Tai Shani, Mandy El-Sayegh, Oscar Murillo, and Hrair Sarkissian are among more than two dozen artists who have announced their decision to withdraw their work from a forthcoming exhibition at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. In an open letter addressed to the school’s President and Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell, they condemned the reported ousting of former museum director Alistair Hudson for allowing the display of a pro-Palestinian message.
“We are outraged and appalled by the University of Manchester’s attempt to force Director Alistair Hudson to resign from The Whitworth after pressure from the UK Lawyers for Israel,” the open letter reads. “The unfolding of events in response to the statement of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle exhibited by Forensic Architecture during their exhibition ‘Cloud Studies’ at The Whitworth in 2021 is a direct attack on political freedom and artistic expression.”
The pro-Palestinian message in question was authored by Forensic Architecture (FA) as part of their exhibition Cloud Studies at the Whitworth last summer, which investigated how air pollution is weaponized against vulnerable populations. At the entrance of the show, FA included a statement condemning Israeli military violence against Gaza and “honor[ing] the courage of Palestinians who continue to document and narrate events on the ground and to struggle against this violence, apartheid and colonization.” The words were harshly criticized by the pro-Israel lobby group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which successfully pressured the university to remove the statement.
In response, FA threatened to pull the exhibition altogether, and pro-Palestinian activists organized campus protests against the museum’s “racism and censorship.” The message was subsequently restored, along with a new, “contextual” statement authored by local Jewish groups. But last week, the Guardian reported that Hudson, who led the Whitworth since 2018, was asked to resign over the reinstatement of FA’s text. UKLFI told the newspaper that it had “suggested that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action” against the director last September.
Now, 25 artists and one arts collective are speaking out against Hudson’s reportedly forced resignation and threatening to withdraw their participation in the ninth edition of the British Art Show (BAS 9) “unless meaningful reparative measures are taken.” The exhibition, a touring survey of British contemporary art organized every five years by the Hayward Gallery, includes several stops, including the Whitworth in May.
A call to reinstate Hudson’s position has also been voiced by L’Internationale, a group of seven modern and contemporary art institutions in Europe including the Reina Sofía Museum of Art in Madrid and Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art. In a statement published this weekend, its members said that the director’s removal “serve[s] to silence critical debate regarding the Palestinian occupation” and constitutes “an attack on art’s ability to place pressing questions in the public domain.”
The university has been reticent in addressing the controversy over Hudson’s departure, telling Hyperallergic that “staffing matters remain strictly internal.” In response to our most recent request for comment since the artists’ open letter was published, a spokesperson for the school refuted claims that “the University has in some way suppressed academic and artistic freedoms, or bowed to external pressures.”
“Museums and galleries have traditionally been a space of experimentation and challenge and we hope that the Whitworth is a place where we can debate, discuss and disagree well,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the school adheres to “the protection of academic freedom” and “duties under equality laws.”
But the signatories of the recent letter sustain that “fear of censorship” following the incident makes it impossible to uphold the values of “healing, care and reparative history” they believe are at the core of the BAS 9 show.
“We believe there is neither space for such actions nor possible engagement with the University and its platforms, especially when public expression is limited, and evidence for human rights violations is obscured,” the artists wrote. “Truth needs to be made public, and cultural spaces have to remain open for difficult discussions.”
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