Censorship in the art world was alive and well in 2017. Though most of the exhibitions and infractions on this list happened in places where censorship is common (China, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, for example), the shows and works described below also highlight how censorship in the art world has increasingly become a preemptive measure for curators and institutions worried about becoming embroiled in scandal or losing funding. Here’s hoping that next year’s list is shorter!
In September, a far-right group in Brazil successfully petitioned to shut down an exhibition called Queermuseum, after conservative critics accused it of promoting blasphemy and pedophilia. The exhibition brought together 263 works by 85 artists and, according to curator Gaudêncio Fidelis, sought to explore the work of marginalized cultural practitioners active in exploring queer narratives. It included prominent artists Lygia Clark, Cândido Portinari, and José Leonilson. Shortly after the opening at Santander Cultural in Porto Alegre, the gallery space sponsored by the Spanish bank closed the exhibition after facing “an onslaught of vitriolic criticism on social media and from gallery visitors.”
In October, two works in Beijing-based artist Zhao Bandi’s solo show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) were censored. The works, “Scenery with Cameras” (2015) and “Night View” (2015), were censored by immigration authorities and barred from entering the country seemingly for depicting how widespread and pervasive instances of government snooping have become. In China, it’s no secret that mass surveillance is ubiquitously intrusive and widespread. In December, the BBC reported that China is building what it calls “the world’s biggest camera surveillance network,” complete with 170 million CCTV cameras that are already in place, with an estimated 400 million new ones to be installed in the next three years, a starkly Orwellian reminder that China is quickly becoming the world’s biggest Big Brother.
In June, a work entitled “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” (2017) by artist duo Lőrinc Borsos (Lilla Lőrinc, János Borsos), was removed from an exhibition called Real Hungary at the Collegium Hungaricum in Vienna just hours prior to the opening. The work is a triptych featuring the Hungarian flag partially covered in black enamel paint. According to the artists, whose account of the incident was published by ArtLeaks, the director of the institution, Mária Molnár, decided without seeing their piece “that political work could not be shown in the Hungarian Institute, especially not when it concerned the desecration of national symbols.” The artists added that there was no mention of any bureaucratic reasons or rules, and that this case was likely a form of preemptive curatorial self-censorship due to paranoia over losing funding within a nationally supported institution.
In October, leading European filmmakers and producers protested the removal of Magdalena Sroka, director of the Polish Film Institute. Sroka’s ouster was announced by Poland’s culture minister, Piotr Gliński, and testified to the increasingly dire state of censorship in Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice (Pis) party has taken measures to sack many of the directors of leading cultural institutions who do not fall in line with government policy. In response, an open letter signed by 427 representatives of the Polish film industry decried Sroka’s dismissal as “unlawful” and unjustified in light of her numerous achievements.
In May, students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw had to cover up copies of sculptures made by the school’s President, Adam Myjak, which had initially been made for a network of shopping malls in Poland. The appropriated sculptures were to be part of an exhibition titled Dekadencja / Sklepik, an homage to Eufemia, a café located in the basement of the school that had closed earlier this year. Around 2,000 people had petitioned the Academy to not terminate the café’s lease, as it was a popular spot among not only students but also art circles in Warsaw. The school’s indifference to the petition prompted co-curators Agata Grabowska and Olga Rusinek to organize the exhibition of copies of sculptures made by Myjak. According to the curators, the exhibition was intended to be “an expression of opposition to the idea of transforming Eufemia in the spirit of profitability and setting market values above social and cultural values.” On the day of the opening, the curators were informed by lawyers for the Dekada commercial network, who commissioned the original sculptures from Myjak, that the copies were in violation of a registered trademark, thus prompting the cover-up.
In May, police in Moscow raided one of the city’s most venerable cultural institutions, the Gogol Center, arresting its director, Kirill Serebrennikov, over charges of embezzlement. The arrest was ordered by a Moscow Investigative Committee in association with the Federal Security Service (FSB), and deemed sufficiently urgent to be carried out without a proper court order. Under Serebrennikov’s directorship, the Gogol Center had become a prominent venue for liberal and progressive projects, many of them critical of the current government and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Serebrennikov has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, advocating for an open, free, and more pluralistic society. His detention comes as no surprise in a country where allegations of embezzlement are often used as a pretext to silence dissent.
In October, artists Vladan Jeremic and Uros Jovanovic were detained and prevented from staging a performance during an official opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (MSUB), prompting calls from critics of censorship. The performance was part of a program called the Salon of the Unbribables, staged in front of the museum, where guests attending the opening were invited to wear a paper mask adorned with an image closely resembling Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, while handing out leaflets with an image of a sandwich printed on them. The performers were detained for what police called a work “insulting to the president,” according to ArtLeaks. The complaints from the Museum’s curators, who witnessed the arrest and tried to intervene, were ignored by the police.
In Turkey, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been in armed conflict with the Turkish government for decades, censorship has become an almost unbearable fact of life for artists and curators. Earlier this year, the government went a step further, placing a ban on gay cultural events, which the Guardian described as “not only an illegal curtailing of personal freedoms but further proof of the government’s anti-secular agenda, with some saying they are increasingly worried for their safety.”
The Queer Kampala International Film Festival was brought to an abrupt end in December after police raided the main festival venue in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Police kicked out festival-goers and accused organizers of promoting pornography and encouraging homosexuality, according to festival director, Kamoga Hassan, in a report by Freemuse. Since the failure of anti-same sex legislation in 2014, Ugandans have witnessed an uptick in “authorities that promote hate and homophobic sentiments which might instigate the masses to take the law into their own hands,” Hassan said.
United Arab Emirates
In December, a painting was removed from the Abu Dhabi Art fair after government officials deemed the work religiously divisive. The work in question, “Prosperity Without Growth” (2017) by Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, was deemed to focus too heavily on the Sunni-Shia divide, the two major denominations of Islam that have been at the center of a centuries-long schism in Western Asia. According to the Art Newspaper, representatives of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, the organization responsible for running the fair, “Objected to the picture’s content.” In response, the Cologne-based dealer Brigitte Schenk, who was showing the work, removed it from public display and hung it in a back room, where it was later sold to a private collector.
The Miami Herald reported in November a change to military policy at Guantánamo Bay deeming art made by prisoners at the prison property of the US government. The change came in light of a recent exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, where a total of 32 works by 8 inmates remain on display (through to January 26, 2018). According to the report, the US government decided to claim ownership of all creative works made inside the detention center due to uncorroborated suspicions that their potential sale would go to supporting terrorist activities. According to Carol Rosenberg, author of the report, art classes started at Gitmo “in the later years of the Bush administration as commanders explored ways to distract detainees who had spent years in single-cell lockups from getting into clashes with the guards.” A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Major Ben Sakrisson, said that now all Guantánamo detainee art is “property of the US government,” even going so far as to suggest it may now be incinerated.
With social media now taking up such an important role in our visual culture, it comes as no surprise that 2017 was a busy year for censorship online, too. The year started off with Facebook censoring a photograph of a 500-year-old Italian statue of the nude figure of Neptune. As a small act of revenge against social media censorship, in April the digital artists Arvida Byström and Molly Soda released Pics or It Didn’t Happen, a book of photographs that have been banned from Instagram.
Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” in the Whitney Biennial
Critics and protesters called for the removal of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s disfigured corpse, “Open Casket” (2016), from the Whitney Biennial. In response, Coco Fusco opined on Hyperallergic that “censorship, not the painting, must go,” and that it’s “entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it.” Even Whoopi Goldberg weighed in on the issue, suggesting that calls for removing the work amounted to a slippery slope.