Sharjah's Support for Critical Arts Practice: Ali Cherri's the Digger and Ammar Al Attar's Cinemas in the UAE

By Dale Hudson
Submitted to Session P5880 (You Must Listen to the Artist! The Gulf's Creative Class in the Twenty-First Century, 2020 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
Arabian Peninsula;
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Over the last decade, the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as cultural power, whose galleries and museums draw global attention while challenging the West’s cultural hegemony. In Abu Dhabi, oil wealth and neoliberal economic policies have been employed to instrumentalize the arts for tourism and business—often at the expense of overseas workers. Indeed, the conditions of these works have been so poor that they have sparked intense protests by organizations like GULF Labor, a coalition of mostly Western artists. In Sharjah, by contrast, galleries have also created controversies while drawing worldwide attention but through a series of discussions that engage the place of art in social debates.

This paper will analyze how two artists—Ali Cherri and Ammar Al Attar—and other projects, supported by Sharjah, engage with histories that do not conform to UAE state narratives. Although the UAE was formed as a state in 1971, archeological projects situate the emirates within a much longer history. Cherri, Al Attar, and others have documented inquiries into these complicated and often unresolved histories through documentary film and photographs.

Ali Cherri’s _The Digger_ (2015) investigates the lives of the two Pashto caretakers for the archeological excavations in Sharjah that contain evidence of the emirate’s deep history of connection to the Indian Ocean World. Comparably, Ammar Al Attar’s _Cinemas in the UAE_ (2018) is a series of photographs of some of the UAE’s first purpose-build cinemas, many of which have closed and been demolished. Alongside the photographs, Al Attar places evidence of the disappearing history of a film culture in the UAE that embraced films from Egypt, India, Pakistan, Britain, Hollywood, Lebanon, Bangladesh, and even Palestine.

These projects invite us to reflect critically on documents and documentary, as they assemble evidence of complicated histories in open-ended ways. Importantly, they reject the commodified counterparts that serve tourism (often, a mix of orientalism and self-orientalism) and the exceptionalist counterparts that facilitate global business (safe ports in the Middle East) that are more visible throughout the UAE. This paper attempts to think through Sharjah’s commitment to art, film, and culture beyond the dominant discourses of “art-washing” or “soft power” to understand ways that art can engage debates on histories.