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A Boycott Does Not An Anti-Semite Make Or Unmake

We want to begin this statement by asserting that Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) categorically refuses and resists all forms of racism and discrimination, including anti-Semitism and condemns the recent attacks on synagogues in New Zealand, the US and in Germany.

We feel compelled to write this statement in response to recent attempts to criminalize and label as anti-Semitic, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and in light of the recent attempt by the German city of Aachen, to pressure the Ludwig Museum into withdrawing the Art Prize Aachen to Lebanese artist Walid Raad.

Raad, who is one of the members of GLC steering committee, is not an isolated case. The German parliament’s adoption of a non-binding resolution to condemn the BDS movement in May 2019, along with similar steps taken in France and the UK, has grave and far reaching consequences. It sends a clear statement that the rights of Palestinians in the face of well documented systemic and daily abuse by Israeli governments is of no moral concern for Germany, and that anyone who expresses support for Palestinian rights is considered an anti-Semite. The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum Peter Schäfer, was forced to resign for sharing an article about a letter signed by 240 Israeli and Jewish scholars, condemning the Bundestag proposition on the grounds that it undermines the fight against real anti-Semitism. 

More recently the city of Dortmund withdrew its award of the Nelly Sachs Prize for British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie over her support for BDS, even though the award citation recognized that her writing  “builds bridges between societies.” Other artists recently punished and banned for their support of BDS include Talib Kweli, Young Fathers, and Khaled Barakat. The interior minister of Berlin, Andreas Geisel, has publicly stated that he would take action to hunt supporters of the BDS, to raise “alarm bells” before the fire spreads. In parallel, the US Federal Government is “investigating” all Middle East Studies departments at American Universities. Efforts to criminalize BDS in all of the EU are underway in Brussels, and separate efforts are ongoing in France.

As members of Gulf Labor Coalition, we have been involved in a protracted struggle for the rights of migrant workers in the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and other cultural entities on Saadiyat island, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. When we confronted intransigence on the part of the museum and UAE authorities, we called for  a Cultural Boycott as a peaceful means of calling attention to an urgent concern and resistance. As much as we are familiar with the tactic of cultural boycott, we are also familiar with tactics to discredit it.

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law. The BDS commitment to nonviolence is reflected in Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz, which published Hanan Ashrawi’s op-ed “Boycott Is Our Palestinian Non-violent Resistance.” 

No one participating in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the systematic injustices perpetrated by the South African government in the time of apartheid could be accused of being anti-white; only those who sought to deligitimize that struggle would take such a position. Similarly, any entity who determines that the treatment of Palestinians under the authority of the state of Israel to be unjust, cannot be labeled anti-Semitic. Actions under the BDS movement are not directed toward the Jewish faith or the Jewish people. They are explicitly aimed against a government and its military that carries out systematic human rights violations against the Palestinian people. Those who attempt to stigmatize this ethical position by brandishing the false label of ‘anti-Semitism’ deliberately obfuscate and misrepresent the intentions of those who take part in the boycott, diverting focus from the demands of those boycotting and from actual incidents of anti-Semitism, such as mass shooting by white neo-nazi gunmen at synagogues in America– Pittsburgh (2018), Los Angeles (2018), and Poway (2019) and just this week in Germany in Halle (2019).

Boycott is a strategy which consists in withdrawing one’s engagement with, support of and participation in an entity or enterprise one has a grievance towards. It is usually conducted on a collective basis and is called on by an individual, a group or association, when all other paths to address a problem, or hold an entity accountable for ongoing injustice have failed to yield change.

Historically some of the most effective and peaceful means of resistance have been withdrawal, non-engagement, non-participation. In the realm of labor or corporate relations, this is referred to as a strike. When a strike is socialized to a level of a people, we know it as a general strike. Similar to the ontological matrix of a strike, the boycott assembles a collection of individuals who were previously isolated from power. A counter power is created to the dominant one..

