Structural Issues & Responsibility in the UAE’s Art Scene
I’m writing this because I can no longer avoid writing it. I’ve seen the discourse in the UAE veer so far away from productive ground, and this article is my attempt at building in a new direction. My objective is to enable safe spaces for my peers, and speaking truth to and about these institutions is an important part of establishing safety.
So this is for you, friends — I hope you find solace in these words and that they keep you grounded when someone attempts to gaslight you into thinking you are the problem.
More importantly, this is one part of a larger plan of remedial action — my way of ensuring that the work of South Asian creatives (among so many others) is not minimized, overlooked, and disrespected — And when it is, they have a community to turn to for strength. I would never have written this article, stood up for myself, or withdrawn from an exhibition (more to come) had it not been for the support of several brilliant South Asian women. Lubnah and Shazia, I treasure your friendship and allyship. Your love and safety enable advocacy.
Two years ago, I returned from NYC after my MA in Media Studies at Pratt Institute — a fact I wielded as a weapon to consistently claim space as an Indian in the UAE. I came upon the Arts and Culture scene from a place of intersecting privileges, not knowing these pockets of criticality existed in over two decades of living in the UAE. Part of why I was introduced to this space was that my research brought me back to the UAE and part because the mentors I was working with were well established in the UAE Arts space.
A public secret is that this city is ripe with people who have internalized colonial ideas about value. Everybody plays the game of highlighting institutional or city tags (often UK or US based) to signal credibility, or name-dropping their connection, on applications or in conversation.
“That’s how it works.”
- I was told to retain my NYC address by multiple people in the know to be seriously considered for the AlSerkal Summer Residency,
- I got the Warehouse421 Homebound Residency after I highlighted the community building experience I had in NYC — I don’t know how much this played a role in selection, but I’m not a fool who thinks it had no weight.
- I was invited to participate at an exhibition at GPP and selected for an interview at AlSerkal Arts Foundation, in part because I dropped the right name.
[While I mention these institutions by name, we can all be grown-ups and acknowledge this is a larger practice, not as a way to excuse it, but to not feel blameless if you’re not named here]
To me, that’s one place where we stop and restart. Homegrown, after all, means acknowledging the existing value at home. I think this circuit emerges from a place of insecurity, of not being taken seriously because your mind, body and experience are not seen as inherently valuable (not limited to a specific nationality — as we all know, it’s a slightly complicated dynamic with wealth, accents, dress codes and passports).
I started this work at Gulf Creative Collective, where every workshop begins with introductions — but with no tags. What would it look like for newcomers if we stopped intimidating them with our list of credentials? Can we stand in a room without this armor? And what does that room look like?
I’ve seen snippets of this safety in workshops I’ve built, so
- I know it’s possible,
2. I know it creates a base for genuine productive conversation, engagement and curiosity rather than two people intellectually dancing in front of one another.
Race, nationality or ethnicity are not external to the conversation about accessibility: It is well-documented (a US-based study I believe applies here) that because of structural racism, and repeated biassed treatment, minorities are more likely to feel self-doubt within institutions.
It’s also true that when institutions here award residencies and grants to (not just) South Asians that there is both a perceived expectation of silent gratitude (thank you for including me in this space, WOW!) and the participants’ inclination to not ask for too much (Please read Sara Ahmed’s work on Complaint or watch this video) and adhere to an idea of the model minority.
To my peers, I want to say: Please don’t repeat my mistakes. You deserve to take up space, claim it, and speak your truth. It has immense value. Believe me, I know it isn’t easy, so find a supportive community to hold you and validate your truth, so you don’t feel like you’re “asking for too much” or risking it alone (very real fear).
there is much performance among gatekeepers here. In theory, many individuals are about equality and representation. They know the language.
- they critique high-handedly,
- do not admit that they are also learning,
- are frequently tight-lipped to create a power imbalance in conversations,
- hoard power by not being transparent with information/feedback,
- often patronizing when they disagree with you (reference to years of experience or age),
- they have an air of “I know more than you.” Please know that these are people who may know a lot, but lose out in the end, because they cannot engage wholeheartedly, and are unable to learn from you or even teach you.
