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Protesters in front of the Brooklyn Museum (image via @kino___eye)

Close to 100 artists and activists staged a protest at the Brooklyn Museum yesterday afternoon in response to displacement — both in Brooklyn and Palestine. Organized by the Decolonial Cultural Front and Movement to Protect the People, the catalysts for the protests were a photography exhibition focusing Israel/Palestine, called This Place, as well as ongoing conflict with the museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, who many say has downplayed issues raised by artists in the Agitprop! exhibition regarding last fall’s real estate summit at the museum.

Protesters unfurled a banner in the gallery at the start of the action. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The protesters filled the main gallery of This Place on Saturday afternoon at roughly 3:30pm EDT and unfurled a “Decolonize This Place” banner using the branding of the exhibition. The group initiated a mic check and acknowledged that the museum is on Native American land (Lenni Lenape). “We stand with our comrades to amass indigenous resurgence and fight for decolonization,” one woman declared, in front of a banner reading “Decolonize This Place.” They expressed their concerns with the “artwashing” of serious issues in Israel and Palestine, and the role of the museum and its director in these decisions.

“The days in which art and artists are instrumentalized to normalize oppression, displacement, and dispossession of any people are over,” said co-organizer Amin Husain, a member of the Decolonial Cultural Front, during the gallery occupation. “We are watching you, and we will scrutinize your exhibitions and your funding, and we will act when you fail.”

The group drew attention to the funders of the This Place exhibition, which include activist funders and foundations that have donated to the Israeli military (IDF) and other pro-occupation elements in Israeli society, particularly those that preference Jewish identity over those of the country’s other cultural and ethnic groups. As an example, the group points to the Posen Foundation, which funds educational activities in the IDF.

Another view of the gallery, with a second banner unfurled (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Protesters unfurled a second banner that read “Displacement Destroys Culture” before museum staff and members of the NYPD arrived to disrupt the action after roughly fifteen minutes. The protests continued outside the This Place galleries, with people holding and posting signs on the walls that read “Dump the Fine Art of Gentrification,” “We Are Not Tools for White-Washing Occupation,” and “Settler Colonialism Out of Brooklyn.”

Husain was escorted out as he continued his message of Palestinian Solidarity. Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian was able to video Husain’s removal from the main gallery:

NYPD arrives to escort anti-occupation protesters out of @brooklynmuseum’s #ThisPlacePhoto show. (? @hragv)

A video posted by Hyperallergic (@hyperallergic) on

In the neighboring Agitprop! exhibition Alicia Boyd, a founder of The Movement to Protect the People, rallied protesters and declared: “Anne Pasternak and the Brooklyn Museum, the people are not invisible. We’re here so that you can see us, and we’re here so that you can hear us. We are strong and we’re united.”

Soon after police arrived, protesters were told they could not continue through the galleries and many were prevented from going into the Agitprop! exhibition.

The This Place exhibition was organized by photographer Frédéric Brenner, and it showcases the work of 11 well-known photographers, including Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, and Josef Koudelka, who were all asked to take photographs of Israel and the occupied West Bank even though none of them had been to the region prior to the project. According to the New York Times, Brenner hoped the work would force the viewer to reckon with “the strangeness and otherness within ourselves,” and transcend politics to deal with Israel “as place and metaphor.”

Protesters pointed out that Stephen Shore’s photographs do not acknowledge the original Arabic names of the places he photographed, so they decided to remedy that with new labels. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

A metaphor for what, is not clear? The language of the curatorial statement is carefully innocuous, to a point where it drowns in artspeak. There are no Israeli or Palestinian artists involved in the project, because, by Brenner’s own admission, no Palestinian artist would agree to participate—perhaps because “anger” was a disqualifying factor. “It was important to look at Israel without complacency but with compassion,” he told the Times. “I believe art has a power to address questions that an ideological perspective cannot.” 

For many of those who attended the protests, the idea that you can remove politics from a piece and place like this comes off as naive at best. They explain that it is largely the photography of tourism, a lot of sweeping landscapes and Israeli settler families, posed in such a way that they look very suburban and safe (there is no prominent mention of the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands — a fact the US accepts — or the violence that accompanies the occupation). In one section, where visitors could leave notes on their impressions, someone named Kira wrote, “The themes that I see in the photographs is peace and enjoyment. All of them spoke to me b/c it looks like everyone is having a gr8 time and they all seem happy and at ease!” The action came after numerous protesters saw the exhibition and expressed frustration at the so-called “artwashing” of a serious issue under the guise of objectivity.

