Too Little Too Late: The Art World’s Letter-Writing Campaign to the UAE

by Michael Anthony Farley on June 3, 2015 Opinion

A model of the under-construction, controversial Saadiyat Island development. [via NAFAS]

A model of the under-construction, controversial Saadiyat Island development. [via Nasf]

Earlier this week, sixty leaders from cultural institutions around the globe sent a letter to the art institutions and development organizations involved with Saadiyat Island, an under-construction complex of foreign museums and universities off the coast of Abu Dhabi. They’re protesting the United Arab Emirates’ refusal to allow cultural figures Ashok Sukumaran, Walid Raad, and Andrew Ross into the country. The three are among some of the highest-profile artists, academics, and activists to be turned away recently over their involvement with Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists and activists demanding rights for the thousands of “guest workers” who toil under inhumane conditions while building Saadiyat Island, where outposts of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University are under construction. The letter was published Monday in a Hyperallergic report.

It’s great that the global cultural community is finally calling attention to the interrelated issues of freedom of speech and labor rights in the UAE. But is a polite letter too little too late? When Western cultural institutions agreed to play ball with the Emiratis in the first place, what were they expecting?

We’ve always known that the Emirates are ruled by a totalitarian regime that’s somehow gotten a pass. Censorship—as well as the persecution of LGBTQ people, immigrants, rape victims, and activists—is flagrant and widely documented. We all know that Dubai and Abu Dhabi—where discrimination against women and ethnic minorities is accepted along with medieval Sharia law—are hyper-capitalist, environmental disasters built by what is essentially slave labor. What we should be questioning is why the world’s generally-left leaning cultural institutions are allowing themselves to be used as branding tools to market the Emiratis’ real estate speculations as a cosmopolitan port-of-call for the global community.

According to an in-depth article and video exposé by The Guardian, the Emiratis approached the museums and universities opening branches on Saadiyat Island with the too-good-to-refuse offer of brand new, state-of-the-art facilities bankrolled almost entirely by the UAE. When those institutions’ leadership raised concerns about the area’s deplorable labor record, they were assured that Saadiyat island would be different. Based on what we now know about labor abuses, that appears to be a lie. But even if workers had been treated less horrifically, is a new building or endowment worth an institution’s silent complicity with tyranny?

Knowing that LGBTQ residents of Abu Dhabi are routinely threatened with violence, imprisonment, and forced hormone injections, how can the board of the Guggenheim justify propping up the regime’s image by shipping over some gay crowd-pleasing Warhols? How can NYU, in good conscious, send their female students, faculty, and staff to a country where they could be imprisoned on adultery charges for reporting a rape? I want to believe that the institutions that are supposed to represent the best aspects of humanity care about more than acquiring objects or cashing tuition checks. I want to believe that schools, museums, and theaters have an ethical code that at least attempts to come close to the ideals of the thinkers, artists, and writers they present. More than making Abu Dhabi seem more cultured, these arrangements make the cultural powerhouses in the West look hypocritical and shameless.

The very history and moral fabric of the institutions involved runs counter to what the UAE stands for. A sizeable chunk of the Guggenheim’s collection was donated by Peggy Guggenheim, niece of the museum’s founder. If she—an outspoken, sexually liberated, alcohol-loving, lesbian-affair-having woman—were to visit the Emirates today, she could face imprisonment or possibly even the death penalty. The greatness of the artists who inspired the Guggenheim’s collection—from the Bauhaus school to Pablo Picasso—wasn’t just about aesthetic revolution. They shared a deep willingness to confront and challenge fascist regimes. As such, it seems oddly hollow to exhibit Cubist still-lives in a city-state that would actively silence any artist who attempted the Emirati equivalent of “Guernica.”

But apart from refusing to address calls for human rights reform, the royals that rule the Emirates are just fucking insane. These are the people who commission giant toy monster trucks to drive around the desert and build skyscrapers without sewers. They spend millions on shit that looks like it came from a yard sale at Neverland Ranch and videotape themselves torturing people before running them over in a Mercedes. They’re as decadent and out-of-touch with reality as villains in an absurdly high-budget Pasolini film. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan and his wife have literally poured millions of dollars of funding into promoting the idea that the Holocaust never happened. When Harvard’s Divinity School accepted a donation from the Sheik in 2000, it ignited a scandal among students who wanted nothing to do with such an objectively wrong and morally irresponsible stance. So why are NYU and the Guggenheim—two institutions whose legacies are inexorably intertwined with those of the countless academics and artists who resisted, fled, or were murdered by the Nazis—agreeing to work with an authoritarian state whose ruler is a Holocaust denier? The Louvre itself barely survived [PDF] the Nazi occupation of Paris. How does its board of directors sit in meetings and smile politely across the table from someone who is clearly wrong in every sense of the word?

Obviously, cultural exchange is a good thing, but that’s not what the current paradigm in the Gulf represents. The UAE’s vast malls and housing developments masquerading as cities import the cultural capital of established world metropolises—The best architects in London! The most famous museum in Paris! The most New York University in New York!—in an attempt to buy an illusion of cosmopolitanism or legitimacy. But culture isn’t something that should be bought and sold—it grows organically out of a plurality of ideas, challenges to establishments, and constant renegotiations of power and capital. Wealth might’ve built and filled the museums of New York, but centuries of history and an ever-shifting avant garde gave meaning to their contents. Until Abu Dhabi is allowed room for authentic discourse, its attempts at emulating the signifiers of that discourse will remain mere spectacle—as inane and base as another man-made island, racetrack, or faux mediterranean villa.

The question we’re left with is how the art world should engage with the UAE. Would an academic and cultural boycott—like the one many artists have pledged in protest of Israel’s human rights atrocities—be any more effective here? What would authentic cultural exchange look like? Is there an alternative to wealthy, powerful patrons luring wealthy, powerful institutions? When I think of an image of an honest moment of global culture engaging the UAE, it isn’t a gated compound for an Oxford college on the fringe of an office park or even the Sharjah Biennial: it’s drag queens performing in only t-shirts, baseball caps, and sunglasses.

In recent years, there have been several instances of event organizers booking famous drag performers from the U.S. or Europe for parties—perhaps based on the false assumption that Dubai’s love of chintz and things that look like other things extends to gender deviance. When performers arrive, authorities typically tell them they cannot perform in drag. And so men famous for performing as women simply don an oversized T-shirt and sunglasses and perform their routine in everyday clothes. It’s an oddly subversive act. Maybe this is what the ideal model for cultural producers working in the UAE should be. It’s a subtle backhand to the authorities and a rare display of defiance exclusively for the enjoyment of one of the tiny nation’s many marginalized groups. The drag queen is a symbol of urbane glamour; here, stripped of her glitz and reduced to mere humanity and will, we see an absurd gesture authored equally by the artist and the sociopolitical context of her site. If wigs and high heels are haram in Dubai, maybe it’s time for the art world to stop putting lipstick on the pig in Abu Dhabi.

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