Gulf Labor Coalition offers an example of boycott in the cultural realm. The coalition came together to address the conditions and welfare of workers who would be building the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. Members of GLC felt that they could as artists collect signatures from other artists who shared this concern, approach the museum’s administrators, express its wishes for securing the welfare of the museum’s workers and find a solution together. GLC concluded that the conversations with the museum were not having the desired effect and therefore called for a Boycott of sales and participation with the museum until they would meet the demands. GLC has never stopped seeking new avenues for negotiation and finding resolution, but the boycott was one means for GLC to withdraw support or consent until the demands are met.

Certainly, some attempted to tarnish GLC by claiming that it has some agenda against the Guggenheim, when in fact from GLC’s perspective what was asked of the museum could only be in their best long-term interests. After all, who could respect a museum built on the backs of exploited and ill-treated workers? We were highly sensitive that our boycott not embolden those with anti-Arab or anti-Muslim agendas or perpetuate racist stereotypes. One could imagine in a similar vein that the boycott could be labelled by those who resist the changes we have advocated for as anti-Arab or having an  anti-UAE agenda when if the GLC remedies would be heeded, they could only put the UAE on the very path of nourishment and respect for the culture it has been espousing and invested heavily in. 

Just as groups and individuals debated the merits of various political tactics throughout history, we can and should openly debate approaches to effecting change today. We know that boycotts, like strikes, can be difficult processes: they draw a line and clearly identify sides to be taken. As with individual  experiences, sometimes, you may find a friend taking the opposite side. Paradoxically, you may also find people on your side whose views you do not agree with, or find reprehensible. Regardless of how meticulously you clarify your views, there are no guarantees that your ethical position will not be appropriated by other agendas. We can only do the work to repeatedly call out such appropriations and stay vigilant against it. Thus, while there is no way to fully prevent someone with an anti-Semitic agenda from supporting BDS, the boycott itself does not an anti-Semite make or unmake. Nor does unconditional support for Israel exempt one from having anti-Semitic and racist attitudes. This is true both historically as well as within our contemporary politics, when some of the most xenophobic and racist politicians also claim to be defenders of the Israeli state.

Those who boycott exercise a critical democratic form of political resistance. Possessing no power or authority over a situation, they collectivize their capacity to withdraw their cooperation, participation and engagement. They take this action in solidarity with those yet more precarious – people who have been invisiblized or whose voices often remain unheard.

There is today a very dangerous trend to enact laws which silence dissent and critique of state conduct. We write this letter to urge all cultural workers to strongly refuse such concerted attempts to stifle critique, or collective action, against any abusive state or unjust entity.


Gulf Labor Coalition

Gulf Labor supports Unionization efforts at Guggenheim

Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) supports the unionization of Guggenheim New York art workers to join Local 30. We call on the Guggenheim to proactively support the workers who physically hang art on the walls, and make the museum run. 

Museum workers all over New York City are unionized or currently forming unions: UAW Local 2110 and  IUOE Local 30 at MoMA, Local 2110 at the Bronx Museum, Local 1503 at the Metropolitan Museum; Local 1502 Brooklyn Museum; and most recently Local 2110 at the New Museum and Tenement Museum, Local 30 at MoMA PS1 and self organizing at the Whitney Museum.

In joining this movement among the city’s art workers and securing the right of collective bargaining, the Guggenheim Art Handlers are upholding the dignity of their labor and struggling for fair pay in a city where real estate speculation and a bubble economy have already displaced many artists and art workers along with many more poor income residents.

Our position is consistent, whether in Abu Dhabi or in New York City: if an art institution wants to invite thinkers and artists to share their works, they should pay fair wages, create safe conditions for their workers, and take seriously their grievances or demands.

