A view of one of the many illegal markets set up by migrant laborers in the Abu Dhabi worker camps (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The news that a third member of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition was barred from entering the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has many people wondering what this means for the future of the Gulf nation’s growing art community. In the art world, where the free circulation of ideas has long been an important value, the travel restrictions signal a very different climate emerging for cultural workers in the UAE.

The Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, which is an international group of artists working to ensure that migrant workers’ rights are protected during the construction of museums and other institutions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, has released a statement on the recent situation faced by its members and reasserted its position that the “betterment of conditions for workers is not separate from the development of conditions of making and showing art.” The group goes on to elaborate on the relationship between workers and art:

The specter of work has always haunted the making of art and the reflections of artists. To deny this engagement is not just a denial of a particular topic or subject matter, it is a denial of the history from which art emerges, which is from an inherent questioning of human activity in this world and the measures by which these activities are valued.

New York University Professor Andrew Ross, who was the first member of Gulf Labor to be turned away last March, is troubled by the reactions by the UAE-affiliated cultural institutions to the travel bans. “For the UAE authorities to tolerate forced labor and trafficking at the core of the country’s workforce is bad enough. To retaliate in this way against those investigating the abuses is tantamount to saying that the state actually sanctions these practices,” he told Hyperallergic. “The silence of the Guggenheim and NYU suggests that these institutions have ceded too much autonomy to their Emirati partners who pay all the bills.”

For Ashok Sukumaran, who this month was denied a visa to visit the UAE from his native India, the issue raises many concerns. “Beyond the classic arguments for freedom of speech and movement (which must be restated), and the issue of workers’ rights (which is a systemic one), there is another condition that is at issue here. That the UAE is a regional hub and a melting pot for the region,” Sukumaran told Hyperallergic. “It’s where I would meet Nepalis, Punjabis, people from southern Iran, and Balochis. The role of the cultural institutions of the UAE is to develop forms of dignifying these relations and thereby the treatment of all these people. It is a big role. A role of the anti-police, if the police is about suspicion, surveillance, and control.

“Which is why it is upsetting to see the major cultural forces gathered on the island of Saadiyat treat workers as a PR problem, or ‘security issue.’ We expect some imagination from them, and not more policing. To paraphrase a painting once shown in the [2007] Sharjah Biennial (by Rikrit Tiravanija), ‘Less Oil, More Courage’ is needed. “

We asked artist Walid Raad, who is the third member of Gulf Labor to be denied access to the UAE, if he thinks there’s a growing awareness of the issue in the art world and why he become involved in the first place. “We do what we can, as we assume others are as well. I personally became involved in this because I was asked to contribute to various projects in the Gulf,” he told Hyperallergic. “I take the institutions and individuals who invited me at their word when they say they want to build the most progressive infrastructure for the arts in the world. Then the question became about what this actually means. Does it refer only to the architecture of the buildings, the quality of the programs and artworks, or can it also be about those who are building the museums, roads, pipelines, etc.”

The following is the recent Gulf Labor Coalitions statement in full:


Guggenheim, New York and Abu Dhabi
Louvre, Paris and Abu Dhabi
New York University (NYU), New York and Abu Dhabi
Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), Abu Dhabi
Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), Sharjah
Art Dubai, Dubai
Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Abu Dhabi

This week artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad were denied entry to the UAE on grounds of “security.” This comes after NYU professor Andrew Ross was similarly barred from flying to Abu Dhabi in March. Given Sukumaran and Raad’s history of vital and sustained engagement with the country and region, invited or celebrated by many of you addressed in this letter, the only possible reason to suddenly have three such integral parts of our art and academic community denied entry, must be their involvement with the Gulf Labor Coalition.

All three are members of this artist-initiated group that has been working since 2010, urging the museums and other institutions being built on Saadiyat to create better conditions for their workers. One of the reasons Gulf Labor has focused directly on the Guggenheim is that as contemporary artists working in and engaging with the region, we have felt particularly implicated, and also felt we could have a say in the development of this museum.

Beyond Saadiyat Island, Gulf Labor has conducted independent research and continues to produce a body of knowledge around migrant labor, not only in the Gulf, but also in the home countries of workers. In July 2015, it will present a report on this research in the context of the Venice Biennial.

Gulf Labor’s long history of constructive, and patient engagement with the Guggenheim and TDIC on this issue is documented on our website. From the summer of 2010, six months before the announcement of a boycott, up to our last proposal in April of 2015, we have have tried to consult with, or address directly, the Guggenheim before making our positions public.

Our most recent proposal synthesizes and brings together years of research and engagement with many parties ranging from human rights and labor organizations, to researchers and workers in the region. These remedies have been drawn from the experiences of workers at the Louvre, NYU Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island infrastructure sites, and is supported by experts in the field. We have made this proposal at a pivotal juncture when contractors are meant to be hired and construction of the Guggenheim building is set to begin. Addressed to the Guggenheim and its Abu Dhabi partners we have stipulated:

(1) setting up a fund to reimburse workers for recruitment fees,
(2) ensuring a living wage,
(3) allowing forms of collective representation.

We provided the Guggenheim a month to engage with what we still believe is a realistic and achievable proposal to improve the condition of workers on the island and to end our call for a boycott. An entire month passed without a response.

Now with these denials of entry, we are faced with a further retrenchment of the possibilities of dialogue and a foreclosing of the exchanges which have contributed to the development of the cultural institutions of this region. We have always held that the betterment of conditions for workers is not separate from the development of conditions of making and showing art.

These denials are not targeting specific individuals, but potentially setting a dangerous standard of what can or cannot be done within the field of culture itself. And in this way, they implicate all the members of our artistic and cultural communities. Thus, we believe that it is an especially crucial time for institutions with expressed commitments to the region such as your own, to commit to lifting these denials of entry and, at the same time, to explicitly engage with the questions that these denials seem to want to evade – that is, the fair working conditions of the people who construct and maintain your organizations.

The specter of work has always haunted the making of art and the reflections of artists. To deny this engagement is not just a denial of a particular topic or subject matter, it is a denial of the history from which art emerges, which is from an inherent questioning of human activity in this world and the measures by which these activities are valued.

Links to Sukumaran and Raad‘s recent statements.

Gulf Labor Coalition
May 16, 2015

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