On Gulf Labor and Western Museums in the Middle East
2011: the Arab Spring had just started, and its winter not yet arrived. A contagious sense of optimism radiated in all directions, spilling over into the formation of a new group, the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). By itself, the formation of an artist collective to make demands of a cultural institution, in this case the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, was not unprecedented. The withdrawal of artwork from a museum, meanwhile, is not usually cause for optimism. But the signals that global shifts toward social justice were underway, as well as the configuration of this particular group, pointed to a possibility that our demands would have traction: we wanted fair conditions for workers constructing museums on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.
Looking around at fellow GLC members during our first visit to an Abu Dhabi work camp in 2011, I noted many who have longstanding involvement in both the MENASA (Middle East/North Africa/South Asia) region and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Among the initiators of the GLC were two artist collectives that had done extensive work in the Persian Gulf region; a recipient of, as well as a finalist for, the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize; and artists who had participated in projects at the museum and in the region over the years. It was not, therefore, an appeal from outside the museum walls, nor something that could be painted as an intervention by interlopers. During that first site visit six years ago, conversations focused on the Guggenheim setting a “higher standard” for labor rights for all new museum construction. We were energized by the possibility that there would be parity of influence between artists with commitments to the region and a museum that was extending its lens beyond North America and Europe.
Artists can cause tremendous discomfort and upset equilibrium by challenging the conditions under which their work is shown. Institutions have often countered the threat of such moves by painting artists’ activism as “misguided.” This charge seems to adhere especially to artist collectives, perhaps because they are stereotyped as disconnected dreamers who nurture their practices in splendid isolation. Some may point to the failure of negotiations between the Guggenheim and the GLC1 as evidence that such stereotypes are rooted in reality, in order to foreclose the potential for future activism inside the museum. They may even think that the GLC was undertaking research and negotiations purely as a performative gesture, without a tangible aim in mind. Replaying the film of those first optimistic moments in 2011, in the shadow of the Arab Spring, is one way to counter retrospective readings that can demoralize future artist-run initiatives.
One of the radical moves artists can make is to challenge the conditions under which institutions exhibit their work. But why do such tangible demands get bracketed as posturing, while metaphoric confrontations are celebrated? Defiance is welcomed when it is sanctioned and staged as art. Drill a crater in the floor, flood a gallery, embalm an animal, smash an object, stage a pitiful death—critics hail these gestures as having the power to “shape worlds.” But when artists sit down at a conference table with museum administrators and read from a list of demands for labor rights, this work—involving conversation, negotiation, research, protest—suddenly becomes illegible to the same museum. The artists whose projects were previously praised as stretching boundaries are now tagged as maverick spoilers.
How did it all start? Back in 2010, there had been months of meetings with the Guggenheim, led by Walid Raad, to resolve the issues raised by a Human Rights Watch report on migrant labor conditions on Saadiyat, “The Island of Happiness.”2 Eventually the talks stalled, and so the GLC was formed to press for the rights of workers on Saadiyat. Given how immovable large institutions tend to be, we were pleasantly surprised when TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), the Abu Dhabi national firm managing construction on Saadiyat, immediately responded to GLC with an invitation to visit the work site. During a guided tour, we found an orderly facility with new accoutrements. The visit did not, however, address our core concerns: reducing exorbitant “recruitment fees” that cause worker debt, preventing wage theft by intermediaries and subcontractors, implementing a living wage, and creating avenues for worker self-representation.
We returned to New York, and here the long haul of the work began. We had already heard criticism that artists did not know the “realities on the ground.” It was now crucial to become experts, by reading all the secondary material we could find, and by talking to rights organizations that had years of experience in these matters. Within the GLC, Ashok Sukumaran, Ayreen Anastas, Paula Chakravartty, Rene Gabri, and Shaina Anand had already done in-depth research on the movement of South Asian labor in the Gulf. For the rest of the group, the economics of migrant labor was something we needed to study quickly. In this process, months of field research–led by Nitasha Dhillon and others–produced primary data from India (Telangana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala) and Abu Dhabi, which complemented information gathered by NGOs.
