Let’s talk about building Gulf art space

BEIRUT: When those most likely to benefit from a megaproject mobilize against it, it’s news. Farmers against an irrigation project, laborers against collective bargaining, artists against a new contemporary art museum – it’s all appealingly counterintuitive. So it is with “52 Weeks.”

Gulf Labor, the group of 100-odd artists behind it, depict “52 Weeks” as a yearlong campaign that seeks to highlight “the coercive recruitment and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi who are building the Guggenheim, the Louvre and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum.”

For each week of this year, artists, writers and activists from different cities and countries have been invited to contribute a work, a text or an action that speaks to this issue.

New York-based German artist Hans Haacke, whose past practice has addressed the relationship between art and big business, opened the fifth week of the action with “I Paid.” The piece juxtaposes text and image. The former excerpts the testimony of a Pakistani laborer, quoted in the 2012 Human Rights Watch report on conditions at the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi construction site. The latter is a maquette of the proposed structure, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning U.S. architect Frank Gehry.

The Tourism Development and Investment Company in Abu Dhabi said it had long worked with an independent monitoring consultant that provided regular reports on the performance of its contractors and had a “robust mechanism” in place to ensure that workers didn’t pay recruitment fees to work on Saadiyat Island. It also required contractors reimburse any workers who paid fees.

“The company has a long standing and deep commitment to protecting workers’ rights and fully respects and supports the artists’ role in campaigning for this issue,” the TDIC said in a statement. “However, HRW’s announcement predates more recent announcements made by TDIC relating to measures already taken to further safeguard the workers’ rights.”

One of the artists involved in “52 Weeks” is Walid Raad. “If the Guggenheim, Louvre and TDIC were willing to invest as much energy and resources into safeguarding the rights of workers buildings museums on Saadiyat Island, as they are on hiring ‘starchitects,’ building engineering marvels, and buying challenging artworks, then their claims of building the best infrastructure for the arts in the world would be more than words in the wind,” the New York-based, Lebanese artist said when the initiative was launched last month.

“Abu Dhabi, its residents and workers, deserve more than the ‘edgy’ buildings and collections proposed by the best museum-brands in the world,” Raad continued. “Abu Dhabi also deserves the development, implementation and enforcement of the most progressive labor laws for their emerging institutions. If the museums can’t see this, then I can only hope that the ruling sheikhs and sheikhas will, and soon.”

While in Beirut recently, Raad sat down with The Daily Star to chat about Gulf Labor. He pointed out that “52 Weeks” was part of an ongoing conversation with the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi franchise.

“The artists, writers, curators and others in Gulf Labor did not go to Abu Dhabi to try to change anything,” Raad said. “The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi came to us and asked us to contribute to their project. We assumed they were interested in an exchange of ideas, not just in objects to display on their walls.

“At first, our exchanges were quite productive, or so it seemed. Today, we cannot tell if the past three years of meeting after meeting were just delay tactics. After all, another three years of meetings, and all new buildings will be complete, all acquisition deals sealed.”

Raad said that another reason he and his colleagues decided to take this action was that, at this juncture, artists had a unique degree of leverage vis-a-vis Saadayat Island.

“Given the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s dedication to practices from the region, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who some of the visual artists they are hoping to display and possibly acquire are,” he observed. “Without much effort, I can make a list of 50 artists who are likely to be on the Guggenheim’s acquisition wish list. I know many of these artists. Most, if not all, are progressive folks. Some even deal with concepts of labor in their artworks.

“Gulf Labor simply formalized and publicized what many around me were saying privately all along. It seemed to be one of the rare occasions when artists had some leverage in their dealings with an institution, in this case the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – an institution that needed to build a collection of contemporary art. Without it, there is nothing to show. This is why we concentrated on the Guggenheim. But also because we thought they shared our concerns about labor standards.”

The Gulf’s petro-states have been serious players in the exhibition and financing of the visual arts for a decade now, stemming from the initiatives of two UAE cities without extensive oil reserves.

The Sharjah Biennial, the Gulf’s oldest international arts institution, was launched in 1993, but it attracted the attention of the funding-exhibition-sale complex in 2003, when Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi co-curated the event and later become president of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Launched in 2007, Art Dubai (that emirate’s yearly art fair) is scheduled to overlap with the biennial, effectively becoming a market-driven complement to Sharjah.

The same year that Qasimi assumed her role at Sharjah, Dubai interests put their weight behind the Gulf’s first international film festival. While newer festivals in oil-rich Doha and Abu Dhabi created solvent film-funding mechanisms, DIFF has developed the region’s most reputable film market apparatus.

Abu Dhabi’s cultural footprint, stamped on the Saadiyat Island development, is more recent, but art market entrepreneurs have had time to play a role in the emirate’s development plans. As Raad notes, market forces will have a hand in the effectiveness of “52 Weeks.”

“We can boycott the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by refusing to sell our works,” he said. “But we are also quite aware that our works are out there already anyway, and there are other players who have acquired our works long ago and will have no problem selling to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and thus will directly or indirectly dilute our boycott.”

Aware as he is that Gulf Labor is swimming against the current practices of late capitalism, Raad wonders whether “52 Weeks” may not seem a bit naive. It’s a surprising remark, considering the artist’s oeuvre.

The Atlas Group, the institutional guise of his early work, depicted itself as “a project established in Beirut in 1999 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon.”

“Scratching on Things I Could Disavow,” his most recent solo exhibition in Beirut, hinges upon the premise that, in 2007, he “was asked to join the Dubai branch of the Artist Pension Trust ... a private company established in 2004 by a savvy entrepreneur and a risk management guru.”

Raad’s practice resembles an artistic engagement with overarching political narratives – whether expressed via video, performance or visual art. Far from naive, “52 Weeks” could be seen as a performative gesture whose set design is the contradictions between the exhibitor’s evident material interests and its representation of them.

“Well ‘52 Weeks’ is a collective action and it’s unlikely any two artists will see their involvement in exactly the same terms,” Raad said.

Stirring another espresso, he recollected how the aesthetic frisson of his practice emerged from research into the mundane workings of civil war, U.S. intelligence gathering and art market entrepreneurialism.

“You hope for that magic,” he placed the spoon in the saucer, “but it all seems painfully familiar sometimes.”

For more information about “52 Weeks” and Gulf Labor, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 25, 2013, on page 16.




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