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An art auction intended to benefit the organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has been canceled after the Israeli embassy in Paris complained about one of the featured works. The piece in question, by French street artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, included a drawing of the Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti in handcuffs and a brief handwritten note comparing him to Nelson Mandela. (Barghouti, whom some have called “the Palestinian Mandela,” is currently serving five life sentences in Israel.)
“This portrait puts up for auction a terrorist project in the guise of a man of peace by comparing him to a great and internationally recognized figure: Nelson Mandela,” said the Israeli embassy’s letter, sent in late December, according to Le Monde.
For the sale, dubbed “Artistes à la une” (Artists on the Front Page) and hosted by French auction house Artcurial, 38 artists including Tania Mouraud, Laurent Grasso, and Invader turned notable cover pages of the French newspaper Libération into artworks. Pignon-Ernest had chosen the cover from November 12, 2004, which featured a photograph of the empty seat of just-deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Following the Israeli embassy’s complaint, his work was removed from Artcurial’s online catalogue for the sale. This prompted another of the featured artists, C215, to demand that his work (a stylized portrait of Charlie Chaplin dressed as Hitler in The Great Dictator) also be removed. In the ensuing debacle, the auction was eventually called off entirely.
“Reporters Without Borders and Laurent Joffrin on behalf of Libération refused to comply with [the Israeli embassy’s] demand, but that was not the case with Artcurial, which was due to hold the auction and which decided to eliminate (to censor) my work from the catalogue,” Pignon-Ernest wrote on Facebook. “What to say except that it’s particularly shocking — worrisome even — to see the embassy of a foreign country intervene on the content of an exhibition whose theme is the freedom of expression and dictate what is fitting for exhibition.”
Artcurial, for its part, defended the decision on the grounds of complying with the anti-terrorism measures in place since the Paris attacks of November 13. “In the context of the current extension of the state of emergency and the difficulty of reconciling the need to guarantee both public order and freedom of expression, Reporters Without Borders and Artcurial reached a common agreement to cancel the auction planned for January 27,” Artcurial explained in a statement on January 15.
By the time the decision was made, the works destined for auction had already been publicly exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo, on December 12 and 13. To coincide with the two-day exhibition, Libération published a special edition featuring the artworks and interviews with the artists. Neither the show nor the special publication caused any disturbance to public order.
In the aftermath of the fiasco, RWB has ended its partnership with Artcurial and will pursue the benefit auction elsewhere. “This work is in no way an apology for terrorism and it belongs legitimately to the ‘Artistes à la une’ project,” Christophe Deloire, RWB’s secretary general, told Le Monde. “We have therefore decided to hold the sale elsewhere in order to remain true to our principles.” The works are on view at Paris’s Earth Gallery through January 25.