In my screed from a few weeks ago, “When Artspeak Masks Oppression,” I cited the Guggenheim-Emirates partnership as an instance of contemporary art’s institutional culture operating in service of authoritarianism. One of the examples I mentioned of the propagandistic character of this relationship, facilitated by a language termed “International Art English,” was the Dubai-based artist UBIK’s description of an installation of his called “Tahrir Square” (2011).
I selected the passage from his website because it was illustrative of how International Art English can neuter even the most plainly subversive event, in this case recasting Tahrir Square, the site of bloody protests against a murderous regime, as a vacant thought experiment. Though the example was never meant as a generalized indictment of the artist — my comment was on language and institutions, not the art itself — I am glad to have been recently able to catch up with UBIK and hear his frank and often biting perspective on the climate for contemporary art production in the United Arab Emirates.
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Mostafa Heddaya: Tell us a little about your background as an artist in the UAE — how long have you been working in the Emirates, and where else have you worked?
UBIK: I started out as a fashion school student, but dropped out of fashion school at 17, started working in advertising at 18, then did a lot of design until I was 21. I was in Delhi up until this point in time, and I moved back to Dubai at around 21. I set up a design studio with my brother and did that for a year or two. I then happened upon someone once asking me if I wanted to do a mural and I was like “sure,” and that ended up becoming a thing for me. Eventually, about three years ago, I decided not to draw any more and kind of got over it — I guess for now — and started going more and more into text-based works. So you could say I’ve been active in the Dubai scene for about five years total.
MH: How would you describe the climate for creative expression in the Emirates, both in terms of what the kind of art produced and how it’s received by galleries and museums?
U: Well, about four to five years ago was not much happening. When I was doing murals there was me and two or three other people; now it’s kind of exploded. … [Dubai] is kind of interesting in the sense, for example, that there’s a whole subculture of skateboarding that popped up four years ago.
In terms of contemporary art the Dubai art scene is quite young, only about nine or ten years. The galleries are also young … It’s only going to get better. There’s always that whole hesitation about having to deal with political issues that matter or social issues that matter. In a sense it’s easier to address issues that happen elsewhere in the Arab world or anywhere else in the world as opposed to directly addressing issues in the UAE, politically or socially, as such. There’s also a lot of, well, not bad art, but for me, personally, boring art … It’s only getting better. The quality of art is slowly getting better.
MH: How has the Arab Spring affected curatorial attitudes in the Emirates, both in museums and galleries?
U: Museums haven’t really started. I’m very curious what museums are going to showcase when they are fully functional, as far as political stuff. It’s mostly just the Arab Spring at the galleries. Surprisingly enough it sells very well, and galleries need to pay bills so I understand that aspect. Many of these [Arab Spring] works have a shelf life; they’re a bit boring.
Anything [exhibition-wise] to do with the government out here is censored — the government really wouldn’t touch anything to do with the Arab Spring. They try to stay as far away as possible from it.
I’m really not inspired nowadays when I walk into a gallery in Dubai. It’s a bit strange actually. There are a few galleries that try to do interesting stuff, like Carbon12, Traffic/THE STATE, they do shows where it’s actually [Traffic gallery owner and THE STATE publisher] Rami Farook’s curated collection. Most of the works he has in his collection are quite political in nature. He curated four or five shows where he dealt with the Arab Spring in a very clever manner.
MH: To what extent is the market for art in the UAE influenced by independent actors vs. state or government-aligned capital? Who are the biggest buyers?
U: I’d say the collectors are quite important here; they pay the bills for a lot of the galleries and the aritsts. In terms of government money coming in, there’s really only the Sharjah Biennale. Collectors play quite an important role in the art market.
Collectors are slowly starting to get smarter, but there’s still a dearth of interesting collectors, collectors who would buy site-specific installations, video or sound installation art. Most of it is still stuff you can hang on your wall. And it’s a 50-50 mix of international and Arab collectors.
MH: To broaden the previous question, who goes to galleries? How has the Emirati citizenship involved itself in contemporary art?
