In the last week, two artists Walid Raad and Ashok Sukumaran were denied entry to the United Arab Emirates, where they were scheduled to attend the March Meeting (May 11–15), organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Both Raad and Sukumaran are members of Gulf Labor, a coalition of art workers and labor activists that have sought to highlight systemic abuse of contracted workers building the Saadiyat Island complex, a resort island near downtown Abu Dhabi slated to be the future home to outposts of the Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University, as well as luxury hotels.
The UAE’s refusal to allow Raad and Sukumaran to enter the country was presaged in March, when NYU professor and Gulf Labor member Andrew Ross was blocked from boarding an Etihad airlines flight to Abu Dhabi at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. All three Gulf Labor members were denied entry by UAE officials on unspecified “security” grounds. It was also revealed in March that Ross and a New York Times reporter, Ariel Kaminer, who reported on abusive conditions for laborers building the NYU campus, were the subject of research by a private investigator, working for an disclosed client.
Members of Gulf Labor and the related group GULF (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) have stepped up their protest campaigns against the Guggenheim in the last eighteen months. One of three actions at the New York museum in 2014, activists unfurled banners within the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum on November 6, 2014. On May 1, this year, GULF members set up a banner on the ground floor of the museum and showered the rotunda in 10,000 leaflets in the style of On Kawara (the subject of a retrospective at the time)—prompting the Guggenheim to close early for the day. A week later, on May 8, in Venice, during the opening week of the Venice Biennale, activists covered the Grand Canal-facing facade of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection with banners reading “Meet Workers’ Demands.”
The activists maintain that despite promises of reforms, the Abu Dhabi government and the developers of Saadiyat Island have not done enough to improve exploitative conditions for laborers, which include extortionist recruitment fees at home, and squalid living conditions and limited legal rights once on the job. In the latest of its annual reports, Human Rights Watch details ongoing abuses. It is estimated that 30,000 workers have paid an average of USD 2,000 each to contractors in recruitment fees, and earn monthly salaries of just $217. Gulf Labor and other groups are asking for workers to be recompensated for those fees.
The Guggenheim has maintained it is trying to improve conditions but is not responsible for all of the conditions on Saadiyat Island cited by Gulf Labor, nor does it have leverage over the Abu Dhabi government and its partners. A report on the construction of the NYU campus (the Nardello report) illuminated that many of the problems persist, with more than 10,000 workers lacking protections guaranteed by the university’s labor guidelines—largely because of the subcontracting structure in place.
Gulf Labor and the Guggenheim exchanged a series of open letters and responses in April, illustrating the many issues that still remain unresolved. The Guggenheim maintains, “The complex global issues surrounding migrant employment cannot be solved by a single project, but we are working fully within our sphere of influence to advocate for progress.” Gulf Labor maintains, “It is still up to institutions such as the Guggenheim to make clear their mechanisms for insuring that workers will not be abused on their sites in the building process as well as in their daily operations.”
Both Raad and Sukumaran made statements after being blocked from entering the UAE; they are printed in full on Gulf Labor’s website. Sukumaran relates his own motivations for involvement with the cause: “On this and many other trips I spoke to and often literally translated the dreams, realities and traumas of many people from Punjab, Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who were building museums. A good reason to speak to and listen to this group of people is that they are simply, even though without voting and other rights, the majority of the population. Their ability to describe a place cannot be underestimated.”
Meanwhile, Raad expresses near surprise at his deportation, as he had informed employees of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Tourism Development & Investment Company of his trip—not mention, like Sukumaran being an invited guest of the Sharjah Art Foundation. He writes mournfully, “But I’ve wondered for some time now whether travel bans and deportations will be the fate of artists, writers, and others who actually engage in this dynamic cultural exchange. Now that I know, I wonder how the Guggenheim will be able to be ‘inclusive and expansive’ when the very artists who are meant to be included in the expansive view of art history are systematically excluded, banned and deported.”
Gulf Labor is included in the Venice Biennale and, according to Raad’s statement, will present its latest findings on July 29, “at the Venice Biennale, and at the invitation of its curator Okwui Enwezor.”