Denied Entry and Deported
On May 11, 2015, I was denied entry to the UAE at Dubai airport. At Immigration in the Arrivals Terminal, UAE officials pulled me to the side and escorted me to a waiting room. Immigration officers came back two hours later to inform me that I was being denied entry for “security” reasons. I was escorted to the Departures Terminal, where other officials re-arranged my travel back to the US. My passport was confiscated for the 24 hours I was in the airport. An airport employee escorted me to my departure gate on May 12, and handed me my passport before I boarded my return flight. I was not harassed. I was not threatened. In fact, it was all a simple immigration formality. What stayed with me where the words spoken in Arabic “they are expelling him” and “for security reasons.” Three days later, these words continue to anger and sadden me.
My denial of entry followed NYU Professor Andrew Ross’ in March 2015, and widely exhibited artist Ashok Sukumaran’s visa being denied in May 2015, both also under the banner of “security.” We are all members of Gulf Labor. We have all spoken publicly about labor conditions in the Gulf, especially with regards to the building of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (but also the Louvre, NYU, and other cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island). We have done so peacefully and constructively.
I was heading to the UAE to attend the March Meetings in Sharjah (May 11-15), and to continue the research Gulf Labor initiated in 2010 about the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Gulf Labor’s latest report will be made public on July 29 in Venice, at the Venice Biennale, and at the invitation of its curator Okwui Enwezor.
Prior to my departure to the UAE, I had been in touch with government officials in the UAE, as well as officials from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). All were aware of my forthcoming visit. Many arranged or were arranging to meet with me and other Gulf Labor members.
NYU, the Guggenheim, Louvre, British Museum and others stayed silent when Andrew Ross was denied entry to the UAE in March. I hope their silence was not perceived by some UAE officials as tacit approval for further actions, when two months later Ashok Sukumaran’s visa was denied and when I was barred and deported from the UAE.
I am an artist whose work is in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the British Museum in London. I am the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and my work has been exhibited in the Guggenheim New York and Bilbao, the British Museum, and the Louvre in Paris. I was nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize in 2009, a prize administered by the Guggenheim. I have a life-long membership to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, given to me by the museum. I have been invited by Guggenheim officials to share ideas and submit exhibition proposals for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and New York. I have lectured at NYU. I have participated in or attended several March Meetings in Sharjah. I have exhibited in the Sharjah Biennial. I visited Doha, Dubai, Sharjah, Manama, Abu Dhabi several times. I work on art projects about the history of the visual arts in the Gulf. In other words, I am part of the Guggenheim, Louvre, British Museum, NYU and Sharjah Art Foundation “community.” I am part of the Gulf “community.”
A couple of weeks ago, the Guggenheim stated that its Abu Dhabi branch is “an opportunity for a dynamic cultural exchange and to chart a more inclusive and expansive view of art history.” I agree. But I’ve wondered for some time now whether travel bans and deportations will be the fate of artists, writers, and others who actually engage in this dynamic cultural exchange. Now that I know, I wonder how the Guggenheim will be able to be “inclusive and expansive” when the very artists who are meant to be included in the expansive view of art history are systematically excluded, banned and deported. If this will be our fate, then watch out future Hugo Boss nominees and winners! Be careful future group or solo exhibiting artists in the Guggenheim, Louvre, and other local venues! These museums, biennales, universities, and art fairs in the Gulf will invite you to speak, display and buy your artwork; they may even celebrate its “political” content as long as it is aimed at someone else. But stay clear of anything that hints of a local or regional “dynamic cultural exchange” because this is when things get dicey, and those whose vocal support is most needed may start to speak of how “the situation is complicated,” and “we are making phone calls, but so far, nothing,” and “we truly support you but we have limited leverage.” In other words, expect what Gulf Labor has already experienced time and again in our conversations with the Guggenheim and others. Expect their pass-the-buck responses, their muffled noises.
But then again, I remain (perhaps naively?) hopeful that these recent bans were all a “clerical error,” an administrative “bump in the road.” I’d like to think that the UAE will be a welcoming place not only for its unabashed supporters but also for its peaceful and constructive critics.
I remain hopeful that the Guggenheim, Louvre, Agence France-Muséums, NYU, British Museum, and their Emirati partners (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, TDIC, Tourism and Culture Authority, NYU Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed National Museum) as well as other Emirati cultural institutions in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi will work to reverse these bans and can anticipate and smooth whatever bumps in the road remain ahead.