be recognised as the most important is something you only can get by doing it so many times, and doing it right, and improving it constantly."
He added that the Biennial has built a great team that puts this event together. "And they're all from here, who have gained the experience by doing it," he said. "And this is what I'm talking about: building the know-how, the expertise, the sensibility and sensitivity, to work in such a context and to cater for such an event. Sharjah Biennial, undoubtedly, stands at international level and standard."
It has also contributed to the flowering of young Arab talents. Persekian said the younger Arab artists are moving from very classical schools of painting and sculpture to more contemporary schools, using different tools and mediums to express what they want to say. "So, in a sense, there is a complete liberation, making their art is more proactive, more outgoing, more involved, and more socially aware."
When asked whether he believes that art can influence enough to bring about changes in the social milieu, Persekian averred, "To me, the artists are the souls of society. And when an artists or group of artists bear upon a critical issue, people listen to them, because they are the voice of the conscience."
And when asked whether he believes the SB has brought about changes in the society, Persekian said, "I think it definitely has. For changes in society, you have to observe generations. But you can see a whole group of younger artists who have grown within the influence of the Biennial and what is happening there. They have been affected so much that when you look at their work and the calibre of their work, you can see that three of the Emirati artists who participated in SB 2005 went on take part in the Singapore Biennial and in Europe, and have had as much success there as they have had here. In that sense, the Biennial is bringing in education, knowledge and the standard that artists need to be armed with to be able to talk on the same level as any artist coming from anywhere in the world."
Jack Persekian continued, "So, Sharjah Biennial is achieving a lot more on different levels. It's an educational initiative; it's bringing the world to Sharjah and opening up Sharjah to the world. It's raising the whole profile of the local art scene to international level. It's achieving...much...much more..."