“This is an ideological exercise that instrumentalizes art and artists,” said Amin Husain. He pointed out that although the project goes out of its way to say that it received no government funding, the majority of the private donations came from individuals with track records of funding initiatives of the Israeli military and other problematic Israeli initiatives. The protesters told Hyperallergic that this action was a way to reclaim space, both in solidarity with the Palestinians and for Brooklyn artists, who feel the Museum is presenting a facade of activism while tacitly supporting gentrification.

“I think it’s incumbent upon people who are living in a neighborhood where a community-oriented museum exists to be actively working to shape the politics of that museum,” said protester Conor Tomás Reed.

Back in November, the Brooklyn Museum hosted the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, which drew significant protests and an outcry from a wide array of community groups. In response, the activists were given space in the Agitprop! exhibit and the Museum agreed to host a “People’s Summit on Displacement and Gentrification,” curated by the artists and activists. A prospective overview for the People’s Summit was proposed and approved, but on April 22 the Museum sent an email to the group, informing them that the summit would no longer focus on displacement and gentrification, but rather “preservation and diversity.” Activists present at the protest overwhelmingly felt like this was a ploy — the museum would be able to claim some sort of activist cred without actually engaging in any truly difficult issues, such as rezoning, that might be problematic for the real estate developers on their board.

Black Lives Matter joins the Decolonial Cultural Front outside the museum. (via @izzynastasia)

“Anne Pasternak had agreed to give us a space on the wall in Agitprop!, as well as give us a weekend of programming. She then reduced it down to a day, a Sunday,” Alicia Boyd told Hyperallergic. “You want to say that you’re supporting, then you wanna control the voice. Then you wanna control the message. That’s not how it works. The museum is an open space, right? It’s where art talks about the people. So that’s your job as an institution, to allow the people to talk. So, when you take a museum and then you host a real estate summit, [during] a major crisis in which developers are all over New York City destabilizing communities, you’re really making a very powerful statement. Excuse my French, but you’re basically saying, ‘Fuck you, artists. Fuck the people.’”

The Decolonial Cultural Front and Movement to Protect the People are demanding that the Brooklyn Museum remove all real estate developers from its board and host a summit on displacement, rather than a watered down version focused on preservation.

Following the action, Hyperallergic reached out to the Brooklyn Museum and received the following statement, which they requested to be printed in full:

The Brooklyn Museum is a place where artists and visitors can come together, learn and discuss important issues, share their experiences, and express their points of view in open and peaceful ways.

While the Museum does not take sides in any debate, we wholeheartedly stand for critical thinking, open conversation, free exchange of ideas, listening, and viewing issues from varying perspectives. We have always welcomed these conversations no matter how difficult, even polarizing, they may be. And we will continue to, as it is fundamental to our mission.

Protests continued outside the museum, who was in the midst of its First Saturday Event sponsored by Target. A “Black Lives Matter” banner joined other signs as protesters continued their chants and handed out over 700 flyers outlining the problems with the exhibitions and the museums inaction.

The demands of protesters (image courtesy Decolonial Cultural Front)

“From Brooklyn to Palestine—Displacement is a crime!” people chanted over the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a “radical marching band” that accompanied the protesters, before beginning to disperse around 5pm EDT.

Husain seemed surprised about how quickly the protests were broken up by security. “We care about this institution, but it needs to be held accountable. It really kind of begs the question, whose museum is this? Who do they imagine their community to be? Look at what we have here,” he told Hyperallergic, gesturing to the diverse crowd of protesters. “I mean, it’s hard to say it’s not beautiful.”

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Rebecca McCarthy

Rebecca McCarthy is a bookseller and a freelance writer. She's on twitter @clearymccarthy.

31 replies on “Faced with Brooklyn Museum Inaction, Protesters Target Two Exhibitions”

  1. “While the Museum does not take sides in any debate, we wholeheartedly stand for critical thinking, open conversation…”

    SERIOUSLY????

    The Brooklyn has proven more and more how utterly out of touch it is with its own showings. This “uncomfortable incident” just underscores that with a bright red line about an inch thick.

