Alistair Hudson, director of the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester, has been reportedly forced out of his job following a pressure campaign by a pro-Israel group acting in the United Kingdom.
According to Guardian, which broke the story, the university asked Hudson to leave his post, citing his decision to exhibit a statement of solidarity with Palestinians authored by Forensic Architecture (FA) as part of an exhibition at the Whitworth last year.
Debuted last July, FA’s exhibition Cloud Studies examined air pollution as a tool of warfare against disenfranchised populations in countries including Palestine, Lebanon, Indonesia, the UK, and the United States. The exhibition also featured the agency’s investigation into “environmental racism” against Black American populations along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, who live in an area heavily polluted by large petrochemical facilities.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the group posted a statement addressing Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza last May. “We honor the courage of Palestinians who continue to document and narrate events on the ground and to struggle against this violence, apartheid and colonization,” the statement read. “We believe that this liberation struggle is inseparable from other global struggles against racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, and settler colonial violence and we acknowledge its particularly close entanglement with the Black liberation struggle around the world.”
The statement immediately provoked backlash from pro-Israel groups in Manchester and the UK at large, led by a group named UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), and the museum subsequently removed FA’s contested statement from the show. When FA learned of the removal, it threatened to withdraw the exhibition altogether, prompting a three-day closure of the Whitworth. After a protest by pro-Palestinian groups on campus, the museum reversed its decision, allowing the exhibition to continue with FA’s original statement while also adding a “contextual” statement by local Jewish groups.
The University of Manchester and the Whitworth both declined to comment. In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the university wrote: “Staffing matters are strictly internal to the University and we do not comment on questions of this nature, including in relation to our current Whitworth Art Gallery director.”
In a statement on Twitter, FA said: “All members of FA are shocked & enraged at this blatant punishment and vengeful attempt to suppress solidarity with Palestinians who continue to face violent human rights abuses and apartheid by Israel in Palestine and beyond.”
“This story illustrates again that the anti-colonial struggle for Palestine and elsewhere has to be fought within and against our public institutions: universities, art and cultural spaces,” FA’s director and founder Eyal Weizman told Hyperallergic in an email. “I don’t know any curator who’d like to take over Hudson’s job, and I can’t see any artists who would want to show their work within the stifling walls of the Whitworth.”
It wasn’t the first time that UKLFI pressured the Whitworth to retract a statement of solidarity with Palestinians. Last June, it persuaded the museum to remove a text posted on its website in support of Palestinians, calling it “one-sided.”
UKLFI was founded in 2011 by about a dozen of British lawyers to provide legal support and advocacy for “combating attempts to undermine, attack and/or delegitimise Israel, Israeli organisations, Israelis and/or supporters of Israel,” the group’s website says. Now counting 1,500 members, it’s helmed by attorneys Hazel Cosgrove, Sam Green, Jonathan Lux, Jonathan Turner, Caroline Turner, Efrat Shaoulian Sopher, and others.
UKLFI’s patrons include about 15 current and former British legal practitioners, most of whom carry feudal titles like “Lord”, “Baroness”, and “Sir”. Among them are member of the UK’s House of Lords Alex Carlile, lawyer and judge Hazel Cosgrove, lawyer and academic Ruth Deech, former judge John Dyson, and former high court judge Bernard Eder.
In a letter to the University of Manchester’s vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell last July, UKLFI labeled FA’s exhibition as “propaganda” and warned that its use of “inflammatory language” might provoke “racial discord.” Later, the group reported in a blog post that it had met with university representatives and afterwards received a written apology from the university’s vice-president Nalin Thakkar for “any distress which has been experienced by members of our Jewish community in connection with aspects of the Cloud Studies exhibition, particularly the accompanying written statement.”
However, UKLFI refused to relent, later filing a Freedom of Information request to confirm whether the university took steps to “establish the accuracy of factual allegations made in the exhibition,” among other questions.
In a blog post published today, February 23, the group also disclosed that in September of 2021, it wrote a letter to the university “suggesting” that it should “consider appropriate disciplinary action” against Hudson. The proposed disciplinary action, the group wrote, was “based on the fact that [Hudson] had assured the Vice Chancellor that they had established the accuracy and legalities of the work presented but the Freedom of Information request showed that no such investigation had been made.” UKLFI also said that it had objected to FA’s nomination to the Turner Prize in 2018.
In the wake of the controversy, British artist Tai Shani, a Turner Prize winner, took to Twitter to call on artists to boycott the Whitworth.
“I have experienced first hand censorship over Palestine, artists should do a counter boycott towards places that disallow Israel to be criticised as the murderous, apartheid state that it is, or even the word Palestine be mentioned,” she wrote. “I am starting mine now.”
Editor’s Note 2/24/22, 10:18am EST: This article has been updated to include a response from the University of Manchester.
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