(This is an expanded version of a brief report carried by The Wire on 25 May 2014)
In what could turn out to be the most provocative statement to originate from 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, a member of the Mumbai studio CAMP, Lebanese artist Walid Raad, and Andrew Ross, a professor of culture studies at 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 new branches of western high-culture institutions 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 [New York University] 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 Gulf 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 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. They hurled flyers into the gathering and repeating the demands of workers, who hail from south and south-east Asian countries including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines. Many of the workers 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.
Indentured at Guggenheim
The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, began approaching artists in 2011, to get them started on projects to fill up the premises. Signatories to the Gulf Labor petition, however, have refused to become a part of the museum’s collection and boycotted its first exhibition, Seeing Through Light, recently held at the Saadiyat Cultural District.
Aside from the pecuniary issues of low wages and escalating debt, they spotlight the living conditions of labourers employed on the Guggenheim site. Sukumaran was part of a group that visited the Saadiyat Accommodation Village, built to supposedly house migrant workers, but which actually does not. He mentioned a PR note that termed the village, equipped with a cricket pitch, “ideal” and “lacking only in room service”. “A man from West Bengal who I spoke to, was part of a group that had been moved in from another camp the night before,” Sukumaran told The Wire in an email interview. “When I later asked him if he had seen a bit of the city, he said he had never left the camp in these months, except in the bus to work! Such is the physical, economic and emotional isolation that workers are subjected to.”
The workers have no real process for redressing grievances. Under the “kafala” or sponsorship system, adopted by many countries in the Arabian Peninsula, they are denied the right to organise. The system is widely criticised by human rights organisations: Workers’ passports are often confiscated and their wages withheld, trapping them in conditions of forced labour without any chance of legal representation.
The Guggenheim has dragged its heels over proposals from Gulf Labor which included the establishment of a debt-settlement fund to the tune of $15 million (less than 2% of the proposed $800-million budget for the museum building), fair and equal wages to workers, and the right to organise. Despite these setbacks, the coalition has tried to tread a fine line: They hope to engage museum and state authorities to achieve more humane labour conditions, while boycotting the museums to advance that goal.
Widening gulf between rights, reality
Sukumaran and other artists conducted interviews with workers, which they will channel back into a book-length report that Gulf Labor plans to present at the 56th Venice Biennale. His own engagement with the region, as part of CAMP, leans towards similar concerns. CAMP recently presented an exhibition, The Country of the Sea, at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which included the vertiginous film From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf. Through short pans of the interiors of ships, the film documented the simultaneously melancholic and ennui-inducing lives of Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian sailors, ricocheting between the coordinates of shipyards and docks.
From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf is “a film about the maritime consciousness of the region, and a movement of people and goods that is much older and deeper than contemporary political boundaries,” Sukumar said, quoting from his exhibition note, and relating the film to the present situation. “These are relations between migrant and mobile communities which have depended on and developed with one another.”
Gulf Labor’s demands for fair working conditions dovetail with rising protests against the treatment of construction workers in Qatar. Abu Dhabi’s neighbour in the Arabian Peninsula is due to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022, and has been severely indicted in the international media for mounting worker deaths. According to Play Fair Qatar, a pressure campaign by the International Trade Union Confederation, worker deaths from cardiac arrests induced by working in high temperatures and “workplace accidents”, have reached 1,420, averaging nearly 40 fatalities a month. The Qatari government, meanwhile, has resisted making reforms to improve these conditions according to a recent Amnesty International Report, despite the existence of a loose “mandatory standards” guidebook by Qatar Foundation, a semi-private non-profit organisation.
Meanwhile, Gulf Labor continues its endeavours. The organisation has also tried to approach the problem from the other end, via interactions with the Indian, Pakistani, or Nepali governments seeking their intervention. “Our colleagues at the Society for Labour and Development in Delhi even sent a letter to the Protector of Emigrants [part of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs]. But essentially, nothing much has come of that approach. SLD is now involved with us in conducting on-ground research on the subject in India,” Sukumaran says. Without the mediation of home governments, the workers’ only resort remains lobbying with these international institutions. But if the museum authorities acknowledge the plight of workers and yielded to Gulf Labor’s persuasive arguments, even a little might go a long way.
(Karanjeet Kaur is a freelance journalist and editor. She tweets as @kaju_katri)