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Artists in Guggenheim Show Urge Museum to Resume Talks on Migrant Rights in Abu Dhabi

On May Day 2015, members of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction unveiled a large parachute in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda with the words “Meet Workers Demands Now!” (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
On May Day 2015, members of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction unveiled a large parachute in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda with the words “Meet Workers Demands Now!” (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

In a statement issued today, a group of artists featured in a just-opened exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum expressed disappointment over the Guggenheim Foundation’s decision to break off negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC); the discussions concerned the living and working conditions of migrant laborers building the institution’s Abu Dhabi outpost. The work of the 10 signatories is being shown in But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, which opened on April 29 as the third exhibition in the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

The artists write in their statement:

We express our disappointment over the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation’s recent decision to end dialogue with the Gulf Labor Coalition, concerning labor practices in the construction of their Abu Dhabi Museum. As artists connected in various ways to this region, we believe in new institutions as cultural forces; we support their creation but also believe they can be catalysts for greater social change. We hope that the Guggenheim remains committed to innovation on both a representational as well as a structural level. Furthermore, we believe that dialogue is the most productive way forward for all parties involved. This exhibition is one form of dialogue and we regret that it opens amidst the current development in the exchange between the museum and GLC. We urge the museum to reconsider and reverse its decision to terminate its dialogue with GLC and affiliated NGOs.

The artists who signed the statement are Abbas Akhavan, Kader Attia, Ali Cherri, Mariam Ghani, Joana Hadjithomas, Iman Issa, Khalil Joreige, Hassan Khan, Ahmad Mater, and Zineb Sedira. Their response comes on the heels of a public protest this week by artist-activist groups Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) and the Illuminator, who projected messages onto the façade of the Guggenheim Museum condemning the split with the GLC.

“As an artist in But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, I hope that [curator] Sara Raza’s acute and timely exhibition, which presents the works of many engaged and critical artists, will not be eclipsed or suborned by the narratives around it –– neither the protests by G.U.L.F. nor the statements by the Guggenheim and GLC,” New York–based artist Mariam Ghani told Hyperallergic in an email. “I also would encourage you to read our statement not as an attempt to position the exhibition within this controversy, but rather to remove it from that framing, which had already been imposed upon it.”

trustees
G.U.L.F. and the Illuminator projected the faces of Guggenheim Foundation trustees onto New York’s Guggenheim Museum on April 27, 2016 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The exhibition spotlights 17 artists who come from or live and work in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates. According to the Guggenheim, the survey seeks to explore a central question: “How is the designation ‘Middle East’ defined and understood both regionally and internationally?” One of the included works is Ghani’s twin-screen video installation “A Brief History of Collapses,” which explores different manifestations of modernism by juxtaposing a ruined former palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, with a restored museum building in Kassel, Germany.

“I was saddened and disappointed by the split,” Ghani continued. “But I do believe that the Guggenheim has participated in dialogue with GLC for the past six years with good intentions, and I sincerely hope that the institution will continue to do everything it can to promote workers’ rights on Saadiyat [Island, where the Abu Dhabi outpost is being built].”

In an email to Hyperallergic, Tina Vaz, a Guggenheim spokesperson, responded to the artists’ statement:

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation has stated publicly many times our belief in the transformative potential of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and our commitment to safeguarding conditions for workers who will build the future museum. Together with our partners in the UAE, we have advanced measurable progress on this issue since we began the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project in 2007. We and the artists in question differ only in our views as to whether Gulf Labor is a productive partner for the Guggenheim in this endeavor. After six years of good-faith engagement to seek common ground with Gulf Labor, during which we have been unfairly singled out for repeated attacks, we are redirecting our energies to continuing our work with other partners who are interested in effecting meaningful change with us.

The Guggenheim also shared a letter that Museum Director Richard Armstrong sent to the artists in the show prior to its opening:

On behalf of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, I am writing to express my thanks for your participation in our upcoming exhibition But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise… We are pleased to have your work featured in this show and to have welcomed it into the Guggenheim collection. We look forward to engaging our audience with the exhibition, which we believe will catalyze an important dialogue about contemporary concerns in the Middle East and North Africa.

I understand that the timing of the museum’s decision to discontinue direct meetings with the activist group Gulf Labor has generated questions and concerns among you and your fellow artists in the exhibition. I assure you that this decision was in no way related to the opening of the show and reflects a deep consideration of the most effective way forward for the Guggenheim as an arts institution on the issue of workers’ welfare.

We share your concern for the welfare of workers who will build the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum. Indeed, safeguarding these conditions has been a top priority since we embarked on the project in 2007. In advance of construction, we have worked with our partner in the UAE, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), to effect meaningful and documented progress on a number of fronts.

In 2010, TDIC created its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.” Annual independent monitoring reports continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island, including progress on workers’ accommodations, passport retention, and access to medical insurance. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted in January of this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.

More work remains to be done, and we are committed to continuing our advocacy. After six years of engagement with Gulf Labor at the highest levels of our organization, however, we have determined that direct meetings are no longer productive. The issues on which Gulf Labor is focused—recruitment fees, living wage, and the right to organize—are beyond the direct influence of a single arts institution and require involvement at the highest levels of government in both the UAE and in the countries from which workers migrate. We have offered to keep Gulf Labor informed of project developments but must apply our resources where they can be most effective.

An issue of this import and complexity engenders deep feelings, and I thank you for the opportunity to share our position with you. At a time when greater engagement and understanding among a wide cross-section of cultures and people is especially urgent, we remain committed to the transformative potential of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Yours truly,

Richard Armstrong
Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Seven artists featured in But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise did not sign today’s statement; we have reached out to them for comment and will update this post when we hear back.

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