Museums are not only places for preserving and enjoying art; as workplaces, they also help sustain the arts community. Moreover, as high visibility institutions which purport to give place to the works and concerns of artists and cultural practitioners, the way they conduct their affairs including their treatment of workers, and their board members’ business practices outside their philanthropic endeavors is now understood as integral to this process.

The recent campaigns rejecting museum philanthropy from the Mercer, Koch, Mnuchin, Sackler families and Warren Kanders speak to the necessity for museums to govern themselves according to ethical standards that are in line with their missions, and the communities they seek to support and represent.

Growing inequalities connected to systemic disenfranchisement of workers rights over the last decades has given ample fuel to a global right wing populism which appeals to fixed notion of tradition, nationality, faith, and belonging to blame all the problems on the ‘others’, the ‘migrants’, those who ‘don’t belong’ and don’t share ‘our beliefs and faith.’ In this context, the struggle on the part of workers attempting to improve their conditions and in this case organize a union obviously offers a very different analysis and measure of resolving these inequalities. For this, we have been involved in addressing workers rights for more than 10 years and today support this struggle to form a union.

Gulf Labor Statement April 28, 2019

The Gulf Labor Coalition came together in 2010 out of a sense of necessity, to think collectively about our obligations, as artists, scholars, and cultural practitioners, to respond to the large-scale cultural developments being planned in the UAE. 

We were inspired by the struggle for worker rights taking place by students and faculty around the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and asked ourselves what we as art practitioners could do to address potential labor abuses for the Guggenheim Museum’s planned Abu Dhabi branch.

We gathered signed pledges of artists from the region and beyond to withhold any participation, including the selling of their work, until the museum could address questions we had about labor standards. For those of us from regions marred by colonial abuse, extraction and violence, and long excluded from the collections of art by large-scale institutions, this request was not easy. We have sought an alternative infrastructure of art, deserving of the historical experiences in the region and confronting the challenges of the world. The events of the ‘Arab Spring’ have only made our position that much more undeniable.

What we asked was, in our eyes, quite modest. Before we agree to participate or include our works in such a collection, can you please insure that workers are not abused and are paid fairly, that they are not indebted by recruitment fees, that they are given decent housing and living conditions, and that they have the right to address grievances or abuses individually or collectively? We also asked for an independent external monitor to be in place so that we have at least a modicum of objectivity in assuring these conditions are met. Only the last of these requests was met, and not in a satisfactory way.

We are nine years into our struggle. During that time, timelines were shifted, and negotiations were attempted in many forms, first privately, then publicly. The museum’s leadership responded that our concerns were unsubstantiated. We conducted our own field research to prove otherwise. That work was rewarded by banning several of our members from entering the UAE. But we persisted in negotiations. Finally, after our proposals were designated as impractical, we made efforts to bring on board a team of professional organizations with long standing commitments and experience working on labor issues in the Gulf and South Asia. And exactly at this moment when the reforms we were demanding were made tangible and workable, the doors to our negotiations was unilaterally closed by the Guggenheim’s leaders and the period of wishful thinking on their part began.

Cynical as it may sound, it may be that these officials decided that by simply waiting and laying low for a few years, many of us might just get sufficiently distracted or burned out, lose momentum, or disband without an interlocutor or a museum to complain about. Or maybe the logic has been that enough of us will be seduced by the lucrative prices on offer for works, inclusive of artists who don’t care or remain in the dark about the welfare of the workers who will build and staff the museum to come. Or perhaps, if they wait long enough, people will simply forget the whole affair and move on. Hence, our attempt to provide a summary above.

This kind of cynicism may work in the short run, judging by the state of things globally, but we as Gulf Labor still believe that there is enough support and awareness on the part of the general public as well as in artists’ communities to stop this museum being built on the back of exploited, indebted, and abused workers. We expect more from cultural institutions today, and the struggles unfolding recently around the Whitney Museum’s board as well as the rescinding of funds by museums with ties to the Sackler Trust should serve as a clear warning to the Guggenheim that their reputation will be tarnished if they proceed to push the museum without addressing our concerns.

