Censorship was alive and well in 2016. From China to Turkey, the United States, and Italy, it was a year full of suppression and prohibition of artists, artworks, and exhibitions.
In art, as in journalism, censorship hurts the public’s ability to process and act on information, impeding our ability to observe or discuss issues of critical social and political importance.
Here’s a look at some of this year’s acts of art censorship.
1. Austria: Artists Tanja Ostojić and Alexander Nikolić, from BOEM collective, allege censorship at the Q21 Exhibition Space, Vienna
Censorship in Western museums and galleries appears to be on the rise. The exhibition, AJNHAJTCLUB, which opened at the frei_raum Q21 exhibition space in July, billed as an investigation on the history of “Gastarbeiter” (“Guest Workers”) in Austria. On the invitation of exhibition curator, Bogomir Doringer, artists Tanja Ostojić and Alexander Nikolić were invited to participate. According to Art Leaks, they submitted a proposal that was accepted around an event: the marking of the 50th anniversary of the signing of an agreement between former Yugoslavia and Austria, regarding the recruitment of guest workers between the two countries. The artists proposed a durational performance that would act as training for local museums to provide guided tours in Serbian and familiar languages of former Yugoslav guest workers now based in Austria. However, the artists allege censorship after it was revealed Sebastian Kurz, an Austrian politician who advocates strongly for closed borders and harsher immigration laws, was to be a speaker at the opening. The artists allege their budget was suspended, and were given no promotion or marketing support from Q21, resulting in a total lack of visibility within the exhibition’s framework, which ultimately destined the project for failure.
2. Cuba: Artist Danilo Maldonado Machado is detained for performatively celebrating Fidel Castro’s death
In November, Cuban dissident artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado Machado was detained by police after he released a video celebrating the death of Fidel Castro. In the video, posted on social media, the artist rants against Castro calling him a “mare.” The Cuban police constituted this as falling under the criminal offense of “disrespect.” This was not the first time Maldonado has been in trouble with the Cuban authorities. In December 2014, he spent 10 months in prison for painting the names “Fidel” and “Raul” on a pair of pigs.
3. China: Exhibition Jian, Rape: Gender Violence Cultural Codes is cancelled at Ginkgo Space Gallery, Beijing
Officials closed down an exhibition at Ginkgo Space, a commercial gallery in Beijing’s Sanlitun-Gongti district, which would have been the first show to introduce the idea of gender equality in China. The exhibition, Jian, Rape: Gender Violence Cultural Codes, was to include 32 female and 32 male artists. “The closure by local officials could be a result of sensitivity to any open discussion of human rights in China,” said artist and organizer of the exhibition, Cui Guangxia, to The Art Newspaper.
4. China: Ai Weiwei work flagged and censored at the Yinchuan Biennale
Ai Weiwei is no stranger to censorship. In a work scheduled to open this past September, the Chinese artist proposed literally scribbling a red line onto the facade of the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art. The playful work was intended to reflect on the idea of censorship, which is omnipresent in China, but was excluded from the show by the institution’s artistic director, Suchen Hsieh, who sent Ai the following feeble justification:
Bose [Krishnamachari, Indian artist and curator of the biennale] and I invited you to participate in this year’s Yinchuan Biennale because we sincerely admire your artwork. But things change in this world. Even though your project is full of philosophical awareness, an artist’s prestige overshadows his work. The autumn wind is blowing around us. The museum has no choice but to rescind its invitation to you. It’s very unfortunate that the conditions don’t allow us to display your artwork […] This is the second time I must clasp my hands together and bow to you from afar. Please accept my deep apologies.
5. China: Sun Xun’s video work shut down at the private Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai
Artist Sun Xun’s work was censored this past November at the Minsheng Art Museum. According to The Art Newsapaper, the work “unable to be shown as part of the exhibition due to non-technical reasons.” It was to be featured in a group exhibition, Everyday Legend, examining trajectories in contemporary Chinese art. Though no reason was given by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau, which is the official organization responsible for policing culture, Xun’s work has become well known for dealing with politically sensitive themes. In an exhibition from 2014 at the Edouard Malingue Gallery in Hong Kong, Xun managed to evade censorship while displaying works that challenged the hegemony of China’s “official” history. While household names like Ai Weiwei and Guo Jian face well-known issues of censorship in China, it is often smaller artists and exhibitions that go unnoticed by Western media.
