Opinion

A Coalition of The Willing: How Saudi Arabia and US Arts Institutions Partnered on a Cultural Diplomacy Offensive

Recent actions allegedly perpetrated by the Saudi Arabian monarchy, the brutal murder of a journalist, are nothing new, but have triggered an overdue interest in human rights among museum leaders.

Vans that drove around London earlier this year during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to London (photo via flickr.com/locosteve)

In December 2017, a group of powerhouse curators and art directors from the United States gathered in Saudi Arabia. They would be one of the first to preview the highly anticipated, newly completed King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (known as Ithra). Selected by Time magazine as one of the world’s “Greatest Places of 2018,” the mega museum boasts nearly one million square feet of dramatic architecture and cutting-edge space for cultural programming. The backers of Ithra’s 400-million dollar new home, Saudi Aramco, is the world’s largest oil company and it is the most profitable in any sector, period.

The Kingdom was aggressively pursuing a rebranding campaign with funds available for partners. The invitation only excursion to the Kingdom by Ithra was extended to leaders at influential arts organizations who would eventually serve as collaborators, or, as they were officially called, “coalition members,” in the Arab Art Education Initiative (AAEI) in New York. AAEI is an ambitious program. A full slate of exhibitions, openings, invitation-only events, residencies, and public programs at prestigious venues have been organized across the city, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, in a bid to “connect contemporary Arab culture with diverse audiences across the five boroughs of New York City.”

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaking during Project On Middle Eastern Democracy’s “Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia: A Deeper Look.” (photo by April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy, via flickr.com/pomed)

It was poised to be a massive success, until the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Suddenly, high profile participants were thrust into the spotlight over their acceptance of Saudi funding for AAEI-related programs. The Met and the Brooklyn Museum reported that they would self-finance their respective events. Columbia University postponed a planned lecture by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater. According to the University, they would “seek to find another time in the near future that is more conducive to the academic dialogue on campus that is the purpose of the lecture.”

Mater spoke to a New York audience earlier this year, however, when Glenn Lowry, Director of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) introduced him at the launch of another Saudi initiative, the Misk Art Institute, hosted by the MoMA itself. The launch took place in January 2018, one month after Lowry and Jay Levensen, Director of the International Program at MoMA, were photographed taking in the archeological sites of Saudi Arabia during their sponsored trip. Back in New York City’s MoMA headquarters, Lowry thanked the Institute for financially supporting its new publication, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, and welcomed Mater as its new Director. The Institute, a key part of a larger foundation of the same name, was created and chaired by the figure at the center of the Khashoggi murder, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (or as he is now popularly known, MBS).

Though commonly viewed as disparate, the arts establishment often works in parallel with political and corporate establishments. Despite Saudi’s well-documented involvement in 9/11, its deplorable human rights record, its support of militias in Iraq and Syria, and its war on Yemen, which has caused the most extreme, and preventable, humanitarian crisis of our time, a positive relationship with the Kingdom, and certainly MBS, has been pursued. Far from hidden prior to Khashoggi’s murder. It simply didn’t matter.

Lowry noted his appreciation of the Institute:

“It is a pleasure for us to welcome Misk Art Institute as it inaugurates an ambitious roster of international programs. This exciting new venture holds out the promise of a deepened and enriched artistic and scholarly exchange across traditions and cultures, in which MoMA is proud to play a role. We especially welcome the leadership of Ahmed Mater, himself an internationally recognized artist, as the Director of this important initiative.”

Mater is not simply an artist, he is also the co-founder, with Stephen Stapleton, of Edge of Arabia (EOA). Founded in 2003, in just a few short years EOA has been organizing major gallery shows and building spaces in some of the most expensive art centers in the world: London, Istanbul, Venice. EOA characterizes itself as follows:

“EOA was founded by a small collective of artists who met in the mountains of Aseer, Saudi Arabia, in 2003. What began as a border-crossing collaboration, against the backdrop of the last Gulf War, is now an established platform for artistic exchange, grown bold through the realization of international projects and the grassroots support for its mission.”

While the initiative may stem from local work in Saudi Arabia, it receives millions of dollars in government and corporate funding, hardly grassroots support. The use of the Gulf War as a “backdrop” of a mythical-sounding mountain meeting also speaks to superficial deployment of an absolutely grave event. The Gulf War, an ongoing disaster launched from Saudi bases, has not been considered through constructive work that addresses issues in the arts for those most directly affected by the war, who are, to be clear, Iraqis. On the contrary, Saudi citizens have, by–and–large, been protected from its violence and the ongoing upheavals left in its wake (though not from domestic violence enacted by the state).

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, on Sunday, May 21, 2017, to participate in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

With the backing of MBS and national Saudi funds, Mater and Stapleton, effectively run the entire Saudi art schema. Under the eye of the Kingdom, they alone direct subsidiaries Edge of Arabia, CULTURERUNNERS (an arm of Edge of Arabia), the Crossway Foundation (based in the UK), and now, the Misk Art Institute, of which Mater is Director and Stapleton, Director of International Programs. Yet, here again, they posit the Saudi art scene and even the Misk Art Institute as “grassroots,” and, as ludicrous as that may be, the international art world obliges.