Each time the Guggenheim agreed to a meeting, we knew we needed to study and prepare. Our planning sessions prior to the meetings would go on for hours, and GLC members picked up new skills in parsing legal jargon in a thicket of reports. Although meetings between GLC and Guggenheim management continued until 2016, it was usually press coverage of a protest action that would result in the institution of reforms. Paradoxically, we did not always receive recognition for those milestones. The significant revisions to TDIC Employment Practices Policy (EPP)3 and the appointment of PricewaterhouseCoopers as an independent monitor4 all came about as a result of pressure applied by GLC. Yet, because the revision of EPP stopped short of addressing our key demands (recruitment fees, living wage, and worker self-representation), and because PWC was selected in lieu of the monitors we had recommended (who did not have conflict of interest in the region), GLC considered the majority of our work incomplete. This meant that the tangible reforms that were implemented (even if inadequate) were not clearly understood in the media, or in the museum world, as the accomplishment of GLC.
As the negotiations with the Guggenheim continued over the years, the enervating impact of time made itself felt. Doug Ashford was an old union hand, involved in the successful attempt to unionize Cooper Union School of Art teachers, and Doris Bittar was involved in union struggles in Connecticut and California. They both cautioned us that reaching a full agreement with the museum through consensus would be challenging. Debates regarding strategy went on for hours, and one issue that troubled us was whether direct action at the museum (by the GLC or allies) would be seen as “bad faith” negotiation on our part. As a way to address this dilemma, a group of GLC allies formed a separate coalition, GULF (Global Ultra Luxury Faction), which carried out several actions inside the New York branch of the Guggenheim. GULF was not officially part of the GLC, so our negotiations were not directly affected by the Guggenheim’s reactions to their more confrontational tactics.5 GULF’s instincts about shifting public perceptions were borne out by events, as many concessions from the Guggenheim (including restarting stalled negotiation meetings) usually came after a round of events and protests.
GULF’s protests were sporadic and unannounced, irregular and yet highly effective. By contrast, the longevity of the GLC’s own work (research, analysis, advocacy, meetings) around labor conditions on Saadiyat posed a different challenge because a volunteer group still had ongoing expenses, a fact we felt sharply after receiving an invitation from Okwui Enwezor to present at the 2015 Venice Biennale. GLC members Andrew Ross and Gregory Sholette fundraised extensively to send members on research trips to India and the Gulf, organize plenary sessions in Venice with various NGOs, and finally publish a book, The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor.6 One afternoon, after a particularly long meeting, Noah Fischer walked with me to a subway stop in Chinatown. Then he stopped his bicycle for a moment, leaned on it, and said: “I just became a father. I need to look for work. There are jobs that may take me out of New York, away from Gulf Labor.” I stood there absorbing the organizational impact of this life change. Noah was the flamboyantly costumed, hyper-visible “human dollar” to whom Sujani Reddy7 had introduced me during the first week of Occupy Wall Street. I had never seen his face during Occupy, so total was his commitment to being an anonymous figure in Zuccotti Park. But we had all been animated by the energy he brought to Occupy-related activist projects, including Occupy Museums (tactics of which later spilled into GULF). That same indefatigable Noah was now a father, worried about raising his family, and unable to give his days over to the GLC (as he had to Occupy, for months). We were all starting to get gray hairs from this long-running campaign. Few had anticipated how long it would take, or prepared for all the challenges it would throw our way.
The passage of time shifted our composition, bringing new members in as others left. In a New York that has become a money parking spot for the elite, and a laboratory for some extreme forms of racialized gentrification, it is a sharp uphill struggle for artists to stay grounded in their neighborhoods. Many of our members are artists in their thirties and forties, and city changes and new jobs took them away from here. Beth Stryker moved to Cairo, Emily Jacir to Rome, Haig Aivazian to Beirut, Rana Jaleel to California; Mariam Ghani took a temporary teaching position in St. Petersburg; Tania Bruguera faced a travel ban inside Cuba. This is par for the course for the “precariat,” but it made research especially challenging. We looked to those with a long-term presence in New York City (Andrew Ross, Greg Sholette, Hans Haacke, Walid Raad) to be anchors, while at the same time extending the network to Paris (Elisabeth Lebovici, Eric Baudelaire, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez), Mumbai (Ashok Sukumaran, Shaina Anand), Los Angeles (Doris Bittar, Sam Durant), Ithaca (Todd Ayoung), Chicago (Michael Rakowitz), London (Guy Mannes-Abbott), and Berlin (Natascha Sadr Haghighian), as well as to affinity groups Who Builds Your Architecture?, Gulf Labor West, The Illuminator, the Precarious Workers Pageant, the Aaron Burr Society, the Workers Art Coalition, Occupy Museums, and the Guerrilla Girls.