6. Italy: Officials in Rome censor nude sculptures at Musei Capitolini to accommodate visiting Iranian head of state.
In January, officials in Italy faced a censorship fiasco after censoring famous nude statues in advance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the Musei Capitolini. As news of the censored works quickly went viral, officials scrambled to save face. The marble sculptures were hidden behind white boxes during the tour given to the Iranian head of state. Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini described the censure as “incomprehensible,” while then Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, denied knowing anything about it.
7. Romania: Artist Darja Bajagić alleges censorship in row over work depicting Nazi swastika.
In May of this year, New York-based artist, Darja Bajagić, faced censorship at Bucharest’s Galeria Nicodim for a work entitled “Bucharest Molly” (2016). The motion-activated work depicts a woman in jeans with the words “Heil Hitler,” holding a red a teddy bear embezzled with a swastika oozing black liquid. The piece was commissioned for an exhibition called Omul Negru, curated by Aaron Moulton, and was set to explore “an anthology of evil words and images.” While Bajagić maintains the work was censored on account of its hyperconformity to the theme, Moulton argues it was part of an “editorial process.”
8. Russia: Jock Sturges’s exhibition Absence of Shame is censored in Moscow for depicting images of nude girls.
In September, a retrospective of the work of US photographer, Jock Sturges, was censored at the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography for what state officials described as “propaganda of pedophilia.” The exhibition, Absence of Shame, depicted many of Sturges’s most well-known works, many of them depicting young nude girls, taken while the photographer was documenting nudist colonies in France. Pro-Kremlin Senator Yelena Mizulina, who’s also currently the chairman of the Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs, said to Russian State TV that “this is propaganda of pedophilia in the most accurate sense of the word.” In an absurdist twist of events not long after Mizulina made her comments, a protester entered the gallery yelling “shame!” before splashing the photographs with a canister full of urine.
9. Saudi Arabia: Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh who was previously sentenced to death, will now spend eight years in prison and receive 800 lashes, for his book of poetry allegedly “renouncing Islam.”
Censorship is perhaps most acutely felt in regimes like Saudi Arabia, where free speech and expression is totally subdued, prohibited, and suppressed. Take the case of Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, member of the London-based nonprofit Edge of Arabia, sentenced earlier this year to eight years in prison and 800 lashes for apostasy. The acclaimed poet, curator, and artist was initially sentenced to death over the case, which provoked a public outcry around the world, including a petition circulated by Amnesty International that received over 44,000 signatures. The case is a chilling example of how censorship and freedom of speech remain curtailed in totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia.
10. Serbia: Kamerades Collective cancels exhibition after the artists’ work disappears from the Belgrade Cultural Center.
Sometimes institutions make the unprecedented move to censor an artwork without even so much as consulting the artists. In March, five days after the opening of an exhibition at the Belgrade Cultural Center, artists from Kamerades Collective say their work disappeared, removed from the gallery’s walls without even so much as their consultation. The works in question, four photographs of overpainted election posters featuring Serbian politicians, were to serve as an integral part of the exhibition visible from the gallery’s window onto the street. According to Ivona Jevtić, director of the Belgrade Cultural Center, the works were removed because the institution needed a special license and permission of the monument preservation office in Belgrade.
11. Singapore: M1 Fringe Festival cancels two of its performances due to government censorship.
In December, M1, Singapore’s Fringe Festival, announced it was cancelling two performances — Ming Poon’s “Undressing Room” and Thea Fitz-James’ “Naked Ladies” — citing an assessment provided to the organizers by the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), which stated that the works have exceeded the R18 rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AEC). The IMDA’s assessment said the works displayed “excessive nudity,” as reported by the Online Citizen. The organizers insisted they would not be willing to compromise or make adjustments to the work.
12. South Korea: South Korea allegedly creates blacklist of 9,000 artists, preventing them from receiving government funding.
The Associated Press broke a story in December alleging a blacklist in South Korea that prevented 9,000 artists deemed unfriendly to the impeached President Park Geun-hye from receiving government funding or using state venues. A special prosecution team will question Mo Chul-min, who was Park’s senior secretary for education and culture from 2013 to 2014, under accusations that there was widespread institutional collusion to actively censor artists who criticized the government’s inaction in a ferry disaster in 2014, which killed 300 people in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. AP alleges the blacklist includes some of South Korea’s most recognizable names in art, cinema, theater, and music.
