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Yesterday the Gulf Labor Coalition, which is an official participant of the central exhibition of the 2015 Venice Biennale, and the G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) group staged a variety of protest actions at the international exhibition. From the stenciling of “Handala” on Gulf Labor’s official banner hanging inside the Arsenale exhibition hall to the hourlong occupation of the second floor of the Israeli Pavilion, the two groups focused on migrant rights and Palestinian solidarity during the day’s activities.
Best known for its actions raising awareness about the Guggenheim’s labor practices at its Abu Dhabi outpost in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), G.U.L.F.— which often collaborates with Gulf Labor — altered the official Gulf Labor Coalition banner that hangs in the All the World’s Futures exhibition in the Arsenale, curated by Okuwei Enwezor.
At 1:30pm CEST, the team of activists stenciled a one-meter-long (~39 inches) image of Handala, an image of a 10-year-old refugee boy that was first created by assassinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali as an icon of Palestinian defiance. The banner hangs in a prominent place in Enwezor’s central exhibition, and according to G.U.L.F. roughly 20 Biennale visitors watched the action.
“Handala is an iconic symbol of Palestinian Resistance created in the 1970s by Naji al-Ali while he lived as a stateless migrant in the Gulf; it takes on profound dimensions on this banner,” G.U.L.F. said in an official statement. “As a universal symbol of solidarity, it speaks for the indifference of both the UAE authorities and museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and universities like NYU in taking action on the issues of the migrant workers building the Saadiyat Island. The image of Handala: the ten year old boy who turned his back to a world that will not bring the occupation of his homeland to justice also brings Palestine into the picture; workers made stateless on their own land, compelled to cross checkpoints and work on building Israeli Settlements, homes, and military establishments.”
After the banner intervention, G.U.L.F. joined the scheduled Gulf Labor panel on migration labor in the Arena area of the central exhibition, and at the end of the discussion a statement by G.U.L.F. members who had recently returned from the West Bank was read (posted below in its entirety). Visitors were then invited to join the artists and activists for a joint occupation and “public meeting” in the official Israeli pavilion at the Biennale for a discussion of issues related to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), and their relationships with the art world.
The group’s official statement draws parallels between the plight of migrant labor in the Gulf nations today and the situation faced by Palestinian workers.
“We were struck by the overlap between the circumstances of Palestinian workers and the predicament of South Asian migrants in the Gulf,” the G.U.L.F. statement explained. “We invite you to join us as we proceed to the Israeli pavilion, where we will hold a community meeting to decide on next steps. Sharing our experiences and opinions will help us understand how and why BDS places direct obligations on artists and cultural institutions like the Biennale.”
“In our last trip to the West Bank we saw Palestinians being made migrant workers in their own land, underpaid and humiliated, always under threat, and bound and controlled by a regime of ‘permits’ to work in Israel,” G.U.L.F. member Amin Husain told Hyperallergic about yesterday’s action. “We see deep connections between the struggle to amplify the voices of workers in the Gulf and Palestinian day-to-day life under an Israeli occupation and its apartheid regime that made it difficult for us to be at Venice and not raise the issue. In that light, there is no better place than the Israeli pavilion, which is owned by the state of Israel, to have the conversation about the cultural boycott of Israel, and no more appropriate method than to occupy the pavilion to do so.”
Other participants in the occupation also drew parallels between the issues of migrant labor and Palestinian rights. “We decided to alter the official [Gulf Labor Coalition] banner hanging in the Arsenale as a sign that our presence in Venice is not bound by a curatorial logic, but rather that our horizon is always guided by movement solidarity which is a process that cannot be frozen or contained,” Noah Fischer told Hyperallergic. “The figure of Handala is the work of an artist Naja al-Ali whose art practice was inseparable from struggle and gave inspiration to struggles far beyond Palestine. In the context of an ultra-luxury economy that dominates the arts and drives the politics of the UAE, Israel, the US, and other nations, the 10-year-old boy Handala is the one who is poor and shut out of this economy and country, and refuses to participate in its lies.”