    1. Just what exactly do the demonstrators want the Museum to do about being on “native land?” Hand itself and all the works inside lock, stock and barrel over to the descendants of the original natives – assuming there are any left? What do they plan to do about the fact that their own homes, studios, schools and places of businesses are also also on “native lands,” as is everything else in the US. Do these people even think this stuff through?

      1. You’re bringing in what is, to me, a side issue. No, there’s nothing they can do about that… but it should be a message to the museum that you cant just cavalierly say “we stand for open conversation” when the article makes it rather plain that, in the planning of this exhibition, they didnt. They sent a bunch of photographers who took some pretty pictures that make Israel and Palestine appear to be nice neightbours who have the occasional squabble. I”m sorry, what part of that constitutes “critical thinking”?

      2. They obviously didn’t think at all. I would ask Husain if he’s planning on moving from the US so that he doesn’t infringe upon native land. Let’s see how fast he moves to another country.

      3. I suspect this acknowledgment of the Lenni Lennape land is being slightly misunerstood. It is very common for indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, when traveling, to knowledge the local tribes, who’s traditional homeland is being used. So for example, when a Dine’ actor came to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in NYC to introduce a film he starred in, he started by introducing himself in the Navajo language, then he introduced himself in English and then he acknowledged the Lenne Lenape people who’s traditional land the event takes place on. This is a very common method of paying respect in indigenous communities. i suspect that is what was being referenced in this case. I do not believe they were making a claim that everything be handed over lock stock and barrel as you suggest. Also, I can assure you there are Lenne Lenape people left.

  2. Indigenous Brooklyn was “occupied” by silly privileged artists (the kind pampered thru art school by their bourgeois parents) long before the developers arrived.

    The protesters have 2 options:

    To return to whichever hole their grandparents left in Europe, and hand their leases over to surviving Lenne Lenape tribe members.

    Or to get REAL jobs, and pay their lifelong back rent to the Tribe remnants in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

    At least Jews are indigenous to the “West Bank”. Hipsters are invaders to Brooklyn.

    1. The fact is as reported elsewhere that this Husain character and the insane Israel-bashers he brought with him actually vandalized the exhibit. They were not just there viewing it and talking about it – they defaced the objects on display. They should have been arrested and charged.
      Nobody is stopping these a-hole bigots from going through normal channels to get an exhibit of their own choosing mounted someplace.

  3. Fine. Then where are the huge protests against U.S. occupation of AmerIndian lands, and of photos that depict *any* landscapes and people in North America? Where are the protests against photos of happy Chinese people and happy Tibetans-in-exile? That’s the problem. These protests may be, in and of themselves, right- or wrong-headed. But what they also are, either way, is discriminatory in that the organizers don’t stage these protests against what they surely must see as other instances of global oppression.

  4. If he REALLY wants to get busy, my suggestion is that he go to Syria where radical religious assholes are destroying priceless art works in the name of ISIS! It’s easy to stage a protest in the US, if this guy had any real balls, he would stage it in front of ISIS and stop them from destroying more art.

          1. My username is as sincere as my question. I am curious how you happened to be there.

          2. So the line in the article might have started, “Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian, covering the event, was able to video Husain…”. As it ran, I had to ask if the reporter was covering the event in which you happened to participate.

          3. I am not exactly sure what you mean by fishing. I really was asking out of curiosity. After looking around Hyperallergic more today, I have seen that you regularly cover political art events such as this, the protest at Guggenheim over Abu Dhabi labor, and something that didn’t quite happen at Whitebox but did happen at a bar. I live far from these scenes and am still interested in knowing about “art and its discontents.” That is why I subscribe to Hyperallergic and ask questions. I must say other commenters have treated me with courtesy and have not ascribed motives to my questions.

  5. Demands that a humanistic art project must be cast as political is reminiscent of totalitarian thinking. Please understand that both fascist and Stalinist-Communist regimes tried to filter all art through an ideological/political lens.

  6. I think it’s sweet that in 2016 there are people who think that any cultural organization is such a vital contributor to civic dialogue that its every utterance to needs to be examined closely and subjected to corrective protest when somebody decides they are saying something that is less than ideologically pure. I wish we demanded as much, say, of our politicians.

