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Friday, May 27, 2016

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Yesterday I wrote about a disgusting article written on the official Guggenheim Museum blog which falsely accused Israel of racism and of censorship of art.

The museum's social media director seemed already a little embarrassed about the article. Instead of tweeting the article title, which is "Censorship in Israel," the tweeter only highlighted a side point it mentioned:

Yet the Guggenheim is guilty of more that just publishing a slanderous article filled with lies and half-truths.

You see, the Guggenheim has been trying since 2006 to build a huge museum in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

And the UAE routinely engages in real censorship of art. Not the false "withholding funds" definition that idiot artists like Chen Tamir whine about where a government doesn't want to support someone publicly defecating on their flag, but honest-to-Allah censorship of art.

The last editions of both Art Dubai in 2012 and the Sharjah Biennial in 2011 saw works removed because of objections to their content.

In Sharjah, accusations of blasphemy leveled at a work by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil resulted not only in the removal of the work, but also in the dismissal of the biennial’s director, Jack Persekian.

Mr. Benfodil’s installation, “It Has No Importance,” placed two teams of mannequins in soccer uniforms in a public courtyard, with sexually graphic comments scrawled in Arabic on their shirts.

In the words of the 2011 biennial’s curators, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, the graffiti “borrowed the voice of the victims of rape at the hands of religious extremists in Algeria.”

Sheika Hoor al-Qasimi, the 33-year-old director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, who is overseeing this year’s biennial, said that the management team that had permitted the 2011 installation — and others deemed offensive — had erred. “It was an oversight by the entire team,” she said. “It was not censorship. It was illegal. The U.A.E.’s laws clearly forbid nudity and blasphemy and you cannot break the law.

Arsalan Mohammad, editor of the Middle East edition of Harper’s Bazaar Art, commented: “In my experience here, what gets called censorship in an artistic context is explained as upholding public standards of decency, avoiding blasphemy and offense to the nation’s rulers. The two terms are interchangeable.”
Yet instead of railing against explicit censorship of art in the UAE, artists find ways to find the silver lining, as artist Jime Reyes Gonzalez wrote in 2013, ending up implying that censorship is a good thing for art in the end
Coming to the UAE was an instant shock for me. As opposed to the self-service approach, art and media here are more visibly regulated. As part of an academic institution in the UAE, most of us have a fairly good idea of what kinds of things are allowed. We know not to criticize the government, politics, the royal family or Islam. We know to avoid delicate topics such as homosexuality and gender roles.

As students and artists, we should be concerned with how much we can express. We enjoy a considerable amount of freedom within NYU Abu Dhabi to express ourselves freely on these topics, and are even encouraged to do so, but if we want our work to be shown anywhere outside of the school community, we have to adhere to the laws of our host country.

At first, I was deeply disturbed by this censorship. As a film major, I found it more than slightly disconcerting to pursue filmmaking in a place where films in the cinema are blatantly cut and edited to fit the local standards. I did not come here with a particularly strong desire to make offensive paintings of Sheikh Mohammed or a film that criticizes homophobic tendencies within Islam but the fact that I couldn’t was still annoying. I struggled with trying to understand what the “you can do anything, as long as it is respectful” framework meant exactly.

As I gained more experience actually creating art here and watching my peers do the same, I was surprised by what I discovered. The fact that we have to work under relatively dense limitations sparks an interesting alternative to blunt expression. I watched my friends craft beautiful capstone pieces dealing with the sensitive topics mentioned above without ever stating the topic at all. I watched and learned that there are other ways to say what you want through art that is not so in-your-face. I have found that the restrictions in place do not necessarily mean that we cannot talk about certain things, but rather that we have to think harder about how we talk about these things.

As an art student, I have finally chosen to take it all as, in the words of Professor Savio, “an opportunity, rather than a constraint – a chance to be creative and imaginative in a way [you] never thought possible … Everywhere there are rules and restrictions that must be adhered to. No reason for the artist to go into a box, close the lid, and resent the limitation. Use restriction to set your ideas free.”
There you have it. When an artist or a museum sees an opportunity for self advancement, suddenly censorship is not so big a deal. And while there is controversy over whether the Guggenheim would be allowed to show nudes, for instance, it is obvious that the types of shows it creates when the museum is finally completed will be informed by a desire to not upset its Arab hosts. There will be no Arab version of "Piss Christ."

The Guggenheim, by publishing an article about the horrors of nonexistent Israeli censorship, has no problem with partnering with a country where art censorship is normal and explicit. The double standards to which Israel is subject by these supposed defenders of art and freedom of expression is stunning, and their hypocrisy is blatant.

(h/t califlefty)

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