Hyperallergic has reached out to the curator and artist of the Israeli Pavilion for comment and will update this post when we hear back.
G.U.L.F.’s statement in full reads:
Political art is everywhere we look at this year’s Biennale, and the warm embrace of Africa and its diasporic struggles is a welcome corrective to decades of neglect. But Palestine does not appear significantly on anyone’s radar, nor is there is any evidence of the solidarity that has carried the BDS movement into many corners of the academic and cultural world. Earlier today, G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) began its response to this situation by altering the Gulf Labor Coalition banner hanging in the Arsenale. In this statement, we explain our action.
Before coming to Venice, some of us shot a film about the challenges of daily life in the West Bank. We were struck by the overlap between the circumstances of Palestinian workers and the predicament of South Asian migrants in the Gulf. Under the Occupation, the Palestinian people have become migrant workers in their own land. Many suffer the same indignities and extreme precarity when they cross the notorious Israeli checkpoints to seek work. Behind the Green Line, they are pit against heavily indebted Chinese migrants. Within the West Bank, more and more are compelled to take jobs in Israeli settlement farms and factories on land stolen from Palestinians. Countless others must emigrate from economically ravaged villages and towns to seek a livelihood overseas. Indeed, before South Asians became a preferred workforce, Palestinians were a primary source of migrant labor for the Gulf states.
Those who resist the Occupation are met with harsh forms of detention and worse, though the reality is that most Palestinians feel they are living in a prison. While filming at one village where resistance has become a way of life, we shared the villagers’ experience of being teargassed, strafed by rubber bullets, and hosed with the infamous “skunkwater.” We came to the Biennale with the foul stench of this Odortech chemical on our clothing and in our hair–it can linger for weeks. Compared to the daily stigma endured under the Occupation, ours is a small hardship, just as the UAE’s entry ban on Gulf Labor members is a minor privation when placed alongside the ordeal faced by the Saadiyat workforce. But, as artists and writers, who bear these as the legacies of state repression, we refuse the complacency that serves autocrats in both of these countries.
Scholars have taken the lead in responding to the call by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) to boycott Israeli institutions, and other sectors (governments, communities of faith, trade unions, and organs of commerce) are joining in. The boycott is now spreading to the general population in countries all over the world. Yet, with some notable exceptions, the institutional artworld has held back.
Following the repudiation, by artist and curators, of Israeli state funding at last year’s Biennale de São Paulo, we feel compelled to bring the BDS spirit to Venice Biennale, where the stateless are obscured by the radiance cast by the national pavilions.
We invite you to join us as we proceed to the Israeli pavilion, where we will hold a community meeting to decide on next steps. Sharing our experiences and opinions will help us understand how and why BDS places direct obligations on artists and cultural institutions like the Biennale.
UPDATE, Tuesday, August 4, 11am ET: We received the following emails from the curator, Hadas Maor, and artist, Tsibi Geva, of the Israeli Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale:
Thank you for your email and update regarding the act by G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) at the Israeli Pavilion.
I respect G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) activity and find their decision to hold the discussion of BDS and PACBI inside the Israeli Pavilion worthwhile discussing.
This statement is personal, as an artist living in Israel and resisting the occupation.
All my life I believed in dialogue and open discourse.
My artistic project has been, and is focused on these cultural- political issues for more than 30 years.
In my artistic ongoing project, I have dealt with recognizing and exposing the collective repressed unconscious of this place and time.
It was stated recently, that in all the Biennale, including the central exhibition, there is no mention of the Palestinian issue, therefore I am happy that they chose to hold a “public meeting” at the heart of my project, right under the work (maybe the only one in the Biennale) that relates and carries the word GAZA, which is right next to the ironic caged sign “WONDERLAND.”
They are more than welcome.
UPDATE, August 11, 2015: Members of G.U.L.F. emailed Hyperallergic the following response to Maor and Geva’s responses:
Dear Tsibi Geva and Hadas Maor:
This is a response to your recent statements to Hyperallergic regarding our August 2nd occupation of the Israeli pavilion. We occupied the Pavilion to hold a conversation about the daily injustices perpetuated against the Palestinian people and to discuss the cultural boycott of Israel.
