November 3, 2019, was meant to be a celebratory day at MoMA PS1. On that Sunday, the Queens, New York outpost of the Museum of Modern Art opened the expansive exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011. Occupying the museum’s entire building, the exhibition promised to “examine the legacies of American-led military engagement in Iraq” with 250 works by more than 82 artists, about 30 of whom hail from Iraq.
But the exhibition stumbled into controversy before it even opened. British artist Phil Collins withdrew his work from the showcase days before its opening to protest MoMA trustee Larry Fink’s investments in private prison companies. Fink’s company BlackRock, ranked as the world’s largest investment firm, holds stakes in two major American prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic.
For months prior to the opening of Theater of Operations, prison abolition groups like MoMA Divest and New Sanctuary Coalition had organized protests against Fink. Activists crashed a VIP party at MoMA in Manhattan to celebrate the reopening of its expanded galleries. A group of 200 prominent artists, scholars, and critics also signed an open letter calling on Fink to divest from the prison companies.
Collins’ withdrawal marked the beginning of a series of protests, blistering open letters, and disputes between the museum and participating artists that would plague the exhibition until its closing day. While some of these conflicts grabbed headlines, a parallel controversy was stewing behind the scenes, especially among the exhibition’s Iraqi and Iraqi-descended artists.
These private conflicts, which have remained out of the media spotlight before now, shift the focus away from Fink and bring to light another controversial board member: MoMA chairman Leon Black, owner of a private security company legally implicated in the untold carnage and human suffering in Iraq.
Though Collins’s protest triggered this chain of events, the dynamics that led to his decision to remove his work from the exhibition were obscured until now. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, the artist revealed that withdrawing from the exhibition was his last resort after a tense exchange with MoMA PS1’s leadership. Collins had originally wanted to take a stand against Fink’s business dealings by altering his 2002 video baghdad screentests. The video work is composed of a series of single-take portraits of young Iraqis, filmed a year before the US-led invasion of their country. Collins proposed to remove, in reverse sequence and at regular intervals, each of the portraits and replace them with text slates stating that the work had been altered in solidarity with the millions being held in cages in US prisons and jails. By the end of the exhibition, all of the portraits would have disappeared, leaving only the text for the entire duration of the work.
But when MoMA PS1 rejected his request to alter his work, Collins decided to withdraw from the exhibition altogether.
“It was a decision which I did not take lightly,” Collins told Hyperallergic. “I have great respect for the participating artists and their work, and the exhibition was an important opportunity to address Western imperialism, its lethal outcomes, as well as the structural neglect and disparity in the institutional representation of practices outside of the customary focus on the Global North.”
When the museum held a press preview of the exhibition on October 30, 2019, the space allotted for Collins’s video was shrouded in darkness. A small label on the wall tersely explained: “This work has been removed from the exhibition at the request of the artist.” Collins says that he asked MoMA PS1’s leadership for the text to be amended to reflect the reasons for his withdrawal from the exhibition, but his requests were denied again.
“It was difficult to swallow that the museum would not allow an artistic response to contest the institutional frameworks of governance which undermine such necessary scholarship, curatorial, and public policy moves towards inclusivity and diversification,” the artist told Hyperallergic.
Collins instead screened his video at a community event in the Bronx, organized in December of 2019 by MoMA Divest and Red de Pueblos Transnacionales. He was joined by Michael Rakowitz and Jananne Al-Ani, artists also included in Theater of Operations, who lent their work to the event but did not withdraw from the exhibition.
By then, another ethical dispute had already erupted between the artists and MoMA PS1 around Black’s controversial investments.
Black, the owner of the multi-billion dollar private equity firm Apollo Global Management, has been under intense public scrutiny since revelations about his personal and business ties with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which go back to the mid-1990s, surfaced after the latter’s death in 2019. This January, the pressure reached a boiling point when an outside review for Apollo, conducted by Dechert LLP, found that Black had paid Epstein $158 million in tax and estate planning fees, including unspecified art-related deals, between 2012 and 2017. The report cleared Black of any wrongdoing but revealed the extent of his ties to Epstein, leading the billionaire investor to step down as CEO of Apollo, effective in July 2021. He will remain chairman of the company.
In February, more than 150 artists called on MoMA to remove Black its board and rethink its relationship with its donors in a series of statements provided to Hyperallergic. Nan Goldin, Xaviera Simmons, Hito Steyerl, and the activist groups Guerilla Girls, MoMA Divest, and Decolonize This Place were among the leading voices.
All throughout this fallout, MoMA remained silent, still showing no intention of discontinuing its relationship with its beleaguered chairman.
Though public attention currently remains on Black’s ties to Epstein, another contentious side of his business dealings generated concern among artists in the Theater of Operations exhibition in 2019.
