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‘Guest Relations’ and the Touristification of the Global South

At Jameel Arts Center, Dubai, a group show examines the role of hospitality in the UAE and the wider Gulf region

BY Rahel Aima in Exhibition Reviews | 17 JAN 24

As a five year old, one of my most prized possessions was the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast (1991). I demanded the cassette be played every day on the long drive to school, with a favourite being the paean to Gallic hospitality, ‘Be Our Guest’. There are no singing candlesticks and dancing plates here, but ‘Guest Relations’ weaves a similarly delightful spell. Curated by Murtaza Vali with Lucas Morin, the exhibition considers the impacts of touristification. While drawing broadly from the Global South, it focuses especially on Dubai and its sister city states in the Gulf, where these transformations have been particularly intense. Its five sections move from the built environment to affective infrastructures of hospitality: how they provide and how they take away.

‘Guest Relations’, 2023–24, exhibition view, Jameel Arts Center, Dubai. Courtesy: the artists and Jameel Arts Center, Dubai; Photograph: Daniella Baptista

The first gallery addresses the luxury hotel as architectural icon and its relation to city branding. Despite the overabundance of elevation drawings and tabletop scale models, there are works that depart from this architectural straightjacket. Yiyo Tirado Rivera’s Castillos de Arena (Sandcastles) Caribe Hilton (2020), for instance, is a hotel rendered in sand which degrades over the course of the show, mirroring American colonialism’s effects on the local ecology, while Pio Abad’s Oh! Oh! Oh! (A Universal History of Iniquity) (2013) combines rococo wallpaper – digitally rendered from an image of a hotel chandelier – with a display of kitschy perfume bottles variously shaped like a camel, a dagger and the Burj Khalifa.

Pio Abadm Oh! Oh! Oh! (A Universal History of Iniquity) (detail), 2013, installation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Daniella Baptista

The second section, which examines the stagecraft of hospitality, opens with a Taryn Simon floral centrepiece from the series ‘Paper Work and the Will of Capital’ (2015), which documents the signing of a citizenship-by-investment scheme in the Caribbean country of St. Kitts. Shown here, the work underscores the absence of naturalization in the UAE, despite the recent introduction of something akin to permanent residency. Svay Ken’s painting Hotel Le Royal (1994), in which white tux-wearing waiters serve hotel guests, provides a sharp-eyed study of wealth and class disparities in a culinary context. Along with Tirado Rivera’s receiving line of plunger-and-floor-mop palm trees (Plantation, 2019–20), this work exemplifies one of the show’s most crucial threads: hotels in postcolonial climes might reflect a carefully constructed lush tropical or vaguely Arabian sheen, as exemplified by Lamya Gargash’s sumptuous photographs of one-star hotels in Dubai (e.g. Al Jazira Hotel Lobby, 2003–7), but it is the performance of racialized labour which keeps the industry running.

Sung Tieu, Moving Target Shadow Detection, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Photograph: Daniella Baptista

Further galleries reflect on the hotel room, the corridor and the portal, with a highlight being Sung Tieu’s Moving Target Shadow Detection (2022) – a nervy, noirish video about weaponized sound, surveillance and the Havana Syndrome. Things get especially interesting in works which consider adjacent industries, such as the video excerpts from Mati Jhurry’s durational performance as Emirates Staff No. 460956 (2023), accompanied by a gnarly, tanklike sculpture made in collaboration with Nabla Yahya that re-creates, in snotty beige, onboard sleeping quarters (Reconstruction: Crew Rest Compartment, 2023).

‘Guest Relations’, 2023–24, exhibition view, Jameel Arts Center, Dubai. Courtesy: the artists and Jameel Arts Center, Dubai; Photograph: Daniella Baptista

Eisa Jocson’s Princess Corponomy Online (2017/21) is a pithy sendup of Filipino employment in amusement parks and other touristic entertainment sectors across Asia, as well as the unbearably gendered whiteness of Disney. As with so many other works here, it can be read as a comment on the local penchant for aligning nationality – and, by extension, sweeping cultural stereotypes – to job role and remuneration. In a country where close to 90 percent of the population is transient to some degree, guest relations aren’t just about tourism and leisure so much as population management. By considering the economic underpinnings and dynamics shared across its geographies, ‘Guest Relations’ is a rare example of an exhibition in the Gulf that takes its Global South framing seriously.

‘Guest Relations’ at Jameel Arts Centre is on view until 28 April

Main image: Svay Ken, Hotel Le Royal, 1994, oil on cotton. Courtesy: National Gallery Singapore

Rahel Aima is a writer. Her work has been published in ArtforumArtnewsArtReviewThe AtlanticBookforum, friezeMousse and Vogue Arabia, amongst others.