While I was in Dubai, I started reading Christopher Davidson’s “Dubai: the Vulnerability of Success.” (Davidson is persona non grata in the UAE now; his latest book is entitled “After the Sheikhs.”)
A hundred years ago Dubai’s economy was based on pearl fishing and a well-located port and the British Political Resident doled out perks and persnickety reprimands to the local sheikhs whom the Empire both empowered and bullied (a typical letter warned that "the Sheikh will not be considered for any future presents until he writes a written apology asking that his discourtesy may be overlooked and that it will not occur again.")
Fifty years ago, Dubai had one hotel, with 35 rooms, by the newly constructed airport -- and the sense to know its oil reserves, nothing like neighboring Abu Dhabi’s, would only take it so far.
Today Dubai is an experiment in constant capitalist momentum, a seaside town in which the beach is unfindable (it’s all private); a cosmopolitan city state whose tensions are managed by spatial and social segregation, parallel worlds spinning one on top of the other. The vibrant art scene that has come into being in the last decade is just one of many international currencies and luxury brands. It’s jarring, coming from Cairo’s much more hardscrabble and bohemian scene -- no Egyptian galleries could afford the $140,000 fee to have a booth at the Dubai fair.
There was art from Egypt, though -- as well as from Europe, India, Iran, and dozens of Arab and African countries.
Most art these days is impossible to understand or appreciate without context, without an accompanying story. (I almost always gravitate to work from places I know. I really liked a video by Egyptian artist Hassan Khan, "Blind Ambition," partly because of how it focused my attention on something I'm familiar with in Cairo, the looping language of its unresolved and endless negotiations, the feeling of daily drama even as the city is mired in deeply repetitive conflict).
Yet most art -- if it is critically and commercially successful -- moves across the world, to galleries and exhibitions far from home.
A lot of contemporary non-Western art is delivering the local as a subject/product to a global audience/market. This puts artists in a difficult position: Who are they speaking to? In what language?
Art Dubai organizer Antonia Carver said the art there was “rooted in the local, relevant to the global.”
That’s sometimes true; in other cases one feels that the art has become fungible, unmoored.
At Art Dubai, critics, artists and buyers come together, temporarily, in a place they don't know well (that in fact does not want to be known and that they don't try too hard to know), to exchange money and views over art from other places they also often don’t know well. In the words of writer and invited speaker Elif Batuman, the fair is “ a traveling show” of “art world nomads.”
And for the moment, Dubai -- alongside Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Qatar, all of whom have their own art initiatives and cultural ambitions -- remain quite pointedly the frame, not the subject.
Nudity, profanity, religion and local politics are all generally proscribed at Art Dubai and other UAE exhibitions.
Free speech fundamentalist that I am, I cannot dismiss a concern with these bans -- as curator Shimon Basar did in this FT article -- as “Occidental arrogance” (this implies that it is only foreigners, and not artists in the region, who are bothered by this). Yes, there is censorship everywhere -- and it should be called out everywhere. In the Middle East, what is a fundamentally political decision to censor is justified as a need to defend the community’s oh-so-delicate cultural sensitivities -- the cultural relativist justification for censorship. I believe people don’t have the right to go through life unoffended; and that to be deprived of our ability to say what we think is to be robbed -- in a world which we have so little power to shape -- of one of the only sources of our dignity.
There is a quiet crackdown ongoing in the UAE, which is calming its post-Arab Spring jitters with secret trials of alleged Islamist plotters and a draconian new internet law that has shut down all debate online. People who care about culture and ideas and debate shouldn’t join in the pretense that these things aren’t happening.
And yet artists shouldn’t be asked to address politics all the time (or at all) and there is plenty of great work created under these conditions. Is accepting censorship in exchange for space and support for the arts a compromise worth making or a bind from which there is no honest way out? Is the market “a safe harbor for art” in authoritarian countries, and is that "depressing," as an art critic friend wondered?
Below are a few pictures from the Sharjah Biennale, a different art event being held in the neighboring Emirate. This large curated exhibition was spread over some very lovely spaces in downtown Sharjah, filling courtyards with sound, light, even fog. I was only there for 3 hours, so I can barely comment on the show (which would take multiple days to absorb) but I recommend Kaelen Wilson-Goldie's take.