We have resisted making statements every time a director or some other spokesperson or architect has spoken about the project being ‘on again.’ But after being approached numerous times by writers and journalists, we make this statement as an update.

Gulf Labor remains steadfast in holding the Guggenheim Museum and Abu Dhabi cultural authorities accountable for any construction that does not meet the concerns for worker welfare that we, as a group representing several thousand signatories, have elaborated since 2010.

La réaction de Gulf Labor aux commentaires méprisants de Jean Nouvel à propos du traitement des ouvriers sur le chantier du Louvre Abu Dhabi

English below:

Dans une lettre adressée au Louvre, datée du 13 juillet 2015, la Gulf Labor Coalition avait déclaré: « le Louvre Abu Dhabi a la possibilité de jouer un rôle positif dans les conditions de travail sur l’île de Saadiyat.” La Gulf Labor Coalition avait invité le Louvre à travailler de concert à l’amélioration des conditions de travail sur l’île, et “à les changer grâce à une action collective sérieuse.” À ce moment-là, Gulf Labor demandait au musée confirmation de la mort d’un des employés de la compagnie Arabtec sur le chantier du dôme de Jean Nouvel [pour le Louvre]. La confirmation était arrivée quelques jours plus tard, mais l’ouvrier pakistanais de 28 ans était déjà mort un mois plus tôt, le 8 juin 2015.

Les conditions de travail et de vie des ouvriers sur le chantier du Louvre Abu Dhabi sont-elles “une question ancienne”, pour citer un propos récent de Jean Nouvel dans le quotidien anglais the Guardian. L’architecte français continue à mépriser des questions largement répandues et partagées concernant les conditions de travail sur l’île de Saadiyat. « Au début (du chantier) nous avons vu où vivaient les ouvriers, et leurs conditions, pour vérifier que tout était fait correctement … Nous avons vérifié et ça allait. Nous n’avons vu aucun problème. »

Si l’on en croit nos propres recherches et travaux de terrain, et cela a été confirmé par nombre d’autres, ce genre de déclaration, qui reprend simplement comme des faits les éléments de langage émis par les relations publiques des autorités d’Abu Dhabi, n’est pas seulement une falsification des conditions réelles des ouvriers qui ont construit le Louvre et qui continuent de trimer sur l’île de Saadiyat ; elle témoigne aussi de la même espèce de déconnection entre la réalité et l’intérêt personnel que celle qui motive les combats pour que justice soit rendue aux travailleurs dans le cas du chantier de New York University et du Guggenheim.

Alors que le Louvre Abu Dhabi court vers son ouverture officielle, prévue le mois prochain,  il laisse dans son sillage une grève violemment réprimée en 2013, lorsque les revendications des employées d’Arabtec ont été accueillies par des emprisonnements de masse et des avis d’expulsion. Bien que cet événement eût été largement documenté, ce n’était qu’une parmi tant d’autres manifestations de protestation de travailleurs censurées par les media dans les UAE. Nouvel a beau réitérer des platitudes sur l’« universalité et [la] philosophie », derrière sa prétention de construire « pour le peuple, les civilisations, l’humanité. », se cache une volonté claire d’effacer les voix et les réclamations de travailleurs qui continuent d’oser demander des salaires et des conditions de vie décents.

GLC se fait l’écho de celles et ceux qui continuent à défendre les droits de ces travailleurs . Le Louvre Abu Dhabi a une dette à payer: il doit rembourser les frais de recrutement et les salaires qui ont été perdus du fait de la criminalisation, de l’emprisonnement, du licenciement, et de l’expulsion des travailleurs grévistes. Imaginer qu’on peut aisément compartimenter le monde de la haute culture et les conditions dans lesquelles ses institutions sont réalisées, c’est cela la vraie «histoire ancienne ». De telles institutions ne peuvent plus être les repères de l’état de notre avancement culturel.