Mater may have been a recognized artist in the Gulf art scene, but he was far from a recognized name in NYC art circles prior to Lowry’s christening of the Misk Art Institute and Mater’s direction of it. The Brooklyn Museum opened a major solo exhibition of Mater’s work to coincide with Misk’s launch at the MoMA in December 2017. Mounted for a full six months, the show, Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys, was organized in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Center and produced in collaboration with CULTURUNNERS and Edge of Arabia. In other words, the show was funded and organized by Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom, and Mater himself.

Not even a year later, The Brooklyn Museum was set to launch its second Saudi-funded exhibition as part of the Edge of Arabia produced AAEI launch. With the disappearance of Khashoggi, however, Director Ann Pasternak conceded funding for Syria: Then and Now, with this public statement,

“The Brooklyn Museum continues to believe strongly in the value of culture to create bridges and build a more connected, civic, and empathetic global community, and we are committed to our partnership of the Arab Art and Education Initiative. While we are proud of our collaboration to bring awareness to the historic and present-day struggles of refugees in Syria through the exhibition and educational activities around Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart, in light of recent events and in harmony with the international community’s concerns, the Museum will not be accepting Saudi funding for this exhibition.”

What part in creating a “more empathetic and connected global world” is Pasternak referring to when making the executive decision to accept funding from and directly collaborate with one of the most ruthless, brutalizing governments in the world? This was a well-known fact prior to Khashoggi’s murder, or as Pasternak calls it “recent events”. Recent events also include the sentencing to death by beheading of Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist, for the crime of peaceful protest.

But the Kingdom’s dismal record on women’s rights did not deter the Brooklyn Museum from accepting their funding for not one, but two shows, even designating Mater’s show as a project by Catherine Morris, the Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. A curator for Feminist Art organized a major show of a male artist of Mater’s clout with direct funding and collaboration from its government.

Both Morris and Pasternak took part in the delegations to Saudi Arabia. These events were strategically positioned, through travel, museum gifts, and the deft use of cultural diplomacy, to bring international credibiity to actors within the Saudi art scene, and also, to the rebranding of Saudi Arabia, and the presentation of MBS as a charismatic, reform-and progress-oriented ruler.

Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith cancelled his trip to Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert” gathering in response to Khashoggi, though just a few months ago, the prestigious art auction house published a swooning piece about MBS and Misk on its website. This included an interview with Mater, advancing the fable of a “grassroots” art scene. The piece, “Misk Art Institute: A Symbol of Saudi Arabia’s Grassroots Art Scene,” opens by stating,

“The young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (sometimes known as MBS) has instigated sweeping reforms that have occupied headlines. Amid these, and perhaps a barometer of their reach, visual arts in the kingdom have been reframed…A relative late-comer to this burgeoning scene, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is nevertheless making up for lost time, driving key cultural initiatives and incorporating creative enterprises into central reforms for the Kingdom.”

The Art Newspaper also wrote supportively of MBS in relation to the launch of Misk:

“The Crown Prince’s sweeping reforms have also included restricting the power of the country’s religious leaders, arresting members of the royal family, and other leading Saudis on charges of corruption and permitting women to drive.”

The Sotheby’s piece was written by Roxanne Zand, deputy chairman of Middle East and Gulf Region at Sotheby’s in May 2018. The December 2017 Art Newspaper piece is penned by its founder, Anna Somers Cocks, who also serves on the Advisory Board of Sotheby’s Institute London. In March 2018, both Somers and Cocks spoke at a panel at the Asia Society on “The Growth of the Art World in the Middle East: From Collecting to Museum Development.” The Art Newspaper has followed the rise of the Saudi art scene with numerous articles, mainly from Cocks. In April 2018, yet another piece, “What we can learn from Saudi art,” was published on the grassroots nature of the Saudi art scene, but this time from Chris Dercon, former director of the Volksbühne Berlin and the Tate Modern, London.

Yet despite the recently expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record from art world power brokers — from writers to art directors, and curators — another article has been penned by Cocks imploring readers, “Do not penalise Saudi Arabian artists for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” In this much more recent piece, Cocks attempts to design a world in which standing against funding from MBS is akin to denouncing and punishing Saudi artists. Stephen Stapleton is then quoted at length as to why the AAEI is so important. Saudi artists should never be penalized for the actions of their government. However, AAEI is a project of the Kingdom, and Stapleton serves as one of its cultural diplomacy envoys. There is no mention of the multiple roles Stapleton holds, including that of being an employee of the man most closely associated with Khashoggi’s death.

In his welcome address at the MoMA by Lowry (an event also chronicled by Cocks where she refers to MBS as the “Reforming Crown Prince”), Stapleton’s co-director Mater spoke about Misk:

“When we talk about Misk Art Institute – we are proposing and dreaming of an open platform, led by artists, from the ground up. This approach, instructed by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, comes from a place of passion and dedication.”

