"Culture Should Not Be Restricted to the West"

The Louvre has just signed a lucrative million-euro deal with Abu Dhabi. Critics in France fear a "sell-out" of French culture. In this interview with Lewis Gropp, Rose Issa, independent curator and art critic specialised on Middle East and North Africa, disagrees

By Lewis Gropp

 ​​Abu Dhabi is planning on building four major museums and exposition grounds for an international biennial within the next few years. The Guggenheim is happily involved already, and the Louvre has apparently just signed a lucrative 200-400 million euro deal with Abu Dhabi. Do you think that the people of Abu Dhabi and the Emirates might actually profit from this venture culturally? After all, roughly 80% of Abu Dhabi's citizens are migrants without citizenship who hardly participate in Abu Dhabi's cultural life. Isn't the project really more of a tourism campaign of megalomaniac proportions?

Rose Issa: I think everybody profits from these cultural ventures: first of all Louvre and Guggenheim, the contractors, and then the region, and the United Arab Emirates. For once that a country is willing to spend money on culture, rather than on arms, or casinos, I say bravo! The Gulf is in desperate need of beautiful venues, and contextualized objects to see; it will end up educating curators, conservationists, designers, planners, administrators, etc. and most of all the public. If they make it free like in the UK, it is even better, then even the workers can go and visit.

Abu Dhabi hardly has any cultural life so any cultural activity and promotion is better than nothing. If the country can afford it, who can dare criticize such an initiative? Culture should not be restricted to Western zones. People will end up coming and be part of it. Dubai and Sharjah are still in the early years. Tourists from Europe don't go to the UAE for Louvre or Guggenheim, they go for the sun, and also to make money. While making money, they may want also to get educated. Nothing's wrong in that.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krenz argued that in Bilbao, Spain, the Guggenheim branch successfully integrated local art life into its concept and that the same plans will be applied in Abu Dhabi. But what about the cultural infrastructure of Abu Dhabi – are there any academies of fine arts, is there a lively local art scene, can the situation be compared to the one in Spain?

Issa: I think you cannot compare the infrastructure of Abu Dhabi and Bilbao, but the will and the vision. In some ways there is more money in Abu Dhabi than in Bilbao, but there are no fine art universities, artists communities, etc. ... But then maybe art will become fashionable, and with the booming of the economy, a few artists will rise and challenge perceptions... You never know.

What is certain is that, like Bilbao, it will put Abu Dhabi on the map; nobody is forcing anyone to go there. But you can be sure people from the area will go. They can prepare seminars, talks, film seasons, and people will come. The country can afford not to make money from it. They are buying prestige, and future infrastructure! How strange that some Europeans cannot stand an Arab city acquiring culture.

Is modern western art and the central role played by the nude compatible with Abu Dhabi's more restrictive, less liberal way of life? Do you think it is likely that exhibitions on modern art are going to be censored, thus conveying a distorted, half-truth notion of European and western culture?

Issa: There is a mountain of excellent and inspiring work that does not deal with the nude. I don't think the nude has a central role. It can be good or bad, just like any other subject matter. Censorship exists everywhere. I encounter it on daily basis in the UK or Europe... Sometimes based on race, then color, then style, then school of …, then regional, etc. ... In the Middle East we know, we don't have 'democracy' – politically, or culturally – but the West thinks it has democracy, and yet as the recent wars in the region proved: Europeans too are censored, with veiled hypocrisy, veiled declarations, veiled threats, veiled intentions, veiled agendas ... They wear more veils than we do.

Also I often see a huge amount of bad artworks, considered avant-garde because it is 'censored'! This is a promotional angle some mediocre artists find to 'sell' their work to mediocre critics or institutions. Often nudity is meant to be provocative, but I find it old-fashioned, shallow and boring.

Other times, like Anthony Gormley's sculptures, I find them splendid. But then we forget we are faced with a naked body and simply see a majestic artwork. Western institutions censor on the base of economy. They often choose artists from top-end galleries, and not necessarily because of the work. So whether economic censorship, or moral censorship, censorship there is...

Protests in France against establishing a Louvre branch in the Emirates were particularly intense, although similar deals in China and other parts of the world are long underway. Do you think there is particular resentment against the Arab world in the West, even among the educated class and within the cultural sector?

Issa: I think the French you mention have a problem, at least those who protest against cultural initiatives: they must be quite ignorant and stupid. They protested for Beaubourg (the Centre Georges Pompidou, the ed.), for any inventive architectural venue in their own country, and seem to love to criticize, maybe because they are unemployed?

But even this I cannot understand, because the biggest beneficiary is France, it is bringing so much money into their economy, and employment, and prestige... When I think they have institutions and ministries to promote French language and culture, what can they want more? Somebody else is paying to promote their culture... I mistrust anyone who is against cultural development.

Do you think the aspect of hurt cultural pride on the part of France is also a factor? Will the West have to face up to the fact that it is no longer the epicenter of the cultural world?

Issa: The epicentre of culture, in mundane terms, is where the money is ... Once it was France, then New York, yesterday London, soon China, India or the Gulf, till the next epicentre emerges ... You will be surprised how just with one art fair in Dubai, the Western galleries are repositioning their market ... The West has to face that the West is also the East. The world is one, and small. If the arm is hurt, the rest of the body suffers. If the head is happy, then the body dances. This should be our motto, a verse from Rumi: 'I am neither from the East nor the West, No boundaries exist in my breast'.

Interview: Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2007