Island of happiness? Artist Mariam Ghani on art and exploitation in Abu Dhabi

Contemporary art is booming in the Middle East, but at what human cost? New York-based Mariam Ghani discusses exploitation in the name of art.

The Gulf Labor coalition, an international network of culture workers and activists, is an ongoing protest against the exploitation of labour in the art world, particularly as this relates to the construction of art and culture institutions in the Middle East. Coalition member and artist Mariam Ghani explains why artists should take a stand against injustice.

Mariam Ghani, 'Going, Going, Gone', 2009, video still, 1 channel video, stereo audio projection. Image courtesy the artist.

Mariam Ghani, ‘Going, Going, Gone’, 2009, video still, 1 channel video, stereo audio projection. Image courtesy the artist.

Once dismissed as a cultural desert, the United Arab Emirates is undergoing an arts infrastructure make-over. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is at the centre of the initiative, with a campus of New York University (NYU) and branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, as well as golf courses, hotels and luxury residences under construction on Saadiyat Island.

But behind the positive headlines there is a darker story. In two separate reports in 2009 and 2012, Human Rights Watch warned of systemic exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant construction workers. The reported abuses, ranging from breaches of contract to virtual imprisonment in unhygienic living conditions and the forced retention of passports by construction companies, have led many to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable workers.

The Gulf Labor coalition is one such group. Originally organised around the exploitation of workers building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the coalition of artists and activists has come to widen its focus to “ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE,” as the group’s website states.

To date, the activities of the Gulf Labor coalition — exhibition boycotts, letters of protest and the dissemination of information regarding the kinds of outsourcing practiced by established cultural institutions — has taken on a variety of forms, ranging from a website updated weekly (“52 Weeks”) to tactically placing or “shopdropping” in the gift shop of Guggenheim New York inconvenient reminders of the conditions migrant workers confront in Saadiyat.

Poster for Gulf Labor's 52 Weeks at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Image courtesy Gulf Labor.

Poster for Gulf Labor’s 52 Weeks at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Image courtesy Gulf Labor.

One of the initial signatories of the coalition’s boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Mariam Ghani fluently engages video, writing, social practice and archiving, thematising the influence of regional histories and constructed environments on everyday forms of human conduct. Throughout her work is a concern with space, conceived as something with socially proscribed boundaries. Psychological environments are inhabited through collective acknowledgement and mutual recognition.

Art Radar met up with Mariam Ghani in New York to discuss the origins and goals of the coalition, how her work relates to the environment of the Gulf, and the overlap of politics and art.

Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, 'Index of the Disappeared: Codes of Conduct', 2008, site-specific installation with slide projection, sound, documents and shredder. Park Avenue Armory for Democracy in America. Image courtesy the artists.

Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, ‘Index of the Disappeared: Codes of Conduct’, 2008, site-specific installation with slide projection, sound, documents and shredder. Park Avenue Armory for Democracy in America. Image courtesy the artists.

Could you explain the background of the Gulf Labor Coalition in your own words? How did it come about and why did you become involved in the project?

Briefly, Gulf Labor is a group of artists, writers, architects, curators and other cultural workers who are trying to ensure that workers’ rights are respected during the construction of new cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Presently, we are calling on all such institutions to seek uniform and enforceable human rights protections for all workers on their sites. Gulf Labor is perhaps best known for initiating a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2011, but before the boycott was made public, several other initiatives took place, including a letter sent by 43 artists to the Guggenheim in 2010 and a series of meetings with the Guggenheim. I got involved a bit later, after the public call for signatories to the boycott.

Many people in the coalition, including me, became involved with Gulf Labor after first being involved with producing art in the Gulf region – making commissioned projects for the Sharjah Biennial, showing at Art Dubai or even being approached to do work in Abu Dhabi. We became invested in the project of Gulf Labor not only because we were familiar with the conditions on the ground, but also because we felt implicated. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to do any kind of work in the Gulf without becoming part of this system that underpins everything, which is the migrant labour economy. And certainly the art world of the Gulf is not exempt or separate from this system, because it is embedded in all economic exchanges in the Gulf.