After one arduous meeting at the Guggenheim on the eve of its 2014 UBS show, Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today (we usually had more leverage before a show), a museum representative asked us to do further research on the issue of worker debt. By then we had already introduced the Guggenheim to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other groups so they could work together to pursue this same research. GLC member Amin Husain replied: “You have to understand, we are artists struggling to survive in this city. But you get paid to do this, you should do the research.” Later, in an internal discussion, Rene Gabri argued against this characterization: “The notion of ‘volunteering’ is already fully on board with the capitalist subject endowed with a profession, [consisting of] things one does for money, versus things one does for love or atonement, as a volunteer. I prefer to destroy this split in life, which is not far from the split between political life and biological life. This difference is exactly why, whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ this struggle, we have every advantage over the museum. Our commitment is of a different sort and this is the point.” I admire Rene’s commitment—and he and Ayreen Anastas put this into practice in the long-running 16 Beaver space—but I also worry about the grinding life in the neoliberal city. Integrating multiple, long-term struggles into one’s daily life is a huge challenge in cities that are designed to make communities come apart. Museums may imagine artists as energized on protest adrenaline, but keeping a coalition operational and active in the face of both institutional intransigence and economic punishment is intensely arduous.
The lengthy process of negotiations has not been kind to the Guggenheim either. The dynamics of refusal that underpin the closure of negotiations has eroded goodwill for this once cutting-edge institution. This manifests itself in who is tasked to speak for the institution, something that has changed more rapidly than on the side of artists. Every time the GLC nurtured a contact at TDIC (Bassem Terkawi, Rita Aoun Abdo, et al.) who pushed for positive movement, we soon found that person shifted away from her role. At the Guggenheim, curators Suzanne Cotter and Nancy Spector left for other museums; Fawz Kabra and Reem Fadda left for other projects. Two PR heads also left quietly, perhaps the fallout from missteps that included an email exchange with Molly Crabapple leaked to the press. Most recently, on November 30 the city of Helsinki voted against the Guggenheim Helsinki museum, and cited the GLC protests as one of their concerns. On a recent evening, a Guggenheim curator posted a picture of a beautiful sculpture from the museum patio. I remembered it as one of my favorites—but we both may find it harder to spend an afternoon admiring this piece, located inside a museum mired in discord with artists.
The question of a consistent stance troubles any boycott. While the dreaded phrase “it’s complicated” is often a tactic of obfuscation that tries to take the wind out of a campaign, it also points to real dilemmas. The GLC was often asked why we were only speaking about the Gulf, when labor exploitation is a problem at building sites around the world (including in my own country, Bangladesh, which is one of the largest suppliers of labor for the Middle East). Of course, artists will focus their energies on places where they feel they can be heard. I know that I have more cultural leverage with a New York museum than with a Dhaka museum, even though I grew up in the latter city. The same is perhaps true for many other GLC members. But I also wonder whether a boycott targeting a Middle Eastern project, rather than one in America or Europe, was “easier” for people to sign on to–and what complicated impulses may lie behind such ease.
Furthermore, the Guggenheim was initially responsive to our protests, inviting us to meet; this traction encouraged activists to focus their efforts on a museum that was open to conversation. Conversely, the Louvre, which has a much bigger financial stake in its Abu Dhabi branch, and a construction phase that is half complete, has been relatively unscathed by protests. The GLC’s position was that an initiative targeting the Louvre had to come from French artists, but such an initiative never materialized. In Finland, it was local artists who launched an initiative opposing the Guggenheim Helsinki, and members of GLC became involved as allies at a secondary stage. Similarly, GLC members learned from the tactics of Liberate Tate, an artist collective that protested BP’s sponsorship of the Tate museums, with evident success.8 As the Louvre Abu Dhabi nears completion, the absence of major debates among French artists concerning the rights of workers building the museum opens up the question of troubling situations where shared solidarities do not coalesce. The continuing debates over NYU Abu Dhabi also highlight the vitality of student organizing. The necessity of widening the conversation is signaled in GLC’s October 2016 statement: “We are also committed to struggling for these rights in Asia, Latin and South America, Africa, North America, and Europe.”9