These tactics can often leave you feeling like you’re not “good enough,” so I thought I would spell them out here.
Structural racism, however, is not always overt — it is in the disproportionate level of engagement with your work, overlooking briefing you, or disinterest in maintaining a long-term connection.
Here are some questions you as a Creative can ask (that I wish I had asked myself) — things they owe you:
- Have they spent time briefing you about the course of your engagement with them?
- Are they centering your intention for your work?
- Is anyone on the team engaging with your work like they are with your peers?
- Are they amplifying your work through opportunities for workshops or guided tours?
- Are they providing material support through making space available/ forms of continued commissions/ invitations/ engagement? (Because there are many names that reappear, we all know)
- Does their critique feel different for you?
- Have they consulted with you about the press they sent out about your work? Does it do justice to your work?
- Have you received the grant promised to you on time and at the same time as your peers?
- Has the team created an environment (or led by example) where your peers can engage with your work?
(Please feel free to add to this list of questions through comments)
We have no hope of changing at the institutional level if we, as individuals, don’t demand better. I cannot stress enough here the necessity of community — not just friends, but people who share your values, who elevate and celebrate you and champion your work, people who are honest with you when they disagree with you. They are the only way we survive.
At the same time, individuals working within institutions seem to not recognize that simply granting space to participate — i.e. platforming an underrepresented creative does not equal accessibility.
There are a thousand things beyond open calls to look at:
- the channels of distribution for the open call (so much potential here),
- clarity of the open call language and application criteria,
- special call-outs to different demographics/ professions/ groups.
In the process of screening applications on behalf of the institution:
- Are you used to a certain kind of language and framing for credibility (for example, how this article is written)?
- Are you screening applications with keywords in mind? What does that do?
- How much weight are you placing on previous institutional support versus the project proposal?
- Are you reading the applications with an awareness of your internalized biases (we all have them) and in the larger political context?
To people within institutions who may not be aware of how underrepresented individuals experience the institution, this is a place to work on accessibility — constantly checking in, encouraging questions, actual feedback and addressing them (acting accountable at every turn and not performing an apology). Read the list of questions for Creatives above. Train your employees to do the same — and hold them accountable. They may be splendid, well-meaning human beings, but personal insecurities play out as actively harmful with even an ounce of institutional cover.
No matter where on the ladder you may be, you are a gatekeeper, consciously or unconsciously.
Here are some patterns I’ve noticed:
People, who have some power to create change (no one’s power is absolute), shirk responsibility by talking about how they don’t really have any power, how they are at the mercy of an unjust system, and how “complicated internal politics” keep them from acting.
You always have power — and every time you choose to not act or shut up, the institutional needle clicks back to the default setting. In Dubai specifically, a city competing for its place on the global art and culture stage, when left unchecked, the agenda and audience goes back to the Colonizer (whiteness and proximity to whiteness) and the powerful (ethnic national identities in an order we all know by heart).
Structural racism is structural racism, unless you or your friend/colleague is complicit. In a small scene like the UAE, where everyone knows everyone, this can get complicated quickly for those of us who choose to speak out and take up space. For anyone who hears a genuine complaint, be graceful and centre the experience of the speaker — If they say they believe it was structural racism, don’t try to reframe it. Focus your energy instead on having a slightly uncomfortable conversation with your friend or colleague.
Taking up a lot of space and believing that competition will diminish your value. Examine the space you take up and to what end. Whether you’re running workshops, curating, making art, or writing commentary, no matter where on the ladder you are, you can always help someone up.
If you’re in the arts and culture space, do you believe that having others come in AT YOUR LEVEL would diminish your value? Sit with that question.
How much time are you engaging in expanding this crucial space for criticality and resistance and are you doing it from a place of charity (or wanting to see yourself a certain way) or real belief in the value of new blood? How much time do you spend thinking about pleasing people who will help your career? Are you advocating for people beyond your inner circle?
There’s so much more to say here and some of these experiences are more overt than others, but I didn’t know a lot of this at the start of this year and I’m putting it out there for others who may be looking.
Feel free to share this with someone who may find it useful.