Islamic codes 1, ConArt 0

gulf.jpgA London-based Artworld Salon reader forwarded me this brief article from yesterday’s Guardian: “Dubai art fair says no to nudes,” in reference to the Gulf Art Fair, which opens precisely as I’m writing these words. Apparently,

things got a bit sticky when all participating galleries – whose clients[sic] include Tracey Emin and Jeff Koons – were asked to only show art that was appropriate to display in an Islamic state. John Martin, the Gulf Art Fair director, said: “We have asked all galleries to make careful provision – that is, chiefly concerning nudity and religious imagery.”

This is the same Martin who a few months back told the Artnewspaper: “We aim to be among the top five art fairs in the world.” I’m not sure who Martin ranks as the top five fairs now, but GAF will be hard-pressed to displace, say, FIAC or ARCO while telling dealers to censor their stands.

The broader issue at play here is how well the Western artworld can adapt to Islamic rules and Arab mores while seeking the Middle East’s money. I’m expecting this to be a major point of contention for all projects such GAF and the Louvre/Guggenheim museum complex in Abu Dhabi. Not so much with curators, who tend to be able diplomats, but rather with artists, who often pride themselves on provocation, pushing societal boundaries and seeking out controversy.

Then again, the above is all based on my entirely second-hand knowledge of how the Middle East actually functions. In some places, I’ve read, any representation of the human figure is forbidden, which eliminates a lot of material. But I’m not clear on how widespread that prohibition is. So I’d appreciate some insight from someone who has actually spent time there, including a quick breakdown of how the countries differ on these points.

3 thoughts on “Islamic codes 1, ConArt 0”

  1. Funny that you would mention this Marc – I hadn’t seen the Guardian paper and didn’t know that anything actually was censored in Dubai. However I did notice the cocky statement about becoming one of the “top five fairs” earlier on and found this particular issue interesting in the respect of censorship. While being in situ, Dubai, I was trying to stir up a discussion with other journalists and curators about this exact issue. I had little luck surprisingly enough.

    I’ve personal experience from Cairo where the Townhouse Gallery has been subject to several official attacks from authority (or closing (and threats of closing) of exhibitions) about nudity and, yes, even busts of works picturing nudity. But the authorities might not really give this issue so much interest. This is about completely other issues and another complexity which would require a lot of explanation so I’d better leave it.

    But to clarify a bit: It will be difficult to show a photographic image of a naked tit in a public place, but perfectly alright on the other hand to show a huge sculpture/installation “Expanding Vulva” at the Cairo Biennial run by the state and inaugurated by the Minister of Culture himself (the piece had me gasping and giggling, it was very literal indeed). But really, the authorities do not use their time on these issues very eagerly and artists are rather free. What I’m trying to say is that the censorship in the Middle East is relative and also very different within the different states. Dubai and all of the United Arab Emirates are all welcoming western culture with more enthusiasm than many other countries in the region. But having seen the whole debacle of the Muhammad caricature images published in the Danish newspaper there are a lot of toes to crush about religion or/and politics… Just like in many other countries, I might add.

    The lack of interest in this issue with my fellow colleagues might of course stem from a lack of interest in the whole issue at hand, or about lack of knowledge about how the censorship machine works in the area. However I’d make a bet that it is all about the market’s self censoring ability anyway. Every art fair is censored in one way or another, that is in the market’s rules of supply and demand already… it is simply not so much to fight for – in the fair context. Whether or not there are photos with nude blondes presented in the booths and insults of Muhammad or the governing rulers might not be so interesting artistically anyway – especially not at a fair where one tries to sell the works and not create worldwide politics.

    A biennial or more official exhibition is something else, though, and the Sharjah Biennial later on in April will be interesting to have a closer look at, even if Jack Persekian, the biennial officer, claims that the curators have full freedom and that the state doesn’t control anything and that it will see the exhibition too late for any last-minute changes.

    Coming to Dubai straight from Moscow 2nd Biennial I might add that the censorship over there might be much more interesting to have a closer look at — last time around there was “drop outs” due to Putin-related works with a critical stand. Would also like to remind readers about what happened Stateside last autumn, when a teacher was fired for taking fifth grades to the art museum and exposing them to “nakedtidity” (nude Renaissance sculptures)…

  2. Interesting piece of detail from Judd Tully’s ArtInfo filing on this fair:

    “You had to send pictures to the organizers of everything you were going to bring in order to pass the censors,” said Nature Morte’s Peter Nagy. “They didn’t say anything about what we couldn’t bring, but we thought of things more Islamic. We went more for modestly scaled things and abstract things.”

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