At the same time – and I think Walid Raad’s Walkthrough performance at Documenta pointed precisely to this paradox or dilemma – the massive investment in cultural projects on the part of autocratic rulers in the Gulf does hold out a sort of promise, both to artists across the Middle East who need more support and exposure for their work, and to inhabitants of Gulf countries who might imagine that freedom of expression granted to artists within museum walls could eventually lead to greater freedom of expression in other arenas as well. If this promise is to be more than a mirage, however, the institutions through which these cultural projects will be enacted should be constructed in an equitable way.

Essentially, Gulf Labor is saying that it’s not enough for a satellite museum or campus to function as a zone of exception, where the rules are bent for certain actors within a carefully delineated space. We think these institutions can be and do more. They can be levers to enact wider change. And that change shouldn’t be postponed until the moment when art enters the walls. It should begin from the moment that the institution is conceived.

Gulf Labor focused on Abu Dhabi as a starting point, because just the annual interest income from the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi – the third largest in the world – would be far more than sufficient to resolve the problems we identified. We focused even more specifically on the Saadiyat Island project because on the ironically named “Island of Happiness”, a whole series of western institutions – the Guggenheim, the Louvre, the British Museum and NYU – are loaning their names and institutional cachet to Abu Dhabi to create a brand new “culture zone.” These institutions therefore have leverage that could be used to enact positive change, but are not applying it.

The Guggenheim, as an institution that collects contemporary art, was the place where we had the most leverage ourselves, which we used to open up a dialogue with the Guggenheim and through them with the Abu Dhabi authorities. Over the past few years, these efforts have resulted in a few improvements, like the introduction of a code of conduct for Saadiyat contractors, which is however unevenly enforced, and the appointment of a monitor whose independence is somewhat in doubt.

Abu Dhabi absolutely can improve the living and working standards of these workers, but they don’t want to. This distinction is crucial, because it points precisely to the importance of this struggle. They don’t want to because doing so would set a precedent, and once that precedent is set it can spread to other sites and other countries.

Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, 'Smile, you're in Sharjah', 2009, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, ‘Smile, you’re in Sharjah’, 2009, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artists.

How is Gulf Labor organised? Do the artists involved meet with regular frequency?

There’s a working group, which meets semi-regularly and corresponds frequently, and the membership of the working group is open to anyone from the larger group of boycott signatories. Right now, there are 22 people in the working group. We usually have our meetings in New York, but we also have people Skype in from the West Coast, the Midwest, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

The smaller working group does things like write press releases, represent Gulf Labor on panel discussions, produce collective texts for publication, update the website and initiate projects like 52 Weeks. We all volunteer our time and when we occasionally receive a fee for something like a publication or talk, the money goes towards larger initiatives like 52 Weeks, which is being managed on a day-to-day basis by two paid part-time assistants.

Matt Greco and Gregory Sholette, 'Saadiyat Island Workers Workers Collectable', 2013, "Shop-dropped" 3D prints, printed labels, plastic boxes, unlimited edition. Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York. Image courtesy Gulf Labor.

Matt Greco and Gregory Sholette, ‘Saadiyat Island Workers Workers Collectable. Who Builds your Architecture?’, 2013, “Shop-dropped” 3D prints, printed labels, plastic boxes, unlimited edition. Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York. Contribution for Week 7 of Gulf Labor’s 52 Weeks. Image courtesy Gulf Labor.

52 Weeks is a web-specific aspect of the Gulf Labor coalition featuring contributions from artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, Doug Ashford and Gregory Sholette, to name only a few. How do you think this web-specific contribution to the project affects the overall goals of the Gulf Labor coalition? Is there a way artists can use web-based content in a politically progressive way that might be denied them through other media?

52 Weeks is designed to keep a kind of constant pressure on the Western institutions that are involved in the Saadiyat Island project, which is why there will be a new project released every single week for an entire year. Some weeks we’ll even release multiple projects, because more than 52 people wanted to contribute.

