Contemporary art production and the ambivalence of nation-building in the United Arab Emirates

By Melanie Janet Sindelar
Submitted to Session P4985 (Visual Engagement: Between the Self and the Nation, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
Ethnography; Gulf Studies; Nationalism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper investigates the relationship between contemporary visual art production and nation-building in the Arab Gulf. In the last ten years, artists have begun responding to recent heritagization efforts which focus on a pre-Oil Bedouin past. This is the case in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where state-funded festivals combine heritage with art and provide funding for the arts industry. Such a focus on the past stands in contradiction with Dubai’s identity as a futuristic, and multi-cultural port-city, and artists address these issues in their work. Are artists aiding nation-building efforts seeking to elevate the history of nationals and exclude those of its large migrant community? Or are artists resisting these attempts, and if so, how? These questions are addressed and answered through ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the UAE in 2015 and 2016. During that time, an internship at Art Dubai, the Arab Gulf’s biggest art fair, has helped to connect to a large base of practicing artists in the UAE. Theoretically rooted in the study of art worlds and postcolonial theory, this paper builds on what Homi Bhabha (2004) has called the ‘double narrative movement’, a core ambivalence of nation-building in which a necessity exists to reach out to the past to seemingly create a national shared memory, while simultaneously having to remain in the present to enact identity. This conundrum has been complicated as states increasingly employ the future for national imaginations as well. This is visible in Dubai where ambitious building-projects compete with pioneering developments in the arts, sciences, and engineering. These recent developments however have been neglected in current scholarship, leading to a fragmentary understanding of recent turns in the politics of nation-building. As Appadurai (1981) reminds us, the past is never abundant, but is instead tailored into a scarce resource, desirable through its fabricated evanescence. I hypothesize that the future is too, as a result of the reinforcement of narrow pasts resulting from specific nation-building agendas. As such, as Appadurai (2013) shows in his newer work, the future is aspired, anticipated, and imagined through the past and present. In analyzing the consequences of adding the future into the nation-building equation, I like to suggest that the future needs to play into Bhabha’s (2004) discussion of the ‘double narrative movement’, if it shall remain ‘good to think with’.