Censorship cases at Art Dubai
Art Dubai, the Middle East’s largest art fair, has this year attracted record numbers of visitors, as the Arab spring, combined with an increasingly mature regional art market, has intensified interest in Arab artists.
But while the uprisings of the past year may have whetted the appetite of art buyers, one of its underlying causes – arbitrary, often unpredictable state interference in public speech – still hangs over the region’s artists, and over Art Dubai.
As the fair opened last Thursday, March 26, Dubai authorities ordered at least four pieces removed from display in advance of a visit by members of the emirate’s ruling family.
One of the censored works was a painting based on the infamous image of a woman being beaten by Egyptian soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Another painting by Libyan artist Chadi Zaqzouq, depicted a woman holding underwear with irhal – the Arabic word for “leave”, a common chant of protesters – written on them in Arabic.
Also removed was a piece based on maps of the region that used the term “Persian Gulf,” instead of “Arabian Gulf” as GCC governments insist the body of water should be named.
Antonia Carver, Art Dubai’s director, played down the censorship, saying it is not uncommon for works to be removed from exhibitions across the world due to legal or cultural concerns. Dubai’s approach to artistic expression has developed dramatically in the years since the fair launched, she added.
“As the city has grown as a cultural capital is has become much more open to the subjects that can be tackled,” she said.
A Dubai government spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.
Censorship is common at art fairs in the United Arab Emirates, and made headlines in 2011 when Jack Persekian, the long-time director of the Sharjah Biennial in Dubai’s more conservative neighbour, was abruptly sacked after a piece of controversial art was exhibited at the show.
Art Media Agency also reported on this story here.
based on original report by Howie Severino/TJD, GMA News and Carlos Celdran’s statements
Also last week, in the middle of his critically acclaimed one-man show on Imelda Marcos at at the Art Dubai art fair, and soon after his mirthful commentary on the special friendship between Imelda and the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, performance artist Carlos Celdran was interrupted by policemen in robes and taken away for questioning. Celdran had been invited to participate in Art Dubai by the organizers with no limitations on the content of his performance.
“They told people to go away when I was being questioned. The audience was truly scared for me,” he wrote on Facebook and Twitter.
Eventually, the artist was allowed to finish his show – but away from the public stage and near the entrance to a parking lot.
After the show, Celdran says he was brought to an office where five men from the police department grilled him for about an hour about the purpose of his show.
“They really were making sure that I wasn’t talking about Arab nations, that all the issues I talked about were about the Philippines,” he said.
During the interrogation, Celdran performed parts of his show, including lines which he imagines Imelda telling Gaddafi, “Islam is all about peace, and if you are funding a war in my country that is pitting Filipino against Filipino, you are also pitting Muslim against Muslim. How are you following Mohammed?”
Celdran was scheduled for another performance on Saturday, but was told by the authorities to “tone down my work and remove religious and political content in order to perform today (Saturday in Manila). That’s 60 percent of my show. So I decided to cancel it.”
Asked if he learned any lessons from his Dubai experience, he wrote via Facebook, “Freedom of Speech #itsmorefuninthephilippines.
Art Dubai’s response to the censorship of Carlos Celdran’s performance came as follows:
“Art Dubai is a cultural event. Our performance programme is about taking an innovative approach to engaging audiences, as part of Art Dubai’s extensive community-oriented, not-for-profit programme of events. Of course, given the great Filipino community in the UAE, we were so happy to have the opportunity to engage — just as we reach out to all communities in the UAE. The arts scene in the UAE is opening up year-on-year, and providing great opportunities for artists and young people to engage in debate and art and design production. This is a very isolated incident and naturally, as hosts and curators, we regret any upset to the artist. In general, the fair and our programmes aim to build links between communities, and lead to a greater understanding of the role of art and performance in society.”
Carlos Celdran reflected on his experiences at Art Dubai in his personal blog here.