One of the reasons why 52 Weeks is being primarily distributed online is so that it can be constantly redistributed, which increases the pressure applied to our targets. Another reason is that online distribution enables us to make links between the artists’ contributions and developments on the political side; this can be done via gulflabor.org, our various Twitter accounts, the email releases and so on. For example, recently it came out exactly how many bodies of migrant workers are sent back to Bangladesh from the Gulf every year. It’s about 2500 per year. And when they come back, no data about how they died comes with them. Or another relevant storyline in the news lately has been about the conditions of workers constructing the 2022 World Cup facilities in Qatar. In general, online distribution permits a kind of flexible or nimble campaign, which can to some extent at least adapt in response to the moment.

Mariam Ghani, 'Permanent Transit', 2001-2, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Mariam Ghani, ‘Permanent Transit’, 2001-2, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you feel that your own artistic practice overlaps with the goals of the Gulf Labor coalition in any way?

I think a lot of us involved in the working group have engaged practices. And “engaged”, in the French sense, is a good way to describe it because I don’t know if all of us have explicitly political practices. But we’re very engaged.

In my own work, I have a longstanding interest in migration, border zones and precarious existences, which can be traced from projects as far back as Permanent Transit (2002) to projects as recent as The Trespassers (2011), and of course also informs my ongoing collaboration with Chitra Ganesh on Index of the Disappeared (2004-present).

Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, 'Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Library', 2010, site-specific installation with clingfilm images, vinyl lettering, video players, documents, books and postcards. Downtown Buffalo public library for Art of War. Image courtesy the artists.

Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, ‘Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Library’, 2010, site-specific installation with clingfilm images, vinyl lettering, video players, documents, books and postcards. Downtown Buffalo public library for Art of War. Image courtesy the artists.

The Gulf Labor coalition seems to echo the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) of the sixties and seventies, in that a particular art institution — in this case the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, in the case of the AWC the MoMA in NYC — is being used as a platform to discuss the greater question of workers’ rights. How do you believe the Gulf Labor coalition might locate itself in an art historical context?

The most obvious link to or echo of the Art Workers Coalition in Gulf Labor, of course, is that Hans Haacke is a member of the Gulf Labor working group. But there are some other through lines as well.

I always think of the AWC as primarily advocating for artists’ rights and combating inequities within the art world, but in fact they were very much engaged with some of the same questions and very much grappling with some of the same criticisms around art and politics. That is, whether art can and should do politics, and specifically whether art institutions can and should be asked to wield their influence in order to call for social change.

The AWC members also deployed their artwork strategically, through strikes and boycotts, removal of work from shows and rewriting of sale contracts, to put pressure on MoMA and other art institutions, which is echoed in Gulf Labor’s use of the boycott and sale restrictions to pressure the Guggenheim.

There might be an even closer parallel between Gulf Labor’s dialogue with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and, say, the Puerto Rican Art Workers Coalition’s (PRAWC) complicated relationship with El Museo del Barrio – in that a number of the Gulf Labor signatories are part of the theoretical constituency of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, i.e. the very curators who would be asked to organise exhibitions, the scholars who would give talks, and the artists who would provide work for the shows and collection. And like the PRAWC with El Museo, it is because we are part of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s constituency – those who work with art in and about the MENASA region – that we feel we have the right to ask more of the institution. But also like the PRAWC, we are working in solidarity and in concert with a larger group of art workers who are interested in connecting issues of labour and equity within the art world to issues of labour and justice outside the art world.

Mariam Ghani, 'The Trespassers', 2011, video still, 1 channel video, 4 channel audio installation with archive. Image courtesy the artist.

Mariam Ghani, ‘The Trespassers’, 2011, video still, 1 channel video, 4 channel audio installation with archive. Image courtesy the artist.

Your work often thematises environments, both natural and constructed, and explores the psychological ramifications of inhabiting particular regions of space. Have you come to look at the settings of Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat differently since your involvement with the coalition?

My involvement with Gulf Labor has made me look at the Emirates differently, but you could also say that making work in the Emirates, which is what brought me to Gulf Labor, has made me more conscious in general of not just the psychological but also the political ramifications of inhabiting particular regions of space. By which I mean that, when I am invited to make a site-responsive work these days, I try to think through the political implications of accepting that invitation, of producing work within that particular context at that particular moment, before I say yes. And I also think about the present context and moment when deciding what kind of work to produce.