  7. Unfortunately, they’ve got the narrative totally wrong. It is the Jews who are the original indigenous inhabitants of what was changed to Palestine when the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple 2,000 years ago and was originally called Judea (that is why we are called Jews). It is the Muslims who were the invaders and colonialists starting with Mohammed up to the Ottomans. There has never been a time when there were no Jews in Israel. Never.

    1. Palestinians predate Islam by many thousands of years and the people, who are of different faiths, are indeed at least as indigenous to the land as Hebrews. Please see the archaeological records of Dame Kathleen Kenyon from the excavations at Jericho, which uncovered one of the oldest fortified cities on the planet, at 10,000 years old. See also the Old Testament which clearly names Philistines as cohabitants of the land.

      1. ROTFLMAO You really believe that these people who only started calling themselves ‘palestinians’ in the 1960s (before 1948 it was the Jews who were the Palestinians) are descended from the Philistines??? Gee, and I thought they were descended from the Canaanites. LOL

        1. In relation to the vicious bigotry and lies involved in a lot of anti-Israel hate speech, the following needs to be clarified: Many anti-Israel people who openly call for Israel to be destroyed, turn around and use the canard of “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic.”

          It must be stated that portraying Israel in ways similar to how Jews are portrayed in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” absolutely is anti-Semitic. And, disseminating the opinion that the Jews of Israel, and Israel itself, must be wiped out also is anti-Semitic, the more so that 50% of all Jews in the world live in Israel.

          The majority of Israeli Jews today do not have European origins — though the “Wipe Israel Out” crowd has as one of its favorite propaganda “factoids” the notion that Israeli Jews all came from Europe. The majority of Israeli Jews today are either from Arab Muslim-majority countries or descendants of Jews from those countries. Jews in those countries were always in a relatively precarious position — in each country throughout history from the earliest Muslim conquests these Jews’ ancestors were subject to periodic pogroms, or being treated as dhimmis required to pay special higher taxes than others, and other abuses.

          Notably, in the 1800s, Jews from Yemen, fleeing persecution there, founded what would become Tel Aviv in an empty area outside Jaffa. By 1947, the U.N. offered a two-state resolution accepted by Middle Eastern Jews but overwhelmingly rejected by Arabs, whose only counter-proposal was a war with the pre-announced goal of “Driving the Jews into the sea.”

          In Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Jordan annexed the West Bank and ethnically cleansed all Jews from it. (Previously when Jordan was formed in 1921, it ethnically cleansed all Jews from its territory). Jordan also annexed East Jerusalem, at a time when Jerusalem had a Jewish majority, and ethnically cleansed all Jews from the Jewish Quarter of the city and then systematically destroyed historical evidence of a Jewish presence there — including the destruction of many structures hundreds and even thousands of years old.

          Any demonizing of Israel – talking about the country as though it had no right to exist, and/or without acknowledging its struggle to survive in the face of enemies who want it wiped off the map is blatant anti-Semitism (characteristic of prejudice against and hatred towards Jews).

          Every single day you have rampant incitement and children being taught to hate Israel and to hate the Jews. It has to stop.

          When you live in a society where the firefighters are the heroes, little kids want to be firefighters. When you live in a society where athletes and movie stars are the heroes, little kids want to be athletes and movie stars.

          In Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews. We can’t let this continue. We can’t let this happen any longer.

          You cannot achieve peace if terrorists are treated as martyrs. Glorifying terrorists is a tremendous barrier to peace. It is a horrible, horrible way to think.

          In Palestinian textbooks and mosques, you’ve got a culture of hatred that has been fomenting there for years. And if we want to achieve peace, they’ve got to go out and they’ve got to start this educational process. They have to end education of hatred. They have to end it and now.

          There is no moral equivalency. Israel does not name public squares after terrorists. Israel does not pay its children to stab random Palestinians.

          1. Scott Rose, thank you; thank you; thank you. May you and your family be blessed. Today is Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen – as soldiers or victims of terror. It is a sad day which leads into Yom Ha Atzmaut – Independence Day, when the country breaks out in celebration – the miraculous re-establishment of Israel – 68 years.

    2. No, Leftist history began with the Crusades and European colonization; it’s a more convenient narrative. Oh, and the only slaves, ever, were the black ones brought to America.

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