On the morning the show opened to the public, Rakowitz met with Al-Ani and Rijin Sahakian, an Iraqi-American art scholar who had contributed to the catalogue, in a café close to MoMA PS1. The three convened to discuss ways to respond to Collins’s withdrawal before a planned meeting with MoMA PS1 director Kate Fowle and the exhibition’s curators, Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib.
Rakowitz had already asked the museum to pause his video work at the exhibition, titled “RETURN,” and to update it with a statement he had prepared in solidarity with Collins and the protesters against Fink. Fowle, however, asked him to not take any action before they met, and he agreed.
But then Sahakian showed up at the café with new concerns relating to Apollo’s ownership of Constellis Holdings, formerly Blackwater, a security contractor with a gruesome record in Iraq.
In 2014, a US Federal court convicted four Blackwater staffers — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, and Nicholas Slatten — for the murder of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians, some of them children, in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Another 20 Iraqis were injured in the shooting, which became known as the Nisour Square massacre.
The massacre marked one of the lowest points of the ongoing US war in Iraq. For Iraqis, that wound was recently reopened when President Donald Trump pardoned the four imprisoned staffers responsible for the crime in the final days of his lame-duck session.
Following the massacre, the Iraqi government banned Blackwater from operating in its territory. Struggling with a tarnished reputation and dwindling revenue, the company renamed itself Xe Services in 2009, and its founder Eric Prince (a former Navy SEAL who is an associate of Trump and the brother of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), stepped down from management. In 2010, the company changed its name again to Academi and merged with the security firm Triple Canopy, another US contractor in Iraq accused of shooting unarmed civilians. Together, the two companies formed Constellis Group.
Apollo acquired Constellis, including its swelling debts, for about $1 billion in 2016. The equity firm later acquired a series of other security companies — Omniplex, Centerra, and American K-9 Detection Services — and merged them into one entity named Constellis Holdings. Black, who sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential Washington, DC, think tank, held on to Constellis even when it came close to bankruptcy in 2020.
Prior to the artists’ meeting, Sahakian had come upon a troubling finding about the company: Constellis was still recruiting security personnel in Iraq, more than a decade after it was forbidden from operating in the country. She showed Rakowitz and Al-Ani a Constellis recruitment ad on Facebook from September 2018 seeking British nationals with military backgrounds for deployment in Iraq. “Ready for your next adventure?” the ad asked, adding that “no prior experience in Iraq required.”
Constellis continues to recruit security personnel for Iraq today. Its website currently offers two vacancies in the country: Project Manager and Force Protection Supervisor. Constellis and Apollo have not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
Later that day, Sahakian, Al-Ani, and Rakowitz confronted Fowle and the curators with this information. According to the three, the museum’s response was that MoMA PS1 acts independently of the Manhattan museum’s board, omitting that Black has been an ex officio member of MoMA PS1’s board since 2018.
“I felt that the information we were given was both inaccurate and misleading,” Sahakian told Hyperallergic. “It is difficult to believe that staff working at this level do not know exactly who’s on their board and that both institutions are closely tied.”
Sahakian later learned that Fowle and the curators also neglected to disclose that Joshua Black, Leon Black’s son and a principal at Apollo, sits on MoMA PS1’s board.
What’s more, Joshua Black is a central beneficiary of Epstein’s tax advice to his father. According to Dechert’s report, much of Epstein’s services revolved around achieving “tax benefits” for Leon Black’s children and devising ways to transfer assets to them “without gift or estate tax liability.” Epstein’s tax avoidance advice saved the Black family an estimated $2 billion, according to the report.
Sahakian, Rakowitz, and Al-Ani also told Hyperallergic that Fowle suggested holding a panel with the artists to address their concerns, but that never happened.
“The museum offered to open a space for discussion, but when Iraqi artists spoke up about Black’s business links to Iraq in particular, they were ignored,” Al-Ani said. “And when they wanted to express their concerns in actions, they were denied that opportunity.”
“They made us feel that we were going to ruin the experience for all the artists in the show. The treatment was very paternalistic,” Rakowitz added.
MoMA and MoMA PS1 have not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
After that meeting at MoMA PS1, Rakowitz returned to his home city of Chicago. There, he updated his artist statement with the findings on Leon Black and asked the museum again to pause his video and hang the statement next to it. Rakowitz told Hyperallergic that his request was rejected on three different occasions in phone calls with one of the curators, noting that the museum refused to reply to him in writing.
