Gulf Labor member Ashok Sukumaran denied entry into UAE

UAE bars entry to Indian artist with long history in the region

This week, Mumbai-based artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a UAE visa to travel as an invited speaker and moderator at the March Meeting, an annual gathering of artists in Sharjah. Sukumaran has a long history of artistic work and commitments in the region including at the Sharjah Biennials (2009, 2011, 2013) and at events including Art Dubai and several prior editions of the March Meetings. His visa application by the hosts of this year’s March Meeting, to be held mid-May, was denied three times.

While the official reason was given only as “security”, we believe this denial of entry is due to his association with Gulf Labor, a group of artists who have been boycotting the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and asking for better conditions for the workers building museums on Saaidyat Island. Last month, another Gulf Labor associate NYU professor Andrew Ross was denied entry to the UAE for “security” reasons. We believe this is a negative and cynical trajectory in which artists and academics who have a stake in and long-standing concerns for the region, are being excluded from it.

Sukumaran says:

“The internationalism that the Gulf’s cultural centres aspire to, means a reality in which migrant workers will inevitably meet and talk to migrant artists, from everywhere. Maybe world cup footballers can avoid it, but art cannot avoid this encounter, it is part of the cultural matrix, its what a place is made up of. Artists sense this.

Last year I was in a group that was invited by Abu Dhabi’s TDIC to view workers accomodations in and around Saadiyat Island. On this and many other trips I spoke to and often literally translated the dreams, realities and traumas of many people from Punjab, Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who were building museums. A good reason to speak to and listen to this group of people is that they are simply, even though without voting and other rights, the majority of the population. Their ability to describe a place cannot be underestimated.

In 2009 I was (as part of the group CAMP) awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennial, for the first of a series of works on the sea that joins where I live and where the UAE is. We subsequently made a film about the maritime consciousness of the region, and a movement of people and goods that is much older and deeper than contemporary political boundaries. These are relations between migrant and mobile communities which have depended on and developed with one another. On the basis of my own similar relationships over many years, I was invited to the March Meeting again this year. Now if some entity declares that I cannot come, that feels like a serious mistake or a very bad precedent. It undermines the regional claims of almost every cultural institution in the UAE. ”

Gulf Labor hopes that this decision has been made in error. But given the denial of entry to Andrew Ross some weeks ago, we can only assume that this is part of a concerted effort, however ill-advised and misguided, by certain authorities to intimidate and limit movement and communication between artists, scholarly and cultural practitioners and the multitude of migrant peoples in the UAE. We believe this sets unacceptable precedents for any development of cultural exchange, discourse, and practice for the region.

This suspicion and fear of artists is especially shocking at the same time that world-renowned cultural institutions drawn from Britain, France, and the US are gathering on Saadiyat Island. They are being built, under what we and others have asserted for five years are abusive and exploitive conditions of labor. We ask how, under such conditions, can the Guggenheim and institutions like NYU, the Louvre and the British Museum, still claim or imagine that they are advancing “knowledge and the understanding of culture through the arts,” in the Gulf.

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