Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

(graphic by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic based on a slide used by FEMEN at the 2016 Creative Time summit)

Editor’s Note: The following open letter was sent to Hyperallergic by the QOLEKTIV collective. It was written in response to the recent Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC (October 14–16, 2016). One of our editors spoke to a member of the anonymous group to verify its existence and ongoing work. The text is published here without editing or further comment.

*   *   *

DON’T JUST OCCUPY THE FUTURE, DECOLONIZE THE PRESENT
Open Letter to Creative Time 

We write to express our profound concern about Creative Time’s (CT) inclusion of FEMEN at this year’s Summit “Occupy the Future”[1] in Washington DC. CT has long foregrounded its commitment to social practice, the inclusion of global perspectives, and the intersection of art and social justice. The decision to invite FEMEN to speak at the CT summit, described as the “world’s largest international conference on art and social change,” is deeply disturbing and demonstrates a lack of nuanced engagement with the Global South as well as diverse communities in the US by the organization.

Critiques of FEMEN are widely circulated and easily accessible. They include the ways FEMEN reinforces and perpetuates three very dangerous claims at once: a deep rooted Islamophobia and racism embodied in current American and European politics; the equally problematic assumption that there is a singular, universal feminist position; and the arrogance to presume to speak on behalf of women all over the world, some of whom are deemed by FEMEN as too oppressed to speak for themselves. FEMEN has been repeatedly critiqued[2] for the Islamophobia and xenophobia that inform their specific choices and actions. Their performative tactics such as “topless jihad” frequently target Muslim women who they claim to be liberating from both ‘Islam’ and Muslim men. When confronted with Muslim women’s rejections of such Western ‘FEMENism’, FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko patronized the women involved, declaring, “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’”[3]

FEMEN has also drawn sharp critiques from feminist political spaces[4], ranging from its Eurocentrism, to its abolitionist position on sex work. These critiques represent complex internal debates within feminist circles that are often subsumed by the imperialism of mainstream liberal feminism. Savior feminism’s focus on Muslim women’s bodies as objects of liberation is the same justification that is used by neo-imperialist war machines (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.), as well as the tidal wave of xenophobia in Europe and the United States, and global election gains by the far-right[5]. Feminism’s reaction to the hijab has been instrumentalized by war and xenophobia and is well-documented in feminist scholarship such as Joan Scott’s The Politics of the Veil and Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving. These texts, and others like them, should be required reading for any organization focused on social justice issues.

Creative Time has seen controversy before, including the withdrawal of Mosireen and Rebel Diaz from the 2012 Summit [6], and statements by speakers on stage, in support of BDS (the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement). This was followed, in 2014, by the withdrawal of artists from an exhibition curated by CT and the wide circulation of a petition [7] with signatories including Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler, amongst many others, encouraging artists to withdraw from the exhibition “Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art 1991-2011,” when the show traveled to Israel in violation of BDS[8]. Creative Time responded[9] to these two events by stating that they had learnt important lessons and would improve their organization’s internal processes. However, as this most recent event illustrates, this “education” has not happened in any significant way. The fact that CT did not engage in due diligence illustrates lack of research familiarity with the topics they engage with.

This would involve, first and foremost, taking seriously this question: “Who is in the room when these decisions are made?” Acknowledging Creative Time’s commitment to “engaging a broad audience,” we urge CT to move beyond its existing paradigm of learning lessons on a case by case basis, and only retroactively, after being held accountable by artists of color and activist communities. Creative Time needs to address the structural issues which allow these mistakes to be made time and again. It seems clear that at no point in the processes of brainstorming, planning, and execution of the 2016 Summit did any of Creative Time’s staff, colleagues, or consultants show awareness of the numerous, widely disseminated critiques of FEMEN’s complicity with Islamophobia and neo-imperialism.

The primary problem is the absence of significant diversity at all levels of Creative Time. This is symptomatic of other pervasive exclusions that are visible in art institutions writ large. We wish to be clear that the inclusion of FEMEN this year cannot be rectified by strategies of piecemeal “inclusion” and “diversity”. This problem will not be solved by inviting Muslim feminist groups to speak next year, or by bringing on board a series of “native informants” as outside consultants, junior interns, or special guests. Rather, what is required is the decolonization of the entire staffing system of Creative Time, and all such arts organizations based in Europe and North America. This is the only way in which a total restructuring of long-term decision making processes will happen.

We believe that Creative Time should publicly acknowledge the grave error they made in extending the invitation to FEMEN, and commit itself to a radical restructuring. Without such structural changes, arts organizations like Creative Time simply cannot expect to have their claims around social change and justice be taken seriously by artists from diverse communities or indeed the majority of the world.

Signed,

THE QOLEKTIV, New York.

*   *   *

References:

[1] Creative Time Summit
http://creativetime.org/summit/dc-2016/

[2] Feminist critiques of Femen
https://rosewatermag.com/2013/04/18/femen-flower-crowned-islamophobia/

[3] Femen’s response to Muslim women
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/muslim-women-against-femen_n_3023052.html

[4] Feminist critiques of Femen

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/11/femen-nudity-racist-colonial-feminism

[5] Xenophobia in Europe and America
http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/muslim-women-trump-islamophobia-ghazala-khan/496925/

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/le-pens-attacks-on-islam-are-no-longer-veiled-8181891.htmlhttp://hyperallergic.com/130645/creative-time-reneges-on-promise-to-bds-artists-with-israel-exhibition-artist-withdraws/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ghazala-khan-donald-trump-criticized-my-silence-he-knows-nothing-about-true-sacrifice/2016/07/31/c46e52ec-571c-11e6-831d-0324760ca856_story.html?utm_term=.ece9c42e7231

[6] Mosireen & Rebel Diaz cancel appearance at CT Summit
http://hyperallergic.com/58499/artists-cancel-their-creative-time-summit-appearances-over-controversial-israeli-partnership/

[7] Petition on BDS
http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/BDS-Open-Letter-final.pdf

https://bdsmovement.net/

[8] Creative Time show violates BDS
http://hyperallergic.com/130645/creative-time-reneges-on-promise-to-bds-artists-with-israel-exhibition-artist-withdraws/

[9] Creative Time responds to BDS Arts Coalition
http://creativetime.org/blog/2014/06/13/creative-time-responds-to-bds-arts-coalition-petition/

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member