I have said before that as soon as you start operating within the art world at any kind of serious level, you’re always already compromised. And you can only start drawing lines as to where you refuse to compromise and acknowledging those compromises that you still do make without drowning in guilt over the contradictions. It’s better to have some bright line, even if it occasionally gets trespassed, than none at all.

I am more aware now of the conditions of commission and production, the sources of funding for projects and how they can inflect the work I make. But it’s a delicate balance. Does money come with certain constraints? Are the constraints produced by the source of the funding? Or are the constraints produced by the place where you’re making your work? And are they imposed from above or generated from within?

Because I make so much work that is about particular spaces and places, I always want to be sensitive to the actual operating conditions of those places and I don’t want to push too far against the natural boundaries – unless I have a very specific reason for breaking the rules. I also don’t want to pretend a greater intimacy with a place than I actually have, so in my lens-based work the camera often maintains a certain distance that reproduces my actual distance from the subject. And so, a lot of the time I do operate within certain constraints, which might seem to conform to or mimic the cultural constraints of a given place. But actually, these are self-imposed constraints that stem from my own ideas about a formal rigour that reflects my own position within a place.

Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, 'Smile, you're in Sharjah', 2009, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, ‘Smile, you’re in Sharjah’, 2009, video still, 1 channel video, 5.1 channel audio installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Some would argue that one can make a medium of politics, or make a medium of art, and that whatever overlaps there are between them does not dissolve their essentially separate trajectories. Do you personally believe that art, as art, can and should engage political causes? Is the Gulf Labor coalition an instance of that?

During the first two years or so of Gulf Labor, we were in a way keeping those two things separate. Our art was our art and our activism was our activism, and they weren’t actually bleeding into each other, except in the way we used our artwork strategically throughout the boycott — through, for example, the conditions imposed on sales — to support our activism. But our activism, for Gulf Labor at least, wasn’t necessarily in our artwork. Only now, with the 52 Weeks campaign, we have started to bring the two together and actually attempt to enact the activism through artworks. It’s a new experiment for Gulf Labor and we’ll see how well it actually works over the course of the 52 weeks.

In general, I have seen some artworks that successfully enact some kind of localised social or political change. But that success requires a particular approach: coalition building and intensive follow-through, which usually entails collaboration with activists, social workers or government personnel. In Gulf Labor’s case, we work with Human Rights Watch, Who Builds Your Architecture?, and contacts in South Asia and the Emirates to both gather and disseminate information. I don’t know if artists can enact change on their own through artwork alone; but I do think artists can be a part of enacting change, perhaps by being the most visible part of a larger project or coalition, or by serving as the thin end of a wedge – pushing open a door that was previously closed, or opening up a space to new users or uses.

Thomas Hirschhorn, 'Banners', 2009, photocopies and tape, 66.7 x 53.7 cm. Made at the occasion of the exhibition "Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum Rotunda", Guggenheim Museum New York, 2010. Contribution for Week 2 of Gulf Labor's 52 Weeks. Image courtesy the artist.

Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘Banners’, 2009, photocopies and tape, 66.7 x 53.7 cm. Made at the occasion of the exhibition “Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum Rotunda”, Guggenheim Museum New York, 2010. Contribution for Week 2 of Gulf Labor’s 52 Weeks. Image courtesy the artist.

I do believe that art can and should engage with politics; whether it can and should engage with political causes qua causa is another question. I think you’ll see a fairly wide range of approaches to this question in the various contributions to 52 Weeks, some of which, like Thomas Hirschhorn’s, might appear quite ambivalent about the “cause” while engaging fully with the politics. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary for an artwork made or deployed for 52 Weeks to be an unambiguous endorsement of Gulf Labor’s cause, i.e. a more or less straightforward piece of propaganda, as long as every week’s contribution draws attention to some aspect of the actual situation of the workers on Saadiyat, and the actual thorny politics and implications of the compact between these western cultural institutions and their partners in Abu Dhabi.

Jeffrey Grunthaner

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Related Topics: art districts, political art, art and activism, interviews, art in the UAE, UAE artists, Afghani artists

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