Best described in one word, Christopher Joshua Benton is a storyteller. The American artist sets forth the untold stories of Dubai’s local communities through multiple mediums such as photography, film, and large-scale installations (as seen recently at the Adidas Originals flagship store in Dubai Mall). While Dubai has accumulated notoriety for its extravaganza, the city also shelters the anonymity that Benton curiously explores. Before his current pursuit of his MS in Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT, Benton spent eight years in the UAE creating and curating artwork surrounding themes of “power, labour, and hope.” Through his profound research, Benton can uncover the stories found in the often ignored neighbourhoods of Dubai. And what stands out the most about his work is his ethical practices. By collaborating with local craftsmen and the everyday people he encounters, Benton weaves his artistic analysis with appropriate inclusion of original subjects and objects.

Al Khat Al Thahabi Auto Accessories & Upholstery © Christopher Benton
The majority of your work comes from an in-depth research background. So I’d love to know more about your artistic process, and if you immerse yourself with the people/subjects of your art?

Most of my ideas come from walking around neighbourhoods and having conversations. In this way, you could call my work dialogical–it starts with talking. You could also call this a flaneur mode of roaming and seeing. Oftentimes I miss-see something. What my brain naturally fills in when it has limited ocular information is a good starting point for making art. The people who are in my work are often friends first.

Were you always interested in social-economic topics and their relations to art? Would you say your background in journalism aided this type of thought process?

My work has always foregrounded the effect of late capitalist economics on the body and the psyche. I started making work when I lived in Satwa, Dubai, so the dynamic of that place is something I think about a lot. I’m from a working-class background in America, so the pressures of affordability and access have also been a factor in how I make most personal decisions.

The question of where my journalism background comes in might be a more complicated one. I think as a journalist and an advertising creative director, your focus is always on how to share a story with the broadest possible audience. In that way, my goal is always to make my work clear and legible to a broad public.

As a creative, what do you think is a suitable approach for artists when they wish to create art that is unrelated to their culture, but related to their environment that they co-exist with? Without leaning into appropriation?

A good strategy is to figure out how to platform the people of the culture in which you wish to work. How can they have a voice? How can they actualize their agency? And then the next, more difficult question is how can you set up a system of mutual benefit, so that not only the artist benefits? One thing is for certain: if an artist is only allowed to make work from their own history, it’s a loss for society.

Your work discusses labour, and exploitation. How can artists offer social commentary on such matters (regardless of artistic discipline), without creating a different cycle of exploitation themselves?

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible not to replicate the systems of capitalism even in the most well-meaning of projects. Consider Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects or Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses. Essentially both artists have created beautiful, long-lasting community centres that have stood the test of time in low-income places. This is an undeniable good–and yet, the renewal of these spaces has also led to the gentrification of these neighbourhoods. Guy Dubord talks a lot about this in the “Society of the Spectacle”–basically, the ability of capitalism to subsume its own critique. That said, as an artist, it is essential to devise your own system of ethics and constantly evaluate if your work is following its own principles. Concepts of sharing and gifting, fair compensation, informed consent, and friendship are a good start. Ruangrupa’s concept of “lumbung”–or the community rice barn–is also a good model. 

Social and commercial commentary is a vital pillar of your work. How important is it to show the grit of Dubai rather than the glam?

Dubai has a global reputation–both good and bad. It’s probably best known for luxury and issues with labour. However, the general understanding of both of these components of Dubai’s identity is generally inaccurate. The reality is more layered and the ethics are in the inter-zone, let’s call it a “grey area.” The funniest thing is when people say Dubai is like Las Vegas. My job is to complicate the narrative and get closer to the truth. However, I must always remember that my primary audience is a local one: for the most part, I am talking to the people who live within a few dozen kilometres from me, in the UAE. For this audience, I aim to reveal the sort of things that people generally ignore, accept, or prefer not to see.

My Plant Immigrants © Christopher Benton
What type of dialogue do you want people to have after viewing your art?

I think that art is an important conduit for the audience to think and have discussions. At the same time, in my art I want people to think and feel. I am most excited about my art as something that will incite people to be more empathetic toward each other.

You’ve always been heavily involved in the UAE artistic scene. How would you say that the different cities digest art differently?

I think the audience is the same but the institutions are fundamentally different. Abu Dhabi functions more as an apparatus of the government with a global “soft-power” aim: there are big budgets and a lot of grassroots support for local artists. Dubai is obviously more commercial and connected to a gallery ecosystem. Overall, I think a lot of the larger players in Dubai see art more as a type of content, with an event management approach to the exhibition. That said, there are many excellent institutions in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and–of course– the OG, Sharjah. I feel especially indebted to Salama Foundation, Abu Dhabi Art, and Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi; and Art Jameel in Dubai.

Be it artistic or commercial, both these scenes in the UAE are in the era of hyper-change. How do you view the art scene evolving given such circumstances?

I think there’s more support than ever for supporting and growing homegrown artists and giving them the tools to advance their practice at a global level. Local galleries, too, are finally picking up artists from the Emirates itself. As for room for improvement, better access to studio space, more critical arts and culture media, and more opportunities for local curators would really help give the system more depth.

 I’d like to hear your views on art accessibility to the public given the rise of social media.

I think people need to stop thinking about how to bring people to the art, and start bringing the art to the people. 

Do you have plans to come back to the UAE after MIT? If so, do you think you’ll be exploring your art differently?

UAE will always be home. I’ve learned so much from my heroes in the past year–people like Tania Bruguera at Harvard and Gediminas Urbonas at MIT. I hope to work more in a collective mode–so I can realize larger-scale projects faster. My biggest goal when I return is to bring back what I’ve learned about developing socially engaged art projects to places that I love and think a lot about. Places like Satwa!

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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