In a later visit to New York City in January 2020, this time for the opening of his exhibition at Jane Lombard Gallery, Rakowitz decided to take matters into his own hands. He found a remote control that would work with the video screen at MoMA PS1, paused the work himself, and posted his statement without the museum’s knowledge. The updated text read:
I kindly request that Larry Fink and Leon Black please divest from these companies so that I may unpause my video and press play.
If this is not possible, then I kindly ask that MoMA please divest from Larry Fink and Leon Black as trustees so that I may unpause my video and press play.
And if this proves impossible, then I kindly ask that PS1 Contemporary Art Center please divest from its relationship with MoMA, so that I may unpause my video and press play.
Rakowitz included a footnote saying that the statement “constitutes an essential part of my ongoing artwork RETURN and cannot be removed.” That same day, MoMA PS1 unpaused the video and removed his statement.
After MoMA PS1 thwarted his protest, Rakowitz consulted with a lawyer who told him that it’s within his rights to modify his work under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA).
“Please be advised that it is my position that MoMA PS1’s violated my VARA rights by its further modification of the Work in a way that is prejudicial to my honor and reputation,” he wrote in a letter to MoMA PS1, which he shared with Hyperallergic. The letter reiterated his demand to reconfigure the work, threatening to take legal action against the museum if it continued to deny him that right. The museum never honored Rakowitz’s request to pause the video and exhibit the statement.
Later that month, 37 artists in the exhibition, including Rakowitz and Al-Ani, penned an open letter calling on MoMA to part ways from Black and Fink. The letter was sent to MoMA PS1 director Fowle and MoMA director Glenn Lowry, and copied to curators Eleey and Katrib.
“We wanted to draw attention to the hypocrisy and irony of the fact that they’re staging a show about the Iraq wars when somebody who sits on the board is still profiting from them,” said Al-Ani. The London-based Iraqi artist’s video installation “Shadow Sites II” (2011) simulates the images provided by US military airplanes and drones through aerial footage of ancient and more recent architectural remains in sites across the Middle East.
MoMA PS1 left the artists’ demands unheeded, at the time providing Hyperallergic a short comment saying: “We support these artists’ right to make their voices heard.”
“[The museum’s leadership] didn’t even try to tell us that their hands are tied or that there’s nothing they can do,” Rakowitz said. “What we got from them was lies, dismissal, and total silence.”
In February, the group Veterans Art Movement, comprised of artists who served in the Gulf War and the “Global War on Terror,” released another open letter in support of the Iraqi artists in the show. The museum offered no comment.
MoMA PS1’s lack of response to these pleas signaled a “failure by the museum’s leadership and curatorial team,” said Sahakian.
“The denial of the artists’ right to peacefully protest through their work — on an active war actively accumulating profit for the museum’s lead funder — is as resounding as the museum’s refusal to comment on or rethink its commitments,” the writer said. “The Iraq wars are not a static set of objects. They continue to shape our world, and exist as a living history, the result of their ongoing execution and the cost they extract from every citizen.”
The message that the Iraq war did not end in 2011 (when most, but not all American troops were withdrawn from Iraq), as the title of the exhibition suggests, was echoed by all of the Iraqi artists who spoke with Hyperallergic. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died (more than one million, according to one study) in the conflicts and mayhem resulting from the American invasion of 2003. The number of refugees and internally displaced is over nine million.
The Theater of Operations controversy unfolded as mass anti-government protests were spreading through Iraq. In those protests, catalyzed in October 2019, Iraqi citizens demanded an end to widespread corruption and access to jobs and basic services like water and electricity. The government responded with a violent crackdown, killing hundreds and injuring tens of thousands.
One of the protesters on the streets of Baghdad was Ali Eyal, an Iraqi artist included in Theater of Operations. The 26-year-old artist, who did not attempt to attend the opening of the exhibition because of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” described an experience with MoMA PS1 that turned his dream of showing his work at an internationally acclaimed institution into a “dark nightmare.”
On November 12, 2019, while participating in a protest in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, Eyal discovered from a friend that MoMA PS1 had used an image of his work for an Instagram post celebrating Veterans Day.
The since-deleted Instagram post promoted free admission to the exhibition for US veterans and active-duty personnel with an image of Eyal’s “Painting Size 80x60cm” (2018). The work consists of paintings and writing in Arabic on pillowcases narrating dreams, mostly war-related nightmares, told to the artist by his family members.
“I was carrying injured friends to a hospital when I saw the Instagram post,” Eyal told Hyperallergic. “It was unacceptable for them to use my work without my permission to appeal to people who caused all the destruction in my country.”
Eyal’s life is shaped by the relentless trauma of the Iraq war. The young artist has lost several family members and friends since the invasion of 2003; his father and five uncles have been missing since 2006. His oeuvre, including his works in the MoMA PS1 exhibition, is laden with grief and loss.