Par cette déclaration présente, Gulf Labor réitère son boycott des institutions culturelles sur l’île de Saadiyat et la poursuite de ses campagnes de soutien collectives. GLC, en compagnie de la coalition d’ONG et de travailleurs.euses culturel.le.s qui a été rassemblée, reste ouverte au dialogue avec tous les musées sur l’île de Saadiyat, avec [l’agence touristique culturelle] TDIC et avec tous.te.s ceux.celles qui soutiennent les droits des travailleurs dans la région. Nos revendications n’ont pas changé: de voir une amélioration durable dans la situation de milliers de travailleurs sur l’île de Saadiyat, y compris sur la question des salaires, des dettes contractées pendant leur recrutement et leur capacité à se représenter eux- mêmes.

Gulf Labor Coalition

Gulf Labor Responds to Jean Nouvel’s Dismissive Comments on The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Treatment of Workers

Thur. Oct 5, 2017

In a  letter to the Louvre dated July 13, 2015, the Gulf Labor Coalition stated: “the Louvre Abu Dhabi has the ability to play a positive role in worker’s conditions on Saadiyat Island.” The Gulf Labor Coalition invited the Louvre to work together on the betterment of working conditions on the island, and “to change them through serious collective action.” At the time, Gulf Labor asked the museum for a confirmation of a death of one of the Arabtec employees working on the Jean Nouvel dome. The confirmation came a few days later, but the 28 year-old Pakistani worker had died a month earlier, on June 8th.
Are the conditions of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s workers simply “an old question,” as Jean Nouvel was recently quoted as saying in the Guardian? The French architect continues to be dismissive of the widespread concerns about working conditions on Saadiyat Island: “At the beginning,” he reports, “we saw the places where the workers live, and their conditions to check that it was correctly done … We checked and it was fine. We saw no problem.”
According to our own, and others’, research and field assessments, these kinds of statements, which simply take the PR talking points of Abu Dhabi authorities as facts, are not only a falsification of the real condition of the workers who built the Louvre and continue to toil on Saadiyat Island, but they indicate the same kind of disconnection between reality and self-interest which has marked the struggles for worker justice in the case of NYU and the Guggenheim.
As the Louvre Abu Dhabi presses on towards its opening, scheduled for next month, it leaves in its path a harshly repressed labor strike in 2013. when the demands of Arabtec employees were met with mass imprisonment and deportations. While this event was widely reported, it was only one of many such worker protests which are subject to a media blackout in the UAE. Nouvel reiterates platitudes about “universality and philosophy”, but behind his claim to be working for “people, for civilizations, for humanity”, there is a clear will to efface the voices and plights of workers who built his museum and who continue to dare to ask for decent wages and living conditions.
GLC echoes those who continue to advocate for these workers. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has a debt to pay: it must refund workers’ recruitment fees and wages lost due to criminalization, imprisonment, termination and deportation of workers who go on strike. Imagining that one can cleanly compartmentalize the world of high culture from the conditions in which its institutions are realized, is the real “old question”. These institutions can no longer be the benchmarks of our cultural advancement.  
With this statement, Gulf Labor reiterates that its boycott of cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island remains in place, and our collective advocacy campaign continues. GLC and the coalition we have assembled between engaged cultural workers and NGOs, remain open to dialogue with all of the museums on Saadiyat, TDIC, and all who support workers’ rights in the region. Our demands have not changed: to see a long term improvement in the situation of thousands of laborers on Saadiyat Island– including wages, recruitment debts, good living conditions, and their ability to represent themselves.

Gulf Labor Coalition

Op-Ed in the Walker Arts Magazine

Image: Workers camp on Saadiyat Island in 2011, Hans Haacke.