U: In terms of footfalls in galleries and events that happen, some patrons turn up for the alcohol, some come for the art. It’s a very social affair, at least during the openings. The Emirati participation has increased, and the biggest example of that is the Sharjah Biennial. I would say the Emiratis are slowly picking up.
There are a lot of new Emirati artists as well — I’m not going to comment on the quality of their art, but it’s nice to see that. I must say also that most of the art scene is 75–80% dominated by women, gallery owners, art fair management, art fair staff. The majority of the staff at Sharjah is women. That’s a very interesting aspect that I find in this country. Women are very proactive out here. Maybe it has to do with social stigma, an Emirati man not doing art as a career, among the Arabs. But it’s great to see women be super actively involved. A lot of the Sheikhas [female aristocrats] from the royal family are quite heavily invested in patronage.
MH: To follow up on the Emirati artists, to what extent are emerging artists radical or activist?
U: Well the Emiratis don’t tackle governmental issues, at least amongst the young generation I haven’t seen any political artists coming out. Amongst the older generations, Mohammed Kazem is probably an example — and the Flying House crew — they did a lot of experimental political work. Today, it’s expat artists [doing critical work].
MH: Is the criticism ever direct?
U: No names are obviously named; we try not to do that. There’s always an idea of humor involved. In my work I try to be subtle, only because it’s a bit boring to be too direct.
MH: Is a politically repressive climate good or bad for artists?
U: It’s a bit of both. I haven’t gotten into trouble yet for any of my work, and I’m a bit surprised. I guess at some point every artist self-censors. I personally have done it. It would be nice to be able to say what you want to say, and some people try to voice opinions on social media. Some of the stuff I see on Facebook and Twitter, I’m surprised they’re not arrested; same goes for some of the stuff I say.
MH: Would you say the dominant language of contemporary art in the Emirates is English or Arabic?
U: English. Local criticism is overwhelmingly in the English-language press. As far as what I’ve heard from friends, the Arabic writing on art is like a press release.
MH: Does expression in what Triple Canopy called “International Art English” figure into the English-language equation?
U: Oh yeah, definitely. All the galleries do it … Sometimes I wish I could write conversationally, but as an artist you’re sometimes forced to relate to IAE in a lot of ways. More generally, for me it’s very interesting as a text artist because to be able to come up with the small phrases I use in my work, I have to edit a lot.
I also obviously want the international press to pick up my releases, so IAE becomes a sort of middle ground to use. I also do try to use it to mask my work [politically] depending on who I’m pitching it to.
The Emirates uses IAE as a proper diplomatic tool … The DCAA [Dubai Culture and Arts Authority] core team is mostly Emiratis. So that probably informs how they draft their press releases — though I’m sure they have an agency, I don’t think they do that in house, pretty much everyone here has a PR agent. But in terms of government, the Emiratis — again, mostly women, except of course all the leading positions [at government agencies] are men — that work on these projects are very well educated. They’ve gone out and they’ve studied, and they come back and they’re quite proud of the fatherland, that kind of thing. I wish they’d be more critical, but they’re getting paid shitloads of money because it’s the government. I guess it’s one of those job things.
MH: Do you worry that state institutions are using art to further entrench themselves, to create an illusion of criticality?
U: I mean, it’s a super careful dance — they’ll let you say just the right things just enough, but not too much. Same goes to the media out here. If you read any of the news that comes out of here, there are a few interesting social commentators. Have you heard of Sultan Al-Qassemi? He’s one of those people who’s very critical, though you could say he gets away with it because he’s a member of the royal family. It’s interesting having someone like Sultan out here, as he’s an arts patron with a great collection of modern Arab masters and also contemporary art. And to top it off, his collection is quite political.
So you’ve got individuals who are open-minded and who don’t really mind pushing the boundaries … But do I see it changing in the future? I hope so, just for the sake of art out here, because otherwise it’s just going be that same group — Dubai just as some super-commercial area that’s never going to develop into something critical, and the art scene won’t develop.
They can always bring in political art from outside, but I still think it’s better when it’s homegrown.