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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.
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.
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:
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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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”