After I referred to Lisson Gallery’s manipulation of ethics to make their collectors feel guilty and give them easy money, its owner Nicholas Logsdail referred to my ‘tarnished’ reputation and Ai Wei Wei’s heroism in the following terms: ‘However, when it comes to attacking Ai Weiwei, who risks his life everyday, your cowardly attack on him does you absolutely no credit. Weiwei is a man whom you well know cannot freely and effectively respond to your allegations. I would exhort you to think carefully before attacking Weiwei again. Not only does it erode and damage your already tarnished reputation, but could have consequences for him which you, safe in a country which protects your freedom of speech and opinion could (apparently) never comprehend’.
So what about Lisson’s escapades to the MIddle East. Last year London’s Lisson Gallery sold works by Shirazeh Houshiary, Rashid Rana, Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwe to the UAE. Its founder, Nicholas Logsdail, said he would be back, partly because he had been fascinated by The Arabian Nights as a child, and partly because he thought Abu Dhabi, though difficult, was “the place in which to invest for the future”.
Sheikha Salama (from the Abu Dhabi’s Royal Family), ast year had bought a Damien Hirst gold cabinet of diamonds from White Cube, and a large Anish Kapoor concave mirror from Kamel Mennour, this year acquired Giacometti’s Femme Debout, 1961, again from Mennour, Jeff Koons’s Dipstick, 2003, from Gagosian (Jeff and Larry are now firm fixtures at Abu Dhabi Art and took part in a public discussion about the art market) and the large Sean Scully triptych, Tin Mal, painted in Morocco’s Atlas mountains.
Thus, it does not come as a surprise that in this year’s ArtReview Power Top 100, Sheika Al-Mayassa bing Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani climbed 80 places to be number 11 on the list. A daughter of the emir of Qatar, she is the chair of the Qatar museums authority, and is rumoured to have spent, with her family, over £900m on western art over the past decade. I recently tried to interview a curator based in Doha and he declined to talk for fear to the political condicionts he must work in. The situation is repressive and the main western galleries are taking advantage of it, anyway.
All this happens while a leading human rights organisation has warned British institutions to exercise ‘extreme caution’ in their dealings with Qatar. The remarks have been made in reponse to the plight of Mohammed al-Ajami, a Qatari poet serving a 15 year prison sentence for reciting a poem in support of the Arab uprisings. He has also called for Arabs to rid themselves of ‘imposed regimes’, which Qatari prosecutors claimed amounted to an incitement to overthrow the emir. Al-Ajami was arrested in November 2011, after a video oh him reciting his poem ‘Tunisia Jasmine’ was posted on YouTube. He was condemned to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced on appeal in February this year. The poet’s lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, says he will launch a further appeal to the Supreme Court.
The case raises serious questions about freedom of expression in the Gulf state and comes, as many UK institutions are strengthening sponsorship deals, touring exhibitions and cultural advisory services. To make this even worse, last months 94 alleged Islamic fundamentalists went on trial in the UAE accused of trying to overthrow the government, which they deny. Meanwhile, escalating violence across the Middle East, with riots in Tunisia in February and in Bahrain in March, has left the region really tense.
The questions here is whether Lisson, UCL and many other institutions cannot see the delicate game that Qatar is making them play and how their greed is putting people lives in danger.
ABOUT THIS, OUR COLUMNIST MIKE SAYS:
I moved to the UAE almost 9 years ago, and left there about 3 years ago. EVERY year this discussion and discovery was aired, with the same mediated responses that led to nearly nothing. A few cases were “corrected” and used as PR to show how humanely the issues were being addressed. It’s all well-known, but there is no effective pressure to put a stop to it and create even a basic level of worker pay and protection that is even remotely fair and/or consistent. Stop flying Emirates, don’t use the port of Dubai for shipping, go vacation in another sandy location. These might make a difference, but right now, it’s just a game with the media and the ruling class of Dubai. Any free marketing is good. Keeps Dubai on the radar.
…and the global companies who participate in this charade stay curiously silent in this matter. It’s an internal issue they say. What can we do? If we don’t work there, then someone else will. We are not to blame, it’s the system. Perhaps…then stop participating in the system, or at least come clean about the exploitation and “effective capitalism” which maximises profit, even if it maximises human misery. It’s not the misery of the company or it’s shareholders, so who cares really? I’m sure they are really nice people in a bad situation just making the best of it.