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AMCA Statement on Artistic Freedom in the United Arab Emirates

[Logo of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey] [Logo of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey]

[The following statement was issued by the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey on 29 May 2015]

The Association for Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA) condemns the entry ban UAE authorities have imposed on artists Walid Raad and Ashok Sukumaran and calls on UAE-based art institutions, including in particular the Guggenheim Museum, to convey their disapproval to UAE authorities and vocally dissociate themselves from the action. AMCA further calls on international arts organizations to condemn the complacency of art institutions that seek to benefit from the affluent Gulf region while condoning odious labor practices that have been systematically documented and consistently deplored locally. 

AMCA is an association of scholars, artists, and art practitioners that aims to advance the study of modern and contemporary art in the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey. As an affiliate organization with both the College Arts Association (CAA) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), AMCA is the largest and only international association for academic research in the modern and contemporary arts of the Middle East.

In May 2015, both artists Raad and Sukumaran were separately denied entry to the UAE where they were to participate in the March Meeting (May 11-15, 2015), other cultural activities, and appointments with museum and government officials there. Sukumaran, who is based in Mumbai and has frequently worked in the UAE, was refused a visa. Raad was held at Dubai airport for 24 hours before being deported. Under similar circumstances, NYU professor Andrew Ross was pulled from his plane to Abu Dhabi in March 2015. All were told that they could not be allowed entry “for security reasons.” All are members of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. (1)

That UAE authorities denied entry to three renowned members of the Gulf Labor Artists Coalition within two months suggests an attempt to forestall the empirical investigations on which the artists have based their art practices. Gulf Labor joins artists who foreground institutional critique in their work. For the past five years, its members have produced artwork and cultural events that highlight the harsh working conditions imposed on the behind-the-scenes workers who are bringing art institutions into existence in the UAE. The Louvre, the British Museum, and the Guggenheim have all participated in Gulf urban entrepreneurialism and benefitted from both the spectacular cultural competition and the notorious infringements on laborers’ rights, especially construction workers but now sympathetic artists, too.

That UAE authorities labeled all three Gulf Labor members “security threats” may sound bizarre, unless we take seriously that the UAE monarchs feel threatened by the exposure artists may bring to their exploitative labor laws. These laws currently prohibit unions, labor organizations, strikes, and independent contracting. They have been called neo-slavery by international human rights institutions, and it is this very inequity that artists seek to reveal. (2)

AMCA notes the long involvement of artists in the region in movements against oppression and suppression. Artists were at the forefront of anti-colonial and anti-imperial thought that led to the liberation of the region in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Artists have actively and creatively contributed to uprisings and campaigns for social justice throughout the region. AMCA protests and condemns actions by the UAE authorities that deprive regional populations of their connection to this important resource for renewing social thought and envisioning an equitable future.

Based on this hard-earned legacy, AMCA warns all patrons of the arts against trying to paint social and legal infrastructures with a veneer of cultural freedom and creativity while seeking to determine what realities art institutions overlook or make visible. Colonial powers sought to use art in the region in the same manner in the 1920s-50s, and “soft power” continues to operate this way today, to make audiences disregard deeper, endemic abuses of state power. Freedom of expression in the arts must not be compromised.

Nada Shabout, President and Founding Board Member

Sarah Rogers, President-Elect and Founding Board Member

Pamela Karimi, Treasurer

Jessica Gerschultz, Secretary

 

 

See Stephanie Saul, “N.Y.U. Professor Is Barred by United Arab Emirates,” The New York Times, March 16, 2015. Available at

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/nyregion/nyu-professor-is-barred-from-the-united-arab-emirates.html?_r=2; Walid Raad, “Denied Entry and Deported,” open letter published May 15, 2015. Available at http://gulflabor.org/2015/artist-gulf-labor-member-walid-raad-denied-entry-and-deported-from-the-uae/

 

 

(2) See Human Rights Watch, “Migrant Workers’ Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates,” February 10, 2015. Available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2015/02/10/migrant-workers-rights-saadiyat-island-united-arab-emirates-0 

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