In what might turn out to be the most provocative statement to originate at the 12th Sharjah Biennial, a group of 45 artists have voiced their support for three colleagues recently denied entry to the United Arab Emirates. The three are Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, one member of the Mumbai studio CAMP; Lebanese artist Walid Raad; and Andrew Ross, a professor of culture studies New York University. The common connection? They are all part of Gulf Labor, a coalition of over 2,000 artists and academics protesting the conditions of migrant workers employed in building local branches of western high-culture institutions – which include the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and a campus of New York University – in Abu Dhabi and across the UAE.
“We feel that the work done by the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition is important and that transparency and dialog are essential to ensure that globalised cultural institutions like the Guggenheim, the Louvre and NYU are expanding responsibly, sustainably and without labor exploitation,” says the statement. “Artist visa and entrance denials constitute a rupture in transparency and dialog that can only result in a polarisation of positions, and justify our concern about the working conditions on the construction sites of institutions with whom we work.”
Sukumaran and Raad were both due to participate in March Meeting, an annual gathering of artists, curators and the regional arts community. Both have been active contributors to the artistic conversation in the region and have visited the UAE several times. On May 11, however, Raad was held for 24 hours at Dubai airport and deported back to the United States citing security concerns. Sukumaran’s visa was denied a few days prior to that on the same grounds. In March this year, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Ross was not permitted to board a flight for Abu Dhabi, and was told he was barred from the UAE capital.
The restrictions imposed on Gulf Labor members have already drawn the attention of other international art confederations. L’Internationale, a group of six European museums including Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands has expressed its solidarity. The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, whose board members are associated with prominent cultural institutions like MoMA and the Tate, went a step further and urged the involved museums to respond to Raad’s open letter and “condemn the actions undertaken by the U.A.E.”
The UAE is likely reacting to a series of eye-catching protests conducted by Gulf Labor members and supporters. On May 1, which is recognised as International Workers’ Day, activists from the G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) Working Group interrupted a performance at the New York Guggenheim, hurling flyers into the gathering and repeating the demands of workers, many of whom are housed in terrible quarters, make as little as Rs 15,000 a month, and are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. The museum had to be shut down for the day, although the activists claimed that they only wanted a meeting with the museum’s trustees. On March 31, demonstrators had dropped mock dollar bills into the museum’s rotunda.
Despite this, Gulf Labor members hope to keep the authorities engaged to achieve more humane working conditions for the workers, who mostly hail from south and south-east Asian countries including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines. In an email interview with The Wire, Sukumaran said, “Camps are a temporary form of enclosure and control of a workforce that is not meant to be assimilated into the cities. One of the challenges for thinking about how to improve workers’ conditions is how to undo the camp… How to move out of it, and find more humane and less isolating conditions.”
Karanjeet Kaur is a freelance journalist and editor. She tweets as @kaju_katri.