At last week's Art Dubai -- the UAE's answer to Miami's Art Basel -- government censors played a larger than expected role in policing the display of contemporary art. While researching my next thriller novel, I dropped by the four day festival at the Jumeirah Beach Resort. The festival was meant to display the United Arab Emirates as an emerging force in yet another market: the contemporary art world. But as various gallerists were asked to remove certain pieces of work at the opening on Tuesday night, minutes before the arrival of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Maktoum, there was a crack in the city's western veneer, an ominous thundercloud of political censorship out of Dubai's clear desert sky.
As museums like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Gugenheim prepare to break ground (and world records) for their size on nearby Saayidat Island, this sudden rash of censorship fit a discernible trend.
Here are three examples: Sarah Rohbah, an Iranian American artist currently living in New York, used an American flag as a canvas backdrop to draw two characters - Persia's mythical equivalent of Romeo and Juliet-- alongside a line in Farsi referring to Messianic redemption. According to gallerist Kourosh Nourish, the organizers were "amicable" in asking him to remove it, claiming that they wanted to steer clear of possible defacement of American images.
Moataz Nasr had also intended to display a work of fabric, one depicting a jet plane flying over an explosion. Superimposed on the image were the words, in Arabic, that appear on the fliers dropped by American planes before premeditated bombings: "If you ignore this warning you will be destroyed. Will this be your fate?" When I asked to see the censored work, I was taken into a backroom behind the booth to see it hanging behind the door.
Finally, even before the opening, the daily local art magazine, Canvas, had felt the censor's black felt tip. Staff members were asked to conceal Ramin Haerizadeh's work, Untitled, which portrayed children in a classroom listening to Empress Pahlavi as they chewed on crumpled papers displaying her image.
Provocation is precisely what creates the demand for contemporary art. Take the provocation away and Art Dubai is yet another empty show of supply, another glitzy glass skyscraper built for its own sake, barren of humanity.
Daniel Levin is the author of the bestselling The Last Ember (Riverhead Books, trade paperback, May 4, 2010).
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