Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Art and Cultural Production in the GCC Working Group II

Art and Cultural Production in the GCC Working Group II

On February 7, 2016, the Center for International and Regional Studies held its second working group meeting on “Art and Cultural Production in the GCC.” Project participants, as well as other scholars, engaged in critical group discussions, and provided feedback to the authors on draft chapters. The chapters written under this project address a variety of subjects, including amongst other topics: utopian ideals and art museums in the Arabian Peninsula; public art in Gulf cities; aesthetics, artistic production, and censorship in the GCC; art as modernity and “soft power”; and art and discourses of culture and “authenticity” in the UAE.

Over the course of three decades, economies of the Arab states of the Gulf have been experiencing immense growth. This has influenced the political significance of these states on the international and regional levels, and the social fabric of these states, due to the influx of expats from all around the world, on the domestic level. The pace of changes in the social fabric of these states has influenced the development of artistic and cultural institutions. The limited existing scholarship tends to focus on the rapidly growing museum culture and the acquisition of foreign art as indicative of several Gulf states’ use of oil revenue. This project builds on available literature by contributing towards furthering knowledge on the prevailing issues around art and cultural production in the Gulf. The contributed chapters explore the process of art acquisition and certain GCC governments’ investment in museums and artworks, and investigate the effects of art importation and assimilation on citizens’ perceptions of identity and self.

The working group commenced with Karen Exell’s chapter on “Utopian Ideals, Unknowable Futures, and the Art Museum in the Arabian Peninsula.” In her chapter, Exell explores the idea of the utopian in relation to art museums and the contemporary moment in the Arabian Peninsula. The transference of global art museums—constructed according to dominant western art historical principles and museological practices—to the Arabian Peninsula has brought with it the rhetoric of post-Enlightenment humanist idealism. The ability of these museums to instrumentalize international peace and understanding, as well as offering solace on an individual level through solitary communion with works of art, results in a transcendental experience. This experience is desirable in a secular society, but perhaps unnecessary and even problematic in an Islamic one. The chapter addresses the differing ideologies at play, and concludes by evaluating some of the futures posited for global art museums in the Arabian Peninsula.

The second chapter was presented by Nadia Mounajjed on “Public Art in Gulf Cities.” Mounajjed claims that although “public art” refers to artworks, either permanent or temporary, commissioned for sites with open public access, in the Gulf it is only discussed in the context of architectural production and urban design. This steers her investigation on the nature of the public and the public realm in the Arab cities of the Gulf.  She explores the specific “parameters of publicity” and the potential of public art to act as a force for social discussion, place making and collective memory.  In her chapter, Mounajjed raises a series of questions around: what counts as public art, and what does not? What does “public” mean? Who is public art intended for? Who funds public art? And how is public art tied to notions of place, identity, and social diversity?

In the third presented chapter titled: “Of ‘Gray Lists’ and Whitewash: The Aesthetics and Artistic Strategies of Complicity and Circumvention in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries,” Nancy Demerdash examines the GCC’s “areas of gray” in artistic censorship. She claims that the processes by which works receive endorsement and acceptance, or scrutiny and rejection, by a combination of private sponsors, patrons, or the public, presents a complex fabric of actors beyond the state apparatus, extending to institutions and organizations. In addition, Demerdash examines suppression and artists’ complicity or subversion, and analyzes the outlets through which aesthetic alternatives arise. She also illuminates a more nuanced perspective of artistic freedom and aesthetic choices with respect to the cultural spaces, institutions, and biennials of the GCC. Throughout her chapter, Demerdash raises a series of questions: in what ways do we define artistic freedom generally within the GCC? How do artists of the Gulf engage with customs of religion and everyday politics of the region? In what ways do such artists wittingly self-censor, effectively depoliticizing their practice? How does the intended viewership of an artist inform his or her production? If art of the Arab world, in recent years following the so-called Arab Spring, has become increasingly situated or defined as “activist,” “political,” or “revolutionary,” where is the place of these types of art forms in the Arab states of the Gulf? What shape does this engagement with unstable or transgressive content take? And what are the aesthetics of art forms that cannot be openly dissident or subversive?

Lesley Gray presented the fourth chapter on “Contemporary Art as Modernity: Art and Global Identity in Azerbaijan and the Gulf.” Using textual and media discourse analysis for both academic and popular media, Gray examines the factors that were instrumental in the rise of contemporary art as part of a strategy of international engagement, and contextualizes this information with the opinions of those who work in the art scene in Baku. Moreover, within the context of other similar geographies in the Arabian Peninsula who share Azerbaijan’s energy wealth, Azerbaijani modernity is one that has incorporated elements of Western-style economic progress propelled by oil wealth without the accompanying personal, social, and political freedoms and rights. Specifically, this chapter asks how can we define Azerbaijani modernity, and under what conditions has it arisen? How has the media shaped the image of Azerbaijan to an international audience? How has contemporary art developed in the post-Soviet era and how does it express Azerbaijan’s modern identity to the international art community? What does the contemporary art scene look like from the ground up and who is their public? And how does Azerbaijan, and specifically Baku, compare to other similar cities like Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai?

In the final chapter on “Authentic Culture in the UAE,” Elizabeth Derderian argues that the “museum boom” in the Gulf region raises questions of authenticity and cultural appropriation. Focusing largely on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this chapter explores the concept of authenticity and how its deployment affects exclusion in particular ways. Derderian examines the ways in which authenticity claims create the need for experts and serve as forms of knowledge production that rely on and reproduce different structures and dynamics of power. In addition, Derderian parses cultural exchange from cultural appropriation, focusing on hierarchies of power and exclusion.

Mehran Kamrava, the Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies, concluded the working group meeting by highlighting the participants’ contributions to scholarship through their papers, which will be published in a forthcoming special issue of an academic journal.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nancy Demerdash, DePaul University
  • Elizabeth (Beth) Derderian, Northwestern University
  • Karen Exell, University College London in Qatar
  • Lesley Gray, University College London in Qatar
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nadia Mounajjed, Abu Dhabi University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS