“Abu Dhabi”

United Arab Emirates: competitiveness and big cultural projects

Determined to exit from a “petrol only” economy, the United Arab Emirates have been backing, since 2007, the transformation of culture into a profit-yielding product. Massive investments, grandiose museum projects… Abu Dhabi and Dubai aspire to position themselves as cultural centres of a globalised 21st century while Sharjah is investing in less onerous projects. The three main emirates of the UAE federation don’t take the same approach when it comes to diversifying their economy. Nor do they have the same financial means. Abu Dhabi remains the most ambitious of the three, with its Saadiyat Island (literally, “Felicity Island”) complex created completely from scratch in the last decade. Thanks to colossal investments estimated at 25 billion euros according to The Financial Times, this emirate has constructed a district entirely devoted to culture, with no less than four big museums and a live arts centre, whose programming is set to rival with that of London or New York. On paper, the project looks attractive, but since 2007, only one museum has emerged from the sand, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, constructed by Frenchman Jean Nouvel. Apart from this museum, the building of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry), the Zayed National Museum (Norman Foster) and the Maritime Museum (Tadao Ando) have also been scheduled. The Centre for Performing Arts was meant to be constructed by Zaha Hadid. With an opening long announced for 2013, then 2016, the Guggenheim had its preliminary works stopped in 2011 when thousands of concrete piers started being formed, following the repercussions of the Arab Springs, and a controversy surrounding the conditions of workers. To date, according to the press service of the Guggenheim Foundation, construction “has not yet begun”. The reason is an absence of any agreement with a construction company despite the launching of a call...

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Diana Al-Hadid at the NYUAD Art Gallery

From 6 March to 28 May 2016, the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery will host an exhibition on the works of American-Syrian artist Diana Al-Hadid, titled “Phantom Limb”. Diana Al-Hadid is known for her sculptures which take classical imagery. Her ghost-like, even cadaveric, works will fully fill the 650m2 of the gallery. Throughout her works of art, the artist applies the sense of perspective memory and physical manifestation. Concerning her collaboration with the gallery, the artist declared: “ It’s an absolute privilege to work with Maya [Allison, director and founder of the gallery] and the NYU Abu Dhabi gallery staff. They have a deep respect for artists’ needs and a tremendous depth of appreciation for the work itself.” Born in Alep, in 1981, Diana Al-Hadid emigrated when she was very young with her family to Ohio, in the United States. After studying sculpture at Kent State University and at the Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, the artist received many grants and residences and made her entry on the market where she is represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery, in New...

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Art in the 90s: Starchitecture and the Bilbao Effect

Departing every fifteen minutes from outside the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a shuttle bus adorned with an advertisement for Frank Gehry’s latest art gallery. What is striking is that the image depicts the Fondation’s billowing sails not in the Bois de Boulogne but in some sort of celestial desert; the gallery has transcended its earthly surroundings and landed zeppelin-like in the future. Given that the destination of this shuttle bus is the Arc de Triomphe, the most symbolically French monument in the French capital, one cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate denial of location. This is a frequent criticism levelled at Frank Gehry, the “starchitect” whose iconic status was sealed almost twenty years ago by his equally placeless Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Indeed in an essay for the Architectural Review in the year of the Guggenheim’s opening, the current editor Catherine Slessor noted, “The prominence and exposure of the site is curiously well suited to Gehry’s architecture, which generally works best on a tabula rasa.” Reversing conventional architectural logic, it seems that the location fits the building rather than the building the location. But this is the ultimate irony and, perhaps, legacy of the “Bilbao Effect”— cities will try to put themselves on the map by shedding themselves of a sense of place. The “Bilbao Effect” refers to the trend that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s amongst cities to try and copy the success that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum had in turning around the economically stagnating city of Bilbao. City councillors across the world spent vast sums of money to follow a simple, but seemingly infallible recipe: one “starchitect” + one branch of a preferably branded arts institution (e.g. Guggenheim, Louvre) = international reputation and resultant tourism revenue. The “Bilbao Effect” is perhaps about...

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A new Gulf Labor report on construction site in Abu Dhabi

Gulf Labor – a coalition of activists that was constituted in 2011 to denounce the harsh working conditions on the construction site of the Gulf museums – has released a new report focusing on the working conditions and wages of the workers of the Saadiyat Island museum complex in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The report is primarily denouncing the underpayment and harsh working conditions. The report coincides with the release of the book The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, written by several activists including artists Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, Naeem Mohaiemen and Andrea Fraser, and published by professor Andrew Ross from New York University as part of its contribution to the Venice Biennale. For their survey, the authors have travelled to India and Abu Dhabi for a year, to meet the migrant workers employed to work on Saadiyat Island. This investigation has brought to light how urgent the underpayment matter is. While the workers deem that they should be paid $450 to 500 per month, the vast majority is paid less than $300. Gulf Labor also reported that this payment is based on skills, seniority and ethnic origins. The Guggenheim – which is building a new branch on Saadiyat Island – is accusing the Gulf Labor of ignoring its recent...

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Jodi Magi deported from the United Arab Emirates

On 14 July 2015, Australian illustrator and painter Jodi Magi was deported from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, after posting a message on Facebook and spending two days in jail. In February 2015, Magi posted a photo of an illegally parked car occupying two disabled parking spots in front of her apartment. After one of her neighbours complained about the photo, the case was transferred to an Abu Dhabi court, leading to the arrest of the artist. After spending 53 hours in custody, Magi appeared in court, accompanied by her lawyer and interpreter, where the verdict was confirmed. In June 2015, Magi received a $3,600 fine and was deported from the country. She then flew to Bangkok, on 14 July 2015. The artist lived in Melbourne, Australia, before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 2012, to teach graphic design. Currently in Thailand, she has recently expressed that she was confused by the court’s decision and the charges it held against her, adding that she was traumatised by the...

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