Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) creatively interjected Palestinian resistance and BDS into the 56th International Contemporary Art Exhibition 2015 Venice Biennale, in Venice Italy on Sunday. GLC’s exhibition artists in residence, G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction), staged an intervention performance (video here) adding a stencil of Handala to their exhibition banner hung prominently in the Pavilion Arsenale exhibition hall, read a ‘Statement on Palestine’ and occupied the 2nd floor of the Israeli Pavilion at the exhibit, with visitors in tow.
GLC, an official participant of 2015 Venice Biennale, is a coalition of artists including many prominent international artists, dedicated to the protection of worker’s rights, specifically spreading awareness of abhorrent labor conditions of exploited, heavily indebted migrant workers building a cultural district on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island off the coast of United Arab Emirates. Slated to become a sophisticated international cultural tourist destination for the wealthy, Saadiyat Island is still under development and will feature branches of iconic world class museums and cultural institutions, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (12 times the size of New York’s Guggenheim museum), Zayed National Museum and New York University Abu Dhabi.
The significance of Handala as spelled out on GLC’s website; “Handala is an iconic symbol of Palestinian Resistance created in the seventies by Naji al-Ali while he lived as a stateless migrant in the Gulf; it takes on profound dimensions on this banner. As a universal symbol of solidarity, it speaks for the indifference of both the UAE authorities and museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and universities like NYU in taking action on the issues of the migrant workers building the Saadiyat island. The image of Handala: the ten year old boy who turned his back to a world that will not bring the occupation of his homeland to justice also brings Palestine into the picture; workers made stateless on their own land, compelled to cross checkpoints and work on building Israeli Settlements, homes and military establishments.”
Indeed, in Naji al-Ali ‘s own words, “At first he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national then a global and human horizon.”
Reading a ‘Statement on Palestine’ during one of their actions, G.U.L.F. artists (who had just returned from Palestine) explained “We were struck by the overlap between the circumstances of Palestinian workers and the predicament of South Asian migrants in the Gulf. Under the Occupation, the Palestinian people have become migrant workers in their own land”.
G.U.L.F. then called for a public meeting at the Israeli Pavilion, Israel’s permanent national pavilion at the Biennale, which they occupied for an hour discussing BDS and and PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and its “relationship with the art world”.
The complete text of G.U.L.F.’s ‘Statement on Palestine’
Political art is everywhere we look at this year’s Biennale, and the warm embrace of Africa and its diasporic struggles is a welcome corrective to decades of neglect. But Palestine does not appear significantly on anyone’s radar, nor is there is any evidence of the solidarity that has carried the BDS movement into many corners of the academic and cultural world. Earlier today, G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) began its response to this situation by altering the Gulf Labor Coalition banner hanging in the Arsenale. In this statement, we explain our action.
Before coming to Venice, some of us shot a film about the challenges of daily life in the West Bank. We were struck by the overlap between the circumstances of Palestinian workers and the predicament of South Asian migrants in the Gulf. Under the Occupation, the Palestinian people have become migrant workers in their own land. Many suffer the same indignities and extreme precarity when they cross the notorious Israeli checkpoints to seek work. Behind the Green Line, they are pit against heavily indebted Chinese migrants. Within the West Bank, more and more are compelled to take jobs in Israeli settlement farms and factories on land stolen from Palestinians. Countless others must emigrate from economically ravaged villages and towns to seek a livelihood overseas. Indeed, before South Asians became a preferred workforce, Palestinians were a primary source of migrant labor for the Gulf states.
Those who resist the Occupation are met with harsh forms of detention and worse, though the reality is that most Palestinians feel they are living in a prison. While filming at one village where resistance has become a way of life, we shared the villagers’ experience of being teargassed, strafed by rubber bullets, and hosed with the infamous “skunkwater.” We came to the Biennale with the foul stench of this Odortech chemical on our clothing and in our hair–it can linger for weeks. Compared to the daily stigma endured under the Occupation, ours is a small hardship, just as the UAE’s entry ban on Gulf Labor members is a minor privation when placed alongside the ordeal faced by the Saadiyat workforce. But, as artists and writers, who bear these as the legacies of state repression, we refuse the complacency that serves autocrats in both of these countries.
Scholars have taken the lead in responding to the call by PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) to boycott Israeli institutions, and other sectors (governments, communities of faith, trade unions, and organs of commerce) are joining in. The boycott is now spreading to the general population in countries all over the world. Yet, with some notable exceptions, the institutional artworld has held back.
Following the repudiation, by artist and curators, of Israeli state funding at last year’s Biennale de São Paulo, we feel compelled to bring the BDS spirit to Venice Biennale, where the stateless are obscured by the radiance cast by the national pavilions.
We invite you to join us as we proceed to the Israeli pavilion, where we will hold a community meeting to decide on next steps. Sharing our experiences and opinions will help us understand how and why BDS places direct obligations on artists and cultural institutions like the Biennale.
Gulf Labor Coalition’s book The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, published by OR Books was launched at the Biennale’s Central Pavilion last week.
The book is a collection of contextualized essays and artwork that trace how Gulf Labor has evolved, featuring contributions by an impressive array of esteemed artists and writers.
The 2015 Gulf Labor Field Report is available here (pdf)
Thanks to Ofer Neiman