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The closing of the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City yesterday, March 1, was disrupted by dozens of activists from the MoMA Divest movement who staged an action inside the museum to protest alleged ties of MoMA board members to defense contractors and the prison-industrial complex. The protest culminated in a standoff between the protesters and the museum’s security staff after one of the participating artists in the exhibition, Berlin-based Iraqi artist Ali Yass, planned a guerrilla action with the protesters to tear down his works from the museum’s galleries. An alleged leak to the museum toppled the plan and the artwork was removed in advance of the protest.
Prior to yesterday’s action, two artists had asked the museum to remove or update their work in the exhibition. The first was Phil Collins, who withdrew his work from the exhibition days before it opened in October of 2019. That was followed by several requests by artist Michael Rakowitz to pause his video work in the exhibition and update it with a statement. After his requests were repeatedly ignored, Rakowitz eventually paused the video himself in January, but PS1 quickly unpaused it and removed the statement. Criticism of the museum continued with two open letters — one was by 37 artists participating in the exhibition and the other by 45 military veterans — calling on MoMA to part ways with its board members Larry Fink, whose company BlackRock is invested in the two largest private prison companies in the United States, and Leon Black, whose company is invested in the defense contractor Constellis Holdings (formerly named Blackwater Worldwide).
For yesterday’s action, Yass had given the protesters permission to remove paintings and sketches his series Now; 1992 (2016-2017) on the museum’s third floor and tear them down as an act of protest. But when the activists arrived to the museum yesterday around 1pm, they found out that the works had been removed. “Somebody leaked our plans to the museum, but we’re still holding an action,” one of the organizers told Hyperallergic.
MoMA and MoMA PS1 have not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
More than 70 protestors, many of whom were university students, gathered at the museum’s first floor, next to Thomas Hirshhorn’s massive, glitzy “Necklace CNN” (2002), to hear an address by Basma Eid, an organizer with the nonprofit Freedom to Thrive.
“We are here in solidarity with the millions of martyrs and survivors of the US and the global war on the Iraqi people including those featured in this exhibit,” Eid said. “This institution is complicit in global violence inflicted on our communities through systems of war, mass incarnation, debt ownership, and climate catastrophe.”
Eid continued to admonish Black, saying that he owns a “mercenary company” that “murdered 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007.”
“Today, on the closing of this exhibition, we are here to demand and elevate calls for accountability, transparency, and reinvestment,” she continued. “It’s time for MoMA to divest from destruction and invest in us.”
By then, the word had spread among the activists that PS1 had removed Yass’s work from its galleries. “It’s such a blatant act of censorship,” Sophia Garcia, one of the organizers with MoMA Divest, told Hyperallergic. “It just emphasizes the fact that MoMA is not on [the artist’s] side and that they’re not really doing this exhibition for the Iraqi people. They cemented the case for us.”
The protests continued to the museum’s third floor, where Yass’s work was previously installed. But before entering the exhibition space, they were stopped by security staffers who told them that the gallery was “closed to all visitors for security reasons.” This led to a back and forth of about 20 minutes between the protesters and the staffers, who were asked to explain the sudden decision. The gallery was open to the public up until the protest started, showing only the wall text for Yass’s removed work with an addition of a line that explained: “This work is not currently on view.”
“Why can’t you let us see the blank space of the censored art?” one protester asked a staffer.
“For the safety and protection of the art, we’re keeping the gallery closed,” the staffer answered.
“Can you explain what’s unsafe?” he was asked. The staffer remained silent.
Yass was listening to this conversation from Berlin through a video call with one of the protesters. “The artist is right here, if you’re worried about his art,” the protester said and directed her phone at the security personnel.
Yass demanded to speak to a museum representative, but there was no one but three security workers facing the protestors.
“I want someone from the museum to answer me,” Yass said on the phone. “I want a conversation. I want my work not to be removed before the official closing time of the exhibition. No one informed me.”
Yass’s pleas remained unheeded. In an email to Hyperallergic after the protest, the artist said that he was only notified about the removal of his artwork around noon yesterday.
“An email was sent to me not by the curators but by the registrar at the MoMA that my work had been removed for its ‘safety,’” he wrote. “No one called me or discussed this with me.”
“I was and still am in shock and I’m processing what is both a betrayal of my work, my voice, my desires, and the trust that I thought I had with the museum,” he continued. “For the first time in 16 years, since the invasion of Iraq, I thought I could intervene collectively in having my voice heard. I work in solidarity with the protestors in Iraq today who are fighting against the silencing of their voices and desires. This is only the beginning.”
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrived at the scene as dozens of protesters jammed the entrance to the gallery.
After negotiating with higher-ups, the protesters were allowed to stage their action at the entrance to the gallery, but still not allowed next to the empty wall that previously featured Yass’s work.
While holding replicas of Yass’s artwork, and banners that read “#ENDARTWASHING” and “MoMA PROFITS FROM WAR; MoMA DIVEST NOW,” the protests used an iPad to play a recorded video statement by Yass.
“By remaking this piece, or its unmaking, I claim my right to resistance in the museum in solidarity with Iraqis leading the revolution against their destruction and exploitation today,” Yass said in the recorded statement.
“While I value being a part of a space and conversation with artists from my homeland and comrades who work in the arts, I absolutely reject the role of the chair of MoMA’s board of trustees in profiting from the wars that continue to harm and extend violence on Iraq’s citizens,” he continued. “The museum’s administration’s complete disregard of previous attempts by artists and activists at raising this issue through an open letter signed by 37 artists in the exhibition and veterans of the Gulf Wars and the global war on terror exacerbates this matter further. The central idea of this show that it is to open up dialogue on the Iraq wars, but instead it has been silenced. No more.”
Yass went on to explain that he asked the protestors to tear eight of his works and to keep them on the wall fractured. The action, he said, is meant to symbolize the “unheeded call for a transparent and serious dialogue with the institution on this matter.”
After Yass’s statement ended, the protesters collectively shredded replicas of his work. The action was followed by a few moments of tense silence, witnessed by Yass through the video call.
After dispersing, patrons who witnessed the standoff expressed their disappointment at the museum’s handling of the protest.
“They made it seem like making a statement was such an extreme thing to do, but it was just a statement voicing someone’s story, his truth,” one museum visitor told Hyperallergic.
“You literally have the artist present,” another patron said. “But they institutionally diffuse language from what is essentially censorship.”
“It was disgusting,” said Safia Albaiti, who joined the protesters. “It felt humiliating for this Iraqi artist who has given his artwork to the museum. They just used it to promote themselves. It’s really shameful.”
Correction 3/2/2020 3:26pm EST: An earlier version of this article stated that Yass was the third artist to request the museum remove or update his work. Yass did not formally request that the museum remove his work, instead co-organizing the guerilla action to tear them from the gallery walls. The article also reported that Yass had been denied entry to the US due to the Trump administration’s travel ban, however, Yass is not able to travel outside of Germany due to refugee laws.