We did not enter the pavilion to dialog with symbols that you chose to include in your paintings and installation such as tires attached to the pavilion’s exterior, or the painting depicting the word GAZA on the interior.
The Israeli pavilion normalizes the Israeli occupation and its violence. In an interview earlier this year, curator Okwui Enwesor said, “What I find incredibly [dispiriting] is the infantilisation of artists,” and with this letter, we want to respectfully challenge your artistic position along these lines: are you taking responsibility for the actual political effects of your participation?
We feel that the symbolic gestures of sympathy toward the Palestinian struggle contained within the walls of a violent, racist, and dangerous state are emblematic of an artworld that props up the status quo in Israel/Palestine. By placing your paintings and sculptures inside of these walls, we feel that the walls grow thicker and stronger as an outcome of your artwork and your name being added into them.
Our occupation is not only a critique but rather a general call regarding Palestine, but also beyond it — to cease the practice of an art propping up a toxic status quo of racial, social, and economic inequality. Although we appreciate you are an artist “living in Israel and resisting the occupation” and your work is “exposing the collective repressed unconscious of this place and time,” we wonder how much is risked with these statements in a time when we feel it becomes necessary for artists to take risks so that our work does not become simply instruments of state and corporate power.
It seems to us that your work is likely functioning in the logic of occupation: where social critique is also encompassed along with state violence inside the dominant sphere, and the oppressed remain voiceless on this stage. We make this claim knowing that we ourselves are not standing on neutral ground, as many of our members are citizens of the empire of the United States itself a repressive state built on occupation, racism, and bloodshed.
We see it as our responsibility to address the violence that is an outcome of Wall Street’s debt and labor extraction system exported all over the globe—an economic system which results in two worlds: one of occupied bodies which are targets for violence and arrest while providing labor the amassing of wealth of an ultra-luxury class.
Financial markets are dangerous weapons — the scarcity they produce leads to the racism we are seeing in increasing levels from the burning of babies in Israel to the anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and racist violence in the US. So you will understand that when we see your paintings including those of Palestian kaffiyehs circulating on the international auction markets, our feeling that the status quo is being reinforced by your artistic gestures only grows.
We respect the practice of painting and the depth of meaning accessed through intuitive and personal artistic practice rather than purely strategic/political means. We are rather challenging an inability to deal adequately with the actual political framework of one’s artistic production.
The hour is too late not to recognize that as artists we are providing necessary services to the world’s largest corporations and nation-states. This understanding lies at the heart of the gulf Labor campaign: we see that the UAE is bringing art museums to Saadiyat cultural district in order to wash its brand with democratic expressions of art while violently repressing dissent through jail, torture, and draconian laws.
As Grace Lee Boggs asks — “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Our answer is, the time for a shift is today: indeed it is already happening. In this sense, our occupation of the Israeli pavilion extends beyond Palestine as a challenge to artists who choose to collaborate with oppressive entities whether state or corporate.
This is not an attack on Israeli artists. This is not about geography. It’s about having ones eyes open. We are vigilant in addressing the potential for anti-Zionism to prop up the ignorance of anti-Jewish sentiment. We are clear in condemning anti-semitism of any kind. Understand that we are in solidarity with many Israeli artists and artists anywhere in the world that are calling for an end to normalization of economic, social, and racial oppression and are willing to address this in a deep sense through their art practice.
We are addressing you because we know that you are a sympathetic voice, long involved in this discussion, and because by choosing to represent Israel in the 56th Venice Biennale, you have taken on a public position which we feel must be critically challenged. As fellow participants in the Biennale, we want to make this particular cultural stage mean something beyond the endless churning of cultural capital. Palestine’s people have spoken and said what solidarity looks like: resistance of the occupation for artists, especially Israeli artists, must take up the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions and events that receive state funding as a floor not a ceiling for what solidarity looks like. Otherwise, your objects and symbols only benefit and monetize injustice for the benefit of the oppressors.