Sharjah Biennial Artists Urge UAE to Lift Travel Bans

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Participants of the 12th Sharjah Biennial have issued an open letter to cultural institutions and authorities in the United Arab Emirates expressing support for artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad, who were both recently denied entry into the country. Sukumaran, who was repeatedly denied a visa for “security” reasons, and Raad, who was turned away at the Dubai airport, also for “security” reasons, are members of the Gulf Labor Coalition, an activist group concerned with workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, the site of Guggenheim, Louvre, and New York University offshoots. The letter, signed by 44 of 55 artists and collectives participating in the biennial, follows other public expressions of concern regarding Sukumaran and Raad’s inability to attend March Meeting, a conference affiliated with the Sharjah Biennial. These have included a letter by International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) as well as a statement by Raad himself.

“We feel that the work done by the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition is important,” the 44 signatories wrote, “and that transparency and dialog are essential to ensure that globalised cultural institutions like the Guggenheim, the Louvre and NYU are expanding responsibly, sustainably and without labor exploitation.” The signatories, while acknowledging that border issues are not unique to this situation, “urge authorities in the U.A.E. to lift entry restrictions for Ashok Sukumaran, Walid Raad and Andrew Ross.” Ross, an NYU professor and member of Gulf Labor, was prevented from entering the UAE in March, and has been the victim of an anonymous campaign by a private investigator to discredit his academic work.

The Sharjah Art Foundation, which organizes the Sharjah Biennial, was not immediately available for comment. In a previous statement to ARTINFO, the Guggenheim claimed that “authority over immigration and visa policy rests fully with the UAE government.” “In the spirit of international cultural exchange,” the museum added, “we have reached out to officials in the United Arab Emirates and the United States to find out more about his situation and have been in contact with Walid himself.”

The full text of the letter by artists in the Sharjah Biennial, and list of signatories, follows below.

To:
Guggenheim, New York and Abu Dhabi
Louvre, Paris and Abu Dhabi
New York University (NYU), New York and Abu Dhabi
Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), Abu Dhabi
Art Dubai, Dubai
Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Abu Dhabi
And all other cultural institutions working in the UAE

As artists participating in the Sharjah Biennial 12, we collectively voice our support for fellow artists Ashok Sukumaran, who was recently denied multiple applications for an entry visa to the U.A.E., and Walid Raad, who was denied entry and deported by the U.A.E. border authority from the Dubai airport on May 11, 2015. Both artists have produced and presented work in and related to the U.A.E. for many years and were invited to be guest speakers at the Biennial’s March Meeting. Raad was denied entry to the U.A.E. for reasons of “security.” We believe his interdiction, as well as Sukumaran’s visa denial, are related to their work within the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, as was the case with NYU professor Andrew Ross, also a member of the Coalition, who was also denied entry to the U.A.E. in March 2015. The Sharjah Biennial has been an important space for cultural exchange and dialog over the past 24 years, and the Sharjah Art Foundation has played a crucial role in fostering a community of artists in the broader Middle East, South Asian, African and Asian regions. As participating artists in Sharjah Biennial 12, we deeply regret that this year’s March Meeting could not include Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad, two important participants in this community.

We feel that the work done by the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition is important and that transparency and dialog are essential to ensure that globalised cultural institutions like the Guggenheim, the Louvre and NYU are expanding responsibly, sustainably and without labor exploitation. Artist visa and entrance denials constitute a rupture in transparency and dialog that can only result in a polarisation of positions, and justify our concern about the working conditions on the construction sites of institutions with whom we work. We recognise that such visa denials and the restriction of border-crossing privileges are not exclusive to the U.A.E. They systematically occur and are on the rise at all Schengen state borders and in North America as well. We, the undersigned international artists and cultural workers, who are active members of a broader art community that includes the Sharjah Biennial, as well as the Guggenheim, the Louvre and NYU, have a responsibility to voice our concern over increasing measures by states to restrict mobility on the basis of citizenship, ethnicity, political critique and cultural production.

We echo the call made by the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition asking cultural institutions in the U.A.E. to stand together against the recent developments of visa and entry denials and deportations, and to urge authorities in the U.A.E. to lift entry restrictions for Ashok Sukumaran, Walid Raad and Andrew Ross, so that they may pursue their positive role within the regional and international community of concerned artists and researchers.

Abraham Cruzvillegas
Ahmad Ghossein
Asuncion Molinos Gordo
Ayreen Anastas
Babak Afrassiabi
Basel Abbas
Beom Kim
Byron Kim
Cinthia Marcelle
Danh Vo
Damián Ortega
Entissar Al Hamdany
Eric Baudelaire
Fabrice Taraud
Faustin Linyekula
Gary Simmons
Haegue Yang
Hassan Khan
Iman Issa
Jac Leirner
Jawshing Arthur Liou
Joel Lokossou
Lala Rukh
Kit Lee
Kristine Khouri
Leonor Antunes
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Mark Bradford
Maryam Kashani
Michael Joo
mixrice (Jieun Cho & Chulmo Yang)
Nasrin Tabatabai
Rayyane Tabet
Rasha Salti
Rene Gabri
Rheim Alkadhi
Rigo 23
Rirkrit Tiravanija
Rodney McMillian
Ruanne Abou-Rahme
Sarah Rifky
Taro Shinoda
Uriel Barthélémi
Virginie Dupray

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Danh Vo’s “Come to where the flavors are,” 2015; courtesy Sharjah Biennial)