When the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project was still at a very early blueprint stage, artists’ non-participation was primarily a symbolic one. However, as time passed and the Guggenheim –as well as other Western museums–began rolling out expansion plans (starting with No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia in 2013), GLC members had to make difficult choices. . When the Guggenheim launched its UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, signatories to the boycott were approached for exhibitions, acquisition, and events at the New York Guggenheim. We debated whether we, as signatories, should withdraw from actual sites, or only from a site that does not yet exist. Individual artists have adopted different strategies, including attaching a rider to participation agreements specifying that their work cannot be shown in Abu Dhabi until the boycott ends. The GLC has ultimately welcomed various methods of participation in the boycott, not wishing to enforce a uniform rule. These decisions were influenced by, and refracted through, debates unfolding elsewhere over whether it is more effective to “stay outside and boycott” or “participate and protest from inside”—most recently in the boycott of the Jaipur Literary Festival, sponsored by the environmentally and socially destructive mining company Vedanta.10
The question of participation came up again in 2016, when the show But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art from the Middle East and North Africa opened at the Guggenheim just weeks after negotiations between the Guggenheim and the GLC were terminated. Many of the artists in the exhibition (Abbas Akhavan, Ahmad Mater, Ali Cherri, Hassan Khan, Iman Issa, Joana Hadjithomas, Kader Attia, Khalil Joreige, Mariam Ghani, Zineb Sedira) and related film program (Azin Feizabadi, Jayce Salloum, Jumana Manna, Mounira al-Solh, Sille Storihle) signed a statement asking the Guggenheim to resume negotiations with the GLC. The securing of artists from the Middle East, and the ending of talks with the GLC, seemed to divide the artist community of the region. Indeed, artists participating in But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise received a letter seeking to assure them that the proximity of the show to the cutting off of talks was coincidental. Regardless of the timing, should a museum expand to include art from a nascent local scene while remaining unwilling to adjust its plans in response to the political demands of artists linked to that context?
Reflecting on the way people within the visual arts community get divided along the axis of participation/withdrawal, the Lebanese artist Tony Chakar wrote: “Is this what we—contemporary artists—have been reduced to? Wandering nomads eagerly waiting for visibility, for approval, for the spotlight? I’m writing this so we can think together about this infernal structure that we call the ‘contemporary art world’ that is bullying us all, that is forcing us to stray away from everything that made us want to be artists in the first place.”11 It is both artists and institutions that are straying in the way that Tony laments. The current art world, under the suffocating pressure of speculative capital, is losing its potential as a space where utopian concepts can be dreamed and voiced. It is also playing a role in normalizing the unthinkable,12 as long as the money flow is not interrupted. One step toward building another kind of world must be to recognize the direct links between the art we exhibit in institutional settings and the labor of the workers who build, maintain, and operate those institutions. As the world heads into new dark waters of globalized xenophobia, radiating between America and Europe and the rest of the world, it is urgent to engage with artists not as “content providers” or a “nice” social presence,13 but as political actors who must have voice regarding the rights of those who construct the conditions under which artwork is shown.
Commissioned by the Walker Art Center and developed with Walker editor Paul Schmelzer, this essay was edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, and Laura Raicovich for the forthcoming anthology Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017). This essay also benefited from extensive comments from members of Gulf Labor Coalition.
The views reflected in the Artist Op-Ed series are those of the artists and do not necessarily represent those of the Walker Art Center.
1Hrag Vartanian, “Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor Over Migrant Rights,” Hyperallergic, April 27, 2016.
2Human Rights Watch, The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009.
3TDIC statement on Worker Welfare.
4PWC Report, 2016; GLC responds to PWC report, 2016.
5Hrag Vartainian, “Protest Action Erupts Inside Guggenheim Museum,” Hyperallergic, February 23, 2014; Hrag Vartanian, “Protesters Stage Intervention at Guggenheim’s Futurist Exhibition,” Hyperallergic May 25, 2014; Heddaya, Mostafa, “Activists Picket Guggenheim Gala over Labor Abuses,” Hyperallergic, November 7, 2014.
6Andrew Ross, ed. The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, New York: OR Books, 2015.
7Reddy is an activist in South Asian New York circles and author of Nursing and Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States (UNC Press, 2015).
8BP no longer sponsors the Tate, which Liberate Tate sees as a victory. However, neither the museum nor the company has attributed this decision to the protests.
9GLC’s comment on Guggenheim’s silence since cancellation of talks.
10Ruchir Joshi, “A new satyagraha: In search of principles for contemporary non-violent struggles,” The Telegraph, May 31, 2016.
11Tony Chakar’s Facebook feed.
12Fischer, Noah, “Why the Art World Must Not Normalize Donald Trump’s Presidency,” Hyperallergic, November 15, 2016.
13Rosler, Martha, “Why Are People Being So Nice?,” e-flux journal, Journal #77, November 2016.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.