Gulf Labor members Naeem Mohaiemen (text) and Hans Haacke (photos) contribute an “Artists Op-Ed” to the Walker Art Centre’s Magazine.
Defiance is welcomed when it is sanctioned and staged as art. Drill a crater in the floor, flood a gallery, embalm an animal, smash an object, stage a pitiful death—critics hail these gestures as having the power to “shape worlds.” But when artists sit down at a conference table with museum administrators and read from a list of demands for labor rights, this work—involving conversation, negotiation, research, protest—suddenly becomes illegible to the same museum. The artists whose projects were previously praised as stretching boundaries are now tagged as maverick spoilers.”

You can read the entire piece here:

Helsinki say NO to Guggenheim Helsinki

The Helsinki City Council has voted against the proposed Guggenheim by 53 to 32 votes, ending a 4-year debate and campaign. Among those involved in the campaign were Checkpoint Helsinki, which floated the Next Helsinki  alternative competition in association with G.U.L.F., and who will release their book the “The Helsinki Effect – Public Alternatives to Guggenheim Model of Culture Development” in Helsinki this month. 
And the BWI, whose statement on the Guggenheim Helsinki is here.
Press coverage:
New York Times
The Guardian

Artists in Guggenheim “Storm” show urge return to negotiations

The artists listed below have work included in the Guggenheim Museum’s collection and in the UBS MAP exhibition: But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa. We express our disappointment over the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation’s recent decision to end dialogue with the Gulf Labor Coalition, concerning labor practices in the construction of their Abu Dhabi Museum. As artists connected in various ways to this region, we believe in new institutions as cultural forces; we support their creation but also believe they can be catalysts for greater social change. We hope that the Guggenheim remains committed to innovation on both a representational as well as a structural level. Furthermore, we believe that dialogue is the most productive way forward for all parties involved. This exhibition is one form of dialogue and we regret that it opens amidst the current development in the exchange between the museum and GLC. We urge the museum to reconsider and reverse its decision to terminate its dialogue with GLC and affiliated NGOs.

Abbas Akhavan
Kader Attia
Ali Cherri
Mariam Ghani
Joana Hadjithomas
Iman Issa
Khalil Joreige
Hassan Khan
Ahmad Mater
Zineb Sedira

Statement from Bidoun

“Bidoun Projects supports the ongoing work of the Gulf Labor Coalition, a transnational group of artists, writers, and scholars who for six years have worked to draw attention to the conditions under which the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be built, and to the precarious status of migrant workers in the region. 

Last week, after years of dialogue, the Guggenheim announced that it would no longer engage in direct discussions with the coalition. While the GLC has not asked Bidoun to withdraw our film program at this time, we trust that talks between the Guggenheim and the coalition will be resumed forthwith and that the welfare of the workers building the museum in Abu Dhabi will be guaranteed.”

– issued as part of the announcement of the film and video program, curated by Bidoun Projects, accompanying the upcoming exhibition But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa at the Guggenheim New York.

Gulf Labor Responds to Guggenheim Breaking off Negotiations

GADcrossedPress release (PDF) here:

Timeline (PDF):

Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor

On April 13, 2016, Guggenheim Board of Trustees unilaterally severed negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). In a conference call, the Guggenheim1 informed GLC that they will no longer meet with us, nor listen to our proposals about the living and working conditions of the workers who are and will be building museums in Abu Dhabi.

On April 17, 2016, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum, sent an email to artists, art critics, curators, and museum directors all over the world describing GLC as a group that “continues to shift its demands,” is “continuing to spread mistruths,” and uses “deliberate falsehoods”.2 He insisted that no work had begun on the Abu Dhabi site, a recurring claim that GLC has already challenged.3
Continue reading Gulf Labor Responds to Guggenheim Breaking off Negotiations

  1. Represented by Juan Ignacia Vidarte (Deputy Director and Chief Officer for Global Strategies), Tina Vaz (Deputy Director, Global Communications), and Hanan Sayyed Worrell (Guggenheim senior representative in Abu Dhabi). []
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