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Welcome to Love | Labour | Leisure

By Fareed Majari

There exists this city built by laborers who disappear after their respective buildings are made. Once the last brick is laid . . . the laborers . . . begin to fade, before disappearing completely. Some believe the men become ghosts, haunting the façades they helped build.

This is how Deepak Unnikrishnan describes in his novel Temporary People the existence of Gastarbeiter (guest workers) - to borrow this ill-fated German word - in the countries of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. 

The images of laborers and service-providers tend to fade in our memories once our encounter with them has ended. We rarely ask ourselves where the taxi driver goes after his shift, or how the waitress or food delivery driver spend their leisure time. Does the nurse who checked our blood pressure have children? Where are they and who takes care of them?

The laborers on construction sites who work in vertiginous heights are mere silhouettes against the hot, bright sun. We notice their tired faces only briefly when they rush to get a seat on the Ashok Leyland buses that bring them to their labor camps. We tend to be focused on our own business and that is normal everywhere in the world. However, shouldn’t the mere fact that we are, here in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, all mostly exiles—émigrés, migrants, refugees, or, more fashionably “expats”—sharpen our sensibilities and increase our curiosity about our fellow beings?
The literary critic Edward Said, born in Palestine and teaching at Columbia University, drew from his own experience of loss of a homeland as a dialectics of exile. Weighing the romantic, inspirational and edifying aspects of exile, particularly in literature, against the “marginality and homelessness,” he found that the latter weighed heavier: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience.” This is certainly true in an era of mass migration and refugee camps, which leave little room for romanticism. Theodor Adorno characterized his existence in Californian exile as a “damaged life” (beschädigtes Leben) but acknowledged exile as a method of coming to terms with reality. One of the aphorisms in Minima Moralia reads, "The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass." In other words, the damage caused by a loss of rootedness and belonging can help us see clearer and grapple with our surroundings without dogmas or preconceptions. Maybe. But it may also be that an exaggerated esprit de corps, stark class differences and feelings of entitlement can have precisely the opposite effect. Many expats enjoy a very high standard of living and benefit from low costs for human labor, particularly in the service industry.

According to United Nations Department of Economic Affairs (UNDESA) in 2019 there were 5 million international migrants for employment in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries plus Jordan and Lebanon, of whom 31% were women. Due to the SARSCoV2 pandemic, this number may have fallen significantly over the last year. The majority of these workers are from South Asia (mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), the Philippines, other Arab countries (especially Egypt) and from Africa (mostly Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda). Foreign nationals make up the majority of the population in Bahrain, Kuwait and more than 80% of the population in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The home countries of migrant workers rely heavily on remittances from the UAE ($40 billion), Saudi Arabia ($39 billion), and Kuwait ($15 billion). The loss of jobs and wages due to Covid weighed heavily on the economies of these home countries.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) uses the term "migrant for employment" for a person who migrates “from one country to another with a view to being employed otherwise than on his or her own account.” However, not all migrants for employment in the GCC countries are low-paid laborers. Their ranks include the highly trained and relatively well paid Filipina/o or Indian nurses, omnipresent in their medical scrubs, currently being hailed in the media and on billboards as frontline heroes in the battle against Covid. White collar workers like doctors, engineers and bankers, frequently referred to as expats, are often drawn here by higher salaries. Some can even be seen cruising the streets of Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha in their Porsches, Lamborghinis or Ferraris – a much more common sight here than in the countries where they are produced. A sizeable number of non-citizen residents in the Gulf region who began as migrant workers later became entrepreneurs, owners of restaurants and retail stores, start-ups, and even factories.

Working conditions differ vastly throughout the Gulf region. Partly due to international scrutiny in connection with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, most Gulf states have recently implemented far-reaching reforms that largely abolished the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which restricted workers’ freedom to end working contracts and seek new employment. However, labor rights organizations point out that more reforms are needed as long as working conditions, wages and the right to collective bargaining do not meet the standards of comparable economies.

Love, Labor, Leisure is a (for the time being digital) exhibition that investigates of the life of migrants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from different angles. The art works assembled here are driven by an artistic curiosity that we hope will in turn pique our visitors’ curiosity. The artists either hail from or live in the main countries of origin of migrant workers in the UAE.

Beirut-born, Mumbai-bred, Vikram Divecha lives in Dubai. For the project Portrait Sessions he asked non-professionals, mostly laborers, to paint his portrait. At the beginning of each portrait session it was determined how much time for the project 150 Dirham ($ 40) will buy based on each participants salary. Without referencing Marx’s concept of surplus value, Vikram points at labor and time as decisive factors in the creation of profit.

Negotiating Liberation is a short film directed by Kenyan filmmaker Amirah Tajdin. The love story (shot on 16mm film) centers around a typical feature of immigrants’ lives: sadness and longing for loved ones at home.

Eisa Jocson is a choreographer and dancer from the Philippines who exposes body politics in the service and entertainment industry as seen through the unique socioeconomic lens of the Philippines. Her initial plan had been to travel to Dubai to research the work of Filipinas in the entertainment industry. When these plans were thwarted by the pandemic, she produced three performance-videos in Manila.

Saba Qizilbash grew up in Dubai as the daughter of Pakistani parents. Her highly detailed panoramic drawings resemble black and white photographs and metal plate engravings or etchings at the same time. The wide aspect ratio and rounded edges are reminiscent of flattened globes or old maps. Borders, arbitrary demarcation lines that restrict people’s movements are a recurring motif in the artist’s oeuvre. To Love, Labor, Leisure she contributed from Jabel Ali to Gwadar, a drawing of an imaginary land route between two of the most modern seaports, one near Dubai and the other one in Pakistan.

Augustine Paredes is a commercial photographer from Dubai who contributed a series of photographs that represent his very personal of seeking home overseas, filling voids and understanding love and longing. It is the most personal account in this project.

Riyas Komu’s (Mumbai) large scale photographic or hyper-realist oil portraits of migrant workers in the UAE often resemble the socialist-realist art of a bygone era. Technique and size van be seen as an attempt to reinstate the personality and dignity of people who tend to be overlooked.

Mohamed Somji is a Tanzanian national with Indian roots who has been living in Dubai most of his life. He is a curator, photographer, and director of Seeing Things and Gulf Photo Plus, both fixtures in the art scene of Dubai. His large format long shot images show inhabitants of Dubai indulging in leisure activities.

For New Silk Road Patterns #02 Anahita Razmi (Berlin) collected low-quality clothes found at various markets in Tehran, Tokyo, Beijing, Dubai and Istanbul. In her work she investigates historic and contemporary structures of a globalized economy, migration, trade, inclusion and exclusion.

And now, it’s time to party with music curator Nadia Says and international electronic artists and DJs living and working in the electronic music Mecca Berlin.