Beyond the Khaleej: Touring Exhibitions, Soft Power, and Creating a Canon of Arab Art

By Elizabeth Derderian
Submitted to Session P5880 (You Must Listen to the Artist! The Gulf's Creative Class in the Twenty-First Century, 2020 Annual Meeting
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Scholars have persuasively argued that the spectacular cultural megaprojects in the Gulf region are instruments of soft power (Kazerouni 2017), and the timing of Saudi Arabia’s announcement of the Misk Art Institute awkwardly coincided with widespread criticism of the state’s brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet how do Arab Gulf states, either directly or through proxies, deploy art outside the region? This paper explores their growing use of touring art exhibitions as a form of cultural diplomacy, specifically examining two recent exhibitions that reveal quite different representational and diplomatic strategies.

The first, Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s, features artwork from the Barjeel Foundation (UAE), displayed at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (January 14 – April 4, 2020). The exhibition then tours four other university art galleries. The first of its kind, the exhibition and its resulting catalogue make a compelling case for the inclusion of Arab abstractionists in the canon of modern art. This paper argues that Taking Shape represents one path of cultural diplomacy, wherein organizers marshal Gulf resources and leverage cultural infrastructures to advocate for serious scholarly attention to the region’s art scene. With its focus on university museums and cultivating relationships with art history faculty, the exhibition is explicitly designed to write Arab and Gulf artists into the canon of modern art, and thereby legitimize the region’s cultural production.

I contrast this exhibition with Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, held at MoMA PS1 in New York City (November 3, 2019 - March 1, 2020). Much more spectacular and oriented at an international contemporary art elite rather than university audiences, this group exhibition features the works by over 300 artists. While the exhibition does showcase the work of artists in the region, it also includes mainstream contemporary art names – thus embedding Arab and Gulf artists in a broader mainstream of contemporary artists such as Richard Serra and the Guerrilla Girls, rather than isolating them in their own category.

Weaving together ethnographic observation, interviews, and visual analysis, this presentation looks at the representation of Arab and Gulf artists and the region in these two exhibitions, and analyzes the ensuing critical and popular reception of these two exhibitions to gauge these different modes of asserting legitimacy and cultural importance, and the effectiveness of art as a mode of cultural diplomacy in the contemporary US.