Mater was appointed to the role of Director by MBS himself. When Ithra, in partnership with Edge of Arabia and CULTURERUNNERS, invited key US art figures to the Kingdom, starting in 2016, they called them “delegates.” When they secured their participation in the AAEI, they described participants as a “coalition,” mimicking precisely the terms of the Gulf and Yemen wars, in which Saudi Arabia has played a central role.

According to a 2017 UNICEF report,

 “Yemen was one of the worst places in the world to be a child in 2017. The conflict has led to the internal displacement of more than 2 million people…16 million people lack access to safe water; more than 1.8 million children (400,000 of whom under 5) and 1 million pregnant and lactating women suffer from acute malnutrition, and an estimated 385,000 children with severe acute malnutrition; nearly 2 million children are out of school. The country is on the verge of famine, and almost the entire population—22.2 million people—requires humanitarian assistance.”

Nevertheless, AAEI was presented in partnership with UNESCO, and describes its programs as being “guided by a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 global goals set forth by the UN and world leaders in 2015 to realize a better world by 2030.” A precursor to the AAEI launch was the special event “Culture and Art for the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” organized by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, UNESCO, and Misk Art Institute. Attendees included most of the “delegates” to Saudi Arabia who became partners in the AAEI (Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, Pioneer Works, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Washington Street Historical Society, Middle East Institute), and of course, the producers of the delegation, AAEI and Edge of Arabia.

But for whom is the AAEI “a new platform for cultural dialogue.” The arts apparatus has been set up to be used so masterfully that Saudi Arabia, a country whose leadership has been responsible for the mass destruction of creative, cultural, and physical life in the Arab World and beyond, can spearhead an initiative “to build greater understanding between the United States and the Arab World.”

Most young artists in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, do not have the chance to share their work in meatpacking district studios, residencies in Times Square, or in the safety of the Gulf or the United States for that matter. They are more likely to live through a network of calculations involving checkpoints, routes of asylum, safety for themselves and their families. Calculations that do not make for easy transitions to the gilded halls of museums, panel discussions, and cocktail hours.

Though pegged as an “Arab” Art Education Initiative, nearly all the artists exhibiting with the AAEI who live in the Arab World hail from the Gulf States, though the region makes up barely a tenth of the 420 million strong population of the region. In the rapid push to create a contemporary Saudi art scene, Edge of Arabia and the Saudi government have constructed an alternative perception of the Arab world via a narrow, Gulf-oriented representation. This orientation is underscored by two major AAEI opening week programs in New York — Arab Women Residency and Young Arab Artist Exhibition — where every single exhibiting artist, save one, is from the Gulf. Certainly, if the Saudi government and investors want to support young artists, they are free to do so. Gulf artists can and should be part of a larger conversation in the arts. However, the nearly full-scale substitution of “Arab” for “Gulf” obfuscates both the lack of diversity in the Gulf-weighted exhibition, as well as multiple perspectives from the Arab world. Many young Arabs are living with the results of Gulf and American coalition interference and aggression. For what is proposed as a wide-reaching exhibition, thoughtful American institutions and their counterparts abroad should consider this legacy in the shaping of discourse and the selection of artists.

Journey to California, another Misk Art Institute initiative, will soon send Saudi artists aged 18–25 to Silicon Valley to work with Apple, Google, and Facebook, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the De Young Museum. Both the SFMoMA and the De Young Museum had lead curators who served as “delegates” to the Kingdom. The project is run with the Crossway Foundation, the charity led by Stephen Stapleton (with funding from Misk where he also serves as Director). In a statement regarding the project, Valeria Mariani, head of projects for the Crossway Foundation notes,

“It seems very timely to be traveling to California—the place of ultimate innovation, from the hippy movement of the 1960s to Silicon Valley’s 21st-century tech revolution—as Saudi Arabia experiences its own creative awakening, shaped and fueled by the expressive power of technology. We will challenge these artists to look at this theme through a creative lens.”

These organizations are a part of a racket that US institutions—from tech to fine art—were happy to be a part of, lending their weight to assist in positioning the Gulf as a site of exciting innovation. Instead of the image of old Arab men in robes sitting on oil wells, plotting the demise of America, youth culture is employed as a “disrupter,” to shift the image to exotic, globetrotting young things with apolitical wealth, using street style and coining terms like “Gulf Futurism” (which borrows on the currency of Afro-Futurism with none of its expansive imaginings, revolutionary stance, and radical critique).

If the participating museums, cultural institutions, and artists of the AAEI “coalition” are truly invested in engaging with the Arab world, the breadth of diversity and experiences that exists cannot be dismissed in favor of easy access and lucrative relationships. The simple reply that “all money is tainted,” deflects culpability and keeps the arts — and artists — in stagnant, patron reliant spaces reinforced by political, military, and socio-economic power structures.

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