13. Spain: The Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona cancels exhibition The Beast and the Sovereign, co-organized with Wurttemberg Kunstverein.
Four days into an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA), The Beast and the Sovereign, co-produced by the Wurttemberg Kunstverein (WKV) Stuttgart, it was quietly cancelled due to curators’ refusal to remove a sculpture by artist Ines Doujak. The work in question, “Not Dressed for Conquering,” was deemed inappropriate by MACBA director, Bartomeu Mari, on the basis of its morally risqué content. Rather than face criticism from Spain’s vocal Catholic and Conservative groups, Mari took the step of censuring the work, prompting the curators of the exhibition, Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, Paul B. Preciado, and Valentín Roma, to cancel the entire exhibition in response. The work also faced some problems at the last São Paulo Biennial, curated by Charles Esche, which came in the form of a verbal report by an education official from the state of São Paulo. A new wall had to be erected for the work with a sign specifying its “potentially inappropriate” content.
14. Turkey: Istanbul gallery Akbank Sanat cancels Post-Peace exhibition.
In February, five days prior to opening, Post-Peace was cancelled by Akbank Sanat in a move the institution cited as responding to the ongoing “delicate situation in Turkey.” Though the precise reason for Akbank Sanat’s cancellation remains unknown, sources close to the situation cited works in the show that dealt with Kurdish identity as a likely reason. Katia Krupennikova, winner of Akbank Sanat’s fourth Annual International Curator Competition, said in response the show was intended to serve as “a place for people to engage with different perspectives on issues relevant in the Turkish context and beyond.” Thankfully, the exhibition has garnered a second life and will be presented in its entirety at the Wurttemberg Kunstverein (WKV) Stuttgart in early 2017.
15. United States: The Red Dot fair in Miami removes anti-Trump art project one day after election.
In November, the Red-Dot Art Fair in Miami decided to remove the work of leftist art collective, t.Rutt, who spent much of 2016 following the Donald Trump campaign in a repurposed tour bus of the President-elect. Part of what irked organizers was a large flag included in the work, which T. Rutt embroidered with Trump’s comments from the leaked Access Hollywood tape. In response, Eric Smith, president and CEO of the Ohio-based Redwood Media Group (which acquired Red Dot earlier this year), said in an email to Hyperallergic that, “In light of the surprising results [of the election], I’ve decided to pass on both the bus display and flag.” It’s indeed a sad day when rather than censuring an admitted sexual predator’s ability to assume America’s highest office, the work of artists repurposing and spreading Trump’s lascivious comments are censored instead.
Looking Forward: 2017
In 2017, it gives me no pleasure to predict that artists will remain acutely under threat by various forms of overt and covert censorship. Ultimately, censorship suspends our ability to reason and make sense of the world. However, the consequences of censorship are qualitatively different in countries that actively police it. As such, the effect it has on the arts radically differs from country to country. At best, censorship keeps citizens from deliberating or otherwise knowing about crucial social and political issues. At worst, censorship imprisons and kills those who cross its threshold. To endure self-censorship, is to endure a blinding ignorance, a fogging of the logos. To endure overt censorship, conversely, is to experience something much more terrifying: physical danger that renders artists and journalists totally vulnerable, exposed to the violent mechanisms of the state. In contemporary art, perhaps one of the last vestiges of free speech in the West, artists have a responsibility to continuously call into question, probe, and critique the world around them.
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Just one thing. I don’t really think that I can agree that “In contemporary art, perhaps one of the last vestiges of free speech in the West, artists have a responsibility to continuously call into question, probe, and critique the world around them.”
Certainly, in the West there are all sorts of free speech — from the freedom of what amounts to a whole range of false advertising (which relies on a careful parsing of words and phrases to remain ‘legal’), to the often gratuitous violence in certain genres of film and TV, to the unconscionable behaviour of certain politicians and community leaders, and so on and so on . . .
And with regards to “responsibility”, I would find it hard to limit what responsibility artists ought to have concerning “the world around them.” Furthermore, in today’s world, I would say that many artists exhibit little responsibility of any sort.
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