First-ever Exhibition of Israeli Artists in the UAE Faces Calls for Boycott

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is calling to boycott the first-ever exhibition of Israeli artists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which opened recently at a Dubai gallery.

On March 28, the Dubai location of the Italian Oblong Contemporary Gallery opened the exhibition ABYSS OF BLISS, featuring works by Israeli artists Yinon Gal-On, Ariela Wertheimer, and Keren Shpilsher. In a press release, the gallery says that the exhibition was organized to celebrate “the occasion of the peace agreement between the UAE and Israel,” which was signed in August of 2020 and dubbed the Abraham Accords. The exhibition is themed around “the concept of water” with photographs and paintings by the three artists.  

“When the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was signed, I was very excited about the world of opportunities that opened up for the two nations,” Gal-On is quoted in the press release for the exhibition. “I didn’t imagine that in a few months I would present my photographs in a gallery in Dubai.”

Oblong Contemporary Gallery in Dubai during the opening of the exhibition ABYSS OF BLISS

In an Instagram post, Oblong said that the exhibition was supported by Dubai’s government and thanked the Italian Ambassador to the country, Nicola Lerner, for attending the opening. The gallery also pledged 10% of the profits from the exhibition sales to the Emirates Red Crescent.

But this celebration of the normalization of relations between Israel and UAE, a deal that was brokered by then-president Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is a sore point for Palestinians.

“Opening the first exhibition of Israeli artists in the region is yet another attempt to popularize normalization,” a statement in Arabic by PACBI says. The statement adds that the Emirati public “still sees the Israeli settler-colonial apartheid regime as its first enemy despite attempts to suppress and silence criticism.”

In response, Oblong’s co-founder Paola Marucci told Hyperallergic in an email: “Surely I was surprised and saddened by being involved in a bigger issue than we are.”

Paintings by Israeli artist Keren Shpilsher in the exhibition ABYSS OF BLISS at Oblong Contemporary Gallery in Dubai

“Our only purpose is to promote art and culture without any kind of end,” Marucci added. She continued:

We enthusiastically welcomed the signing of the Abraham Accords and we didn’t want to offend anyone by opening the first Israeli artists’ exhibition in Dubai. For us, artists are all the same: the only difference between the artists is their artistic expression, not their nationality. I personally believe that art has a universal language: art and culture are elements that create bridges and not walls as said several times by Santo Padre Karol Wojtyla [Pope John Paul II].

PACBI, on the other hand, argues that art in this case is being used as a tool in the service of “normalizing colonialism and repression.”

“The Israeli and Emirati regimes have been employing sports, art, and academics in disguising their security and military alliance which brings nothing but destruction and oppression to the nations of the region,” the statement adds.

In September of 2020, over 80 Arab artists signed an open letter pledging to boycott cultural activities sponsored by the UAE. Artists Samia Halaby and Rachid Koraichi and filmmakers Mai Masri and Hany Abu Assad were among the signatories.

In August, Palestinian artist Mohamed Badarne withdrew his work from an exhibition at the UAE’s Sharjah Art Foundation on the day the Abraham Accords were signed. “I could not have a relationship with a regime that is now officially complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinians,” he told Hyperallergic.

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