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Gulf Labor Statement April 28, 2019

The Gulf Labor Coalition came together in 2010 out of a sense of necessity, to think collectively about our obligations, as artists, scholars, and cultural practitioners, to respond to the large-scale cultural developments being planned in the UAE. 

We were inspired by the struggle for worker rights taking place by students and faculty around the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and asked ourselves what we as art practitioners could do to address potential labor abuses for the Guggenheim Museum’s planned Abu Dhabi branch.

We gathered signed pledges of artists from the region and beyond to withhold any participation, including the selling of their work, until the museum could address questions we had about labor standards. For those of us from regions marred by colonial abuse, extraction and violence, and long excluded from the collections of art by large-scale institutions, this request was not easy. We have sought an alternative infrastructure of art, deserving of the historical experiences in the region and confronting the challenges of the world. The events of the ‘Arab Spring’ have only made our position that much more undeniable.

What we asked was, in our eyes, quite modest. Before we agree to participate or include our works in such a collection, can you please insure that workers are not abused and are paid fairly, that they are not indebted by recruitment fees, that they are given decent housing and living conditions, and that they have the right to address grievances or abuses individually or collectively? We also asked for an independent external monitor to be in place so that we have at least a modicum of objectivity in assuring these conditions are met. Only the last of these requests was met, and not in a satisfactory way.

We are nine years into our struggle. During that time, timelines were shifted, and negotiations were attempted in many forms, first privately, then publicly. The museum’s leadership responded that our concerns were unsubstantiated. We conducted our own field research to prove otherwise. That work was rewarded by banning several of our members from entering the UAE. But we persisted in negotiations. Finally, after our proposals were designated as impractical, we made efforts to bring on board a team of professional organizations with long standing commitments and experience working on labor issues in the Gulf and South Asia. And exactly at this moment when the reforms we were demanding were made tangible and workable, the doors to our negotiations was unilaterally closed by the Guggenheim’s leaders and the period of wishful thinking on their part began.

Cynical as it may sound, it may be that these officials decided that by simply waiting and laying low for a few years, many of us might just get sufficiently distracted or burned out, lose momentum, or disband without an interlocutor or a museum to complain about. Or maybe the logic has been that enough of us will be seduced by the lucrative prices on offer for works, inclusive of artists who don’t care or remain in the dark about the welfare of the workers who will build and staff the museum to come. Or perhaps, if they wait long enough, people will simply forget the whole affair and move on. Hence, our attempt to provide a summary above.

This kind of cynicism may work in the short run, judging by the state of things globally, but we as Gulf Labor still believe that there is enough support and awareness on the part of the general public as well as in artists’ communities to stop this museum being built on the back of exploited, indebted, and abused workers. We expect more from cultural institutions today, and the struggles unfolding recently around the Whitney Museum’s board as well as the rescinding of funds by museums with ties to the Sackler Trust should serve as a clear warning to the Guggenheim that their reputation will be tarnished if they proceed to push the museum without addressing our concerns.

We have resisted making statements every time a director or some other spokesperson or architect has spoken about the project being ‘on again.’ But after being approached numerous times by writers and journalists, we make this statement as an update.

Gulf Labor remains steadfast in holding the Guggenheim Museum and Abu Dhabi cultural authorities accountable for any construction that does not meet the concerns for worker welfare that we, as a group representing several thousand signatories, have elaborated since 2010.

Op-Ed in the Walker Arts Magazine

Image: Workers camp on Saadiyat Island in 2011, Hans Haacke.

Gulf Labor members Naeem Mohaiemen (text) and Hans Haacke (photos) contribute an “Artists Op-Ed” to the Walker Art Centre’s Magazine.
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.”

You can read the entire piece here:
http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/gulf-labor-hans-haacke-naeem-mohaiemen

Helsinki say NO to Guggenheim Helsinki

The Helsinki City Council has voted against the proposed Guggenheim by 53 to 32 votes, ending a 4-year debate and campaign. Among those involved in the campaign were Checkpoint Helsinki, which floated the Next Helsinki  alternative competition in association with G.U.L.F., and who will release their book the “The Helsinki Effect – Public Alternatives to Guggenheim Model of Culture Development” in Helsinki this month. 
And the BWI, whose statement on the Guggenheim Helsinki is here.
Press coverage:
New York Times
The Guardian

Protests After Guggenheim Ends Negotiations

Video
On April 27, after the Guggenheim ended negotiations with Gulf Labor Coalition to protect workers in Abu Dhabi, members of G.U.L.F. used the walls of the Guggenheim museum in New York to send a message to the trustees. Their statement in full:

April 27, 2016

Tonight, the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.)  used the walls of the Guggenheim Museum to send a clear message to the trustees of the Guggenheim Foundation. We also took the message to the building of the chairman of the board. A museum that seeks to profit from forced labor will be judged in public. The cynical marriage of ultra-luxury art and ultra-low wages is null and void. 

The museum’s leaders broke trust by refusing further negotiations with the Gulf  Labor Coalition over fair labor standards in Abu Dhabi. As they try to walk away from justice, who will hold them to account?

Every Day is May Day

A Storm is Blowing from Saadiyat Island

G.U.L.F.

 

A Letter to the Louvre

Image: Saadiyat Island, courtesy Gulf Labor

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is addressed in several recent letters from the international art community to UAE-based institutions.  In an attempt to establish direct contact,  get a response from the Louvre on a growing list of points of worry, and extend our concerns and solidarities regarding ongoing activity on Saadiyat Island to France,  Gulf Labor sends the below open letter to the Louvre.

__________ (In French, and English below)
Continue reading A Letter to the Louvre

Guggenheim in Venice is occupied

venice-gugg-protest-over

Since about 10 am this morning, the dock outside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice has been occupied by a number of art groups protesting the Guggenheim’s inaction in preventing worker abuse in Abu Dhabi.  The venue has been closed for visitors.  Live updates are on Hyperallergic.  And #GuggOccupied

Tonight in Venice, the Guggenheim Foundation will host the official dinner for the USA pavilion, which it owns.

Update: Guggenheim has agreed to meet with protestors.