After receiving Eyal’s complaints, MoMA PS1 removed the post and apologized to the artist, claiming that it was a mistake made by an entry-level museum employee.
In February 2020, amid the heightening controversy surrounding the exhibition, Eyal posted on Instagram a picture of a new pillowcase artwork describing his experience with the museum. He titled it “My Nightmare With MoMA PS1.”
Another artist in the exhibition who lived through the horrors of the Iraq war is Ali Yass. “The 2003 American invasion of Iraq created a vacuum that was immediately filled by private security contractors,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “They were the real rulers of the country with more access and power than the American and the Iraqi armies combined. We lived under the terror of their surveillance and violence.”
Yass hasn’t been able to visit his home country since 2008, when his family was displaced to Jordan as refugees. In 2017, the artist sought asylum in Germany, and has lived in Berlin since. Yass also could not attend the opening at MoMA PS1 because of Europe’s travel restrictions on asylum seekers
On March 1, 2020, dozens of activists from the MoMA Divest staged a guerrilla action during a closing reception for Theater of Operations. Yass had granted permission to some of the activists to remove and tear paintings from his series 1992; Now (2016–2017) to rally against the museum’s handling of criticism over its ties to Black.
“The tearing of my work was meant to symbolize the rift between us, the Iraqi artists in the exhibition, and the museum,” Yass told Hyperallergic. “After ignoring our open letter, and rejecting the requests of Collins and Rakowitz to modify their work, it was clear that the museum had no interest in engaging in dialogue with us.”
Like Collins and Rakowitz, Yass considered the intervention in his work to be “part of the narrative of the piece.” (He gave the protesters detailed instructions on how to tear the pieces from the center without completely destroying them.)
The museum, which was seemingly tipped off about the planned action, removed Yass’s works from view before the protesters arrived at the museum. A MoMA PS1 registrar sent an email to Yass later that day, informing him that his works had been removed “for safety reasons.” Yass said that no one from the museum’s leadership, including the curators, had consulted with him before removing his work.
“It was a humiliating and hurtful experience,” Yass said. “You wait for 16 years to make your voice heard and then find yourself silenced again by an American institution.”
Based on childhood sketches, the paintings in 1992; Now (2016–2017) are rife with surreal imagery of colorful but menacing beasts and demons. “The originals had already been lost through the occupation and my immigration,” Yass explained, adding that he is the sole owner of the paintings.
MoMA PS1 summoned the New York Police Department (NYPD) to confront the protesters, who attempted to enter the museum’s third-floor galleries where Yass’s work was previously installed. After a standoff with the NYPD and the museum’s security, the protesters were eventually allowed into the galleries, where they tore printed replicas of Yass’s works.
Yass witnessed the whole exchange via a video call from Berlin. “I want someone from the museum to answer me,” he pleaded with MoMA PS1’s security guards. “I want a conversation. I want my work not to be removed before the official closing time of the exhibition. No one informed me.”
Sahakian was also following the protest closely from her home in California. “Removing Yass’s works with no discussion, and instead calling the NYPD to frame his protest as a threat to safety, was to me reminiscent of the Homeland security state,” she told Hyperallergic. “MoMA celebrates established artists whose works were censored or engaged in protest in the past, but views the response from a young, unrepresented male Iraqi to the current museum and its ties to a current war as a threat; dangerous and potentially violent rather than a legitimate act of expression.”
For Yass, MoMA PS1’s reaction to the planned protest triggered painful memories from his home country, saying:
The museum’s behavior replicated the colonial dynamics in Iraq. These tactics of intimidation brought back images of Blackwater snipers pointing their laser sights at our backs. I was there when the Nisour Square Massacre happened. These are not distant memories.
Despite this string of controversies, the exhibition received almost unanimous praise from New York art critics. Notably, the New York Times called it a “powerful view of the cultural impact of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars with which American art institutions too rarely engage.” (In 2004, the Times acknowledged its role in propagating lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, conceived by the George W. Bush administration.)
Sahakian thinks otherwise, saying, “There has been very little serious discussion of the Iraq wars in America, and there certainly wasn’t one in the aftermath of what took place at PS1.”
“The current furor around Black revolves around his disturbing financial ties with Epstein, not his stake in private militaries with notorious criminal histories,” Sahakian continued. “The museum acted in a way that reflects the sense of impunity that has always surrounded Iraq. Perhaps this is why they (rightly) knew they could get away with it.”
Correction 3/22/2021 5:50pm EST: An earlier version of this article stated that Black became MoMA’s sole chairman after serving as co-chair, following the retirement of Jerry Speyer and Black’s $40 million donation to the institution. However, the gift was announced in November 2018, after he assumed the post that July.