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Algeria: Artwork on rape of women by fundamentalist armed groups censored at Sharjah Biennial
Because art is free to be impolite…
Even as the Arab spring unfolds across the region, I learned with profound astonishment that Mr. Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, has been dismissed as “punishment” for allowing an artist invited to the Sharjah Biennial total freedom of expression. I am the artist in question. My installation “Maportaliche/Ecritures sauvages” [It has no importance/Wild Writings] has been censored and removed from the Biennial.
In writing this statement, I wish to express my profound indignation over these shameful acts and my solidarity with Mr. Persekian and his fantastic team. I would also like to explain the piece I presented at the Sharjah Biennial. Since the central theme of this 10th edition of the festival is betrayal, I wanted to question through my installation the resonance and dissonance between a writer and his society. As such, the installation works on three levels: texts, sound and graffiti. The central piece is a parody of a football match involving 23 headless mannequins. The T-shirts worn by one team are printed with extracts of my writings (novels, theatre, poetry), whereas the other team’s shirts feature a hybrid of material taken from Algerian popular culture and other urban signifiers (songs, jokes, popular poetry, recipes, board games, etc). Of course, my texts (particularly the graffiti) are not terribly “polite”. In fact, they are shaped by the extent of social and political violence that surrounds me. This is what my literature feeds off.
It is perhaps a fault of mine to have naively believed that life is not polite. And that art is free to be impolite and impertinent.
The controversial text is a monologue, “The Soliloquy of Sherifa,” from my play “Les Borgnes” [One-Eyed People], which has been performed in many countries, cities, festivals; in Paris, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Montreal, and in Algiers also. It is a part of my series “Pièces détachées – Lectures sauvages” / Spare Parts-Wild Readings). Some of the viewers and some of the organisers have criticised this text as obscene and blasphemous. Indeed, it may be that the words and the description can be interpreted as pornographic. The truth is that this sequence is a hallucinatory account of a young woman’s rape by fanatic Jihadists, representing the radical Islamism experienced in my country during the Civil War in the 1990s. The words may be shocking but that is because nothing is more shocking than rape itself, and all the words of the world cannot tell the atrocious suffering of a mutilated body. What is told here is sadly not a fiction. Thousands of women in Algeria suffered such a fate during the conflict, a truth which has not been told often enough.
Nevertheless, this text has been interpreted as an attack against Islam. Allow me to clarify that Sherifa’s rant refers to a phallocratic, barbarian and fundamentally liberticidal God. It is the god of the GIA, theArmed Islamic Group, this sinister sect which has raped, violated, and massacred tens of thousands of Sherifas in the name of a pathological revolutionary paradigm, supposedly inspired by Koranic ethics. Without wanting to justify myself, I must simply underline that my own Allah has nothing to do with the devastating destructive divinities claimed by these Algerian millenarian movements, those legions of Barbarians with Beards who have decimated my people with the active complicity of our security apparatus.
Finally, I would like to add that at this particularly intense juncture for Arab societies, it is highly regrettable to lose this opportunity to place liberty at the heart of the debate. Indeed, the curatorial team of the Sharjah Biennial highlighted the impact and pertinence of this challenge in tandem with the march of Arab peoples towards democracy. As such, I would like to pay homage to the curators, Rasha Salti, Suzanne Cotter and Haig Aivazian for their exceptional work, and for trusting me.
It seems to me a good sign of cultural and political health if art meets the street, and artists listen to the whispering of real life. I really hope that, in its impetuous course, this cycle of Arab revolutions, which has shaken our tyrannical and medieval political regimes, will also challenge our imaginations, tastes, aesthetics, canons and thought processes. May it contribute to refresh our signs and words. Our guardians of virtue would do better to meditate on this beautiful Arab Democratic Spring and stop repainting the walls every time a kid draws his insolent dreams.
Mustapha Benfodil, Algerian Writer.
Algiers 6 April 2011
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