Atlas Dubai: Art Without America

Thaier Helal: A Political Map of the World, 2013, mixed mediums on canvas, 67 by 134 inches. Courtesy Ayyam Gallery, Dubai.


On January 27, barely a week into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order that temporarily barred nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The immediate ramifications were catastrophic for refugees in transit, travelers holding valid visas, and, initially, even green-card holders, who suddenly found themselves cut off from the American lives they had built. According to The Guardian, some people who had merely visited the seven banned countries were detained at the border. The executive order was quickly dubbed the Muslim ban.

As of this writing, the Muslim ban appears to have stalled in court, but it is likely that the coming months will see the implementation of a similar edict, albeit one that is less openly discriminatory and more legally sound. Whatever the ultimate fate of the ban, the episode points to a broader shift in how the US is perceived in the Middle East.

In Dubai, a global city that’s home to many citizens of the banned countries, the news set off a series of aftershocks that left behind a low rumble of anxiety and uncertainty. One measure of this uncertainty can be found in the city’s relatively young and highly cosmopolitan art world. Many of Dubai’s most important galleries specialize in Iranian or Arab art, and their staffers hail from blacklisted nations. I reached out to some of the city’s leading dealers to inquire about their perceptions of this hostile mood in the US, a country that had, in recent years, become a key destination for sales despite the expense and difficulty of traveling there.

It became clear from these conversations that the ban jeopardized whatever attraction the American art world might have held for Dubai-based artists and dealers. Mexican-Lebanese curator Maymanah Farhat, artistic director of Ayyam Gallery, which has a program of modern and contemporary Syrian art, anticipated that the Trump era would be “sure to shift the dynamics of the international art world.” She predicted that “the US’s role as an influential center will diminish in the next four years, derailing the recent attempts of its art fairs and museums to be more inclusive.”

While there are more than fifty galleries operating in Dubai, only about eight, all clustered in and around Alserkal Avenue, have strong ties outside the region. Most of these market work by artists from the Middle East to collectors and institutions around the region and in Western Europe. Still, this ban comes at a time when Dubai galleries are making inroads into US markets. In the days during which the ban was in effect, dealers postponed trips to the US and fretted about whether they would be able to participate in upcoming American fairs. Some of their artists missed their own openings abroad for fear of not being able to return to their homes in the US. Shahpour Pouyan, an Iranian who is based in New York and is represented by Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi, did not travel to Toronto for the Aga Khan Museum’s “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians,” which opened in February.

While the casual cruelty of the ban horrified Dubai’s art scene, the relatively privileged proprietors of the city’s galleries remained mostly insulated from its direct effects. As is common among Dubai’s moneyed elites, local dealers from the banned countries generally have second passports from the UK, Canada, or another Western nation.[pq]The Muslim ban jeopardized whatever attraction the American art world might have held for Dubai-based artists and dealers.[/pq]Many of the bigger “regional” artists represented by Dubai galleries also reside in Western countries. Lawrie Shabibi’s roster includes Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), Nadia Kaabi-Linke (Tunisia), and Farhad Ahrarnia (Iran)—prominent figures who now live and work in European capitals. Yet gallery workers rarely enjoy the same global mobility as senior staff. As Farhat explained, because her staff is mostly Syrian, “the ban makes working in the US virtually impossible.”

In truth, it’s never been easy for Syrians, Iraqis, or Iranians to obtain US visas, and Trump’s effort can be understood as an intensification of long-standing policies. A 2015 change in visa procedures, introduced by the Obama administration, mandated that any visitor to the US who has visited one of the seven countries subsequently included in Trump’s ban had to apply for a visa in advance and face heightened scrutiny at the border. The prospect of confronting additional hurdles to entering the US—already an arduous process—had a chilling effect on regional travel. “Don’t forget we do go to Iran,” cautioned Iraqi-British Asmaa Al-Shabibi, who directs the Lawrie Shabibi gallery. “We have to do studio visits there because we have artists there.”

Other barriers to the American art world also predate the Trump ban. Artists and gallerists described the regional biases, reinforced by market imperatives, that have long pervaded the supposedly global art world. Farhat cited an informal rule that those hoping to enter the New York market, for example, needed to partner with a local gallery. “It’s a different type of ‘vetting’ that is equally limiting,” she said. The result is that “the American art scene isn’t as cosmopolitan as it claims to be.” Al-Shabibi was even more succinct when asked about the current climate, saying pointedly: “It’s always been America First, hasn’t it?”


These gallerists are equally aware of the nativist and xenophobic sentiments that exist below the surface of Dubai’s cosmopolitan image. The art scene exists as a mirror image of the racial hierarchy that structures other aspects of social life in the city. As Kourosh Nouri, the Iranian-Austrian codirector of Carbon 12, which is unique in eschewing the regional focus for a program featuring germanophone artists, notes, “It is significantly harder to sell an Austrian artist in Dubai than it is a Syrian or a Bahraini.” A white European may command a much higher salary and benefits on the job market, but his or her artwork will find very little traction. While the local collector base has slowly become more open, people do still want to acquire work by artists who share their ethnic backgrounds, which Nouri sees as symptomatic of the market’s immaturity. Geopolitical tensions leave their mark too. Nouri has observed some Arab collectors “who will not touch an Iranian artwork.” Nouri added that “this regionalization of art becomes a kind of protectionism, and it does a favor to no one.”

Still, most of the dealers I spoke with view the US market with a modicum of optimism. Yasmin Atassi, the Syrian-Canadian director of Dubai’s Green Art Gallery—known for its conceptually rigorous program—has long focused on building relationships with European audiences. “I don’t think Americans like political art. Actually, I know they don’t!” However, she cited a reason to believe that this bias may be changing—in part because Trump is forcing it. “This is the first time Americans are faced with political problems on this scale and that has, I think, expanded a lot of their thinking,” she said. “But you know, we’ve been living with political problems all our life. It is all we think about. Politics is in our veins, in our blood, and it shows in the art.”

Indeed, in response to the ban, US institutions have rushed to exhibit work by artists from the affected countries. A prominent hanging of such work by the Museum of Modern Art in New York was a much appreciated gesture, if only for its symbolic value. “Their swift response is fantastic,” Atassi said, echoing the sentiments of other gallerists, “and I think MoMA as an institution, with its power and strength, says a lot, but it also poses the question, why did they have to wait for a ban to unearth these works?”

Atassi anticipated heightened attention for her US fair presentations, even as she remains wary of tokenism. Her Armory Show offering happened to comprise two Iranian artists, Nazgol Ansarinia and Kamrooz Aram, and she worried about becoming a “tourist booth.” “There’s definitely going to be a fetish period,” she said. But, while acknowledging the often cynical logic of the art market, Atassi, like everyone I spoke with, affirmed the importance of art in opening up discourse across closed (or closing) borders.