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What relationship does visual culture have to the world we live in?

Antonia Carver
1 November 2011

This is a very wide question and impossible to answer in a book, let alone a paragraph. However, it could boil down to two questions concerning visual artists, rather than visual culture per se: What can art do? And do artists have a responsibility to react and respond to their contexts?


Writing from the Gulf, specifically Dubai, visual culture – or rather, contemporary art – has opened up a discursive space that is a rarity in this context: multi-ethnic, cross-disciplinary, exploratory, with Emiratis and expats sharing a platform, often touching on the kinds of taboos that the media is loath to tackle. Through both the arts scene itself, as a community, and through some artists' work, it is possible to imagine the UAE as a society in which – regardless of whether we share a language, life experiences, a political system, cultural mores and so on – we are stakeholders. In the context of the UAE, we might simply be stakeholders in an experiment, rather than an actuality, but this allows us to think of the 'Dubai Dream' as a communal rather than individual pursuit.


Regarding the second question, however, I would answer: No. Artists are artists, not politicians, diplomats or journalists, and it is rare that an artist working within a prescribed space makes interesting work. There is no time like the present to be based in the Arab world, be it as an observer, artist, curator or arts administrator, and sometimes our daily deliberations seem like small-fry compared to the footage playing out on Al-Jazeera. Artists and curators responded immediately to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, and many were present at Art Dubai last March. Some of the work was pertinent and moving but these seismic shifts will no doubt take longer to absorb, analyse, reinterpret and hence be an influence on the creation of contemporary art. It is all very rich food for thought, and no doubt some artists will take this material and their experiences on the front line and chew it over in a meaningful way. But we should simultaneously strive for artists to be relieved of the compulsion to do so and for their work to be framed beyond this question – such is the 'freedom' enjoyed by artists in more politically inert or more universally familiar territories.

Antonia Carver

is the director of Art Dubai (www.artdubai.ae), the leading international fair for the Middle East and South Asia, and home to the Global Art Forum and Art Dubai Projects.

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