Almost two weeks after the Arizona city of Mesa canceled a series of exhibitions focused on political street art, local officials have reversed their decision following mounting backlash and allegations of censorship from participating artists, curators, and civil rights advocacy groups. The series, originally slated to open at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (MCA) in the city-owned Mesa Arts Center on September 8, was slated to feature four solo exhibitions of the artists Swoon, Douglas Miles, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and Shepard Fairey.
The shows were postponed shortly after the MCA denied a request from the City Manager’s office to remove Fairey’s screenprint “My Florist is a Dick” (2015), depicting a sinister-looking police officer dressed in riot gear and holding a baton topped with red flowers. The piece is critical of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and was created in response to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a Black Missouri resident who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s death sparked weeks of unrest in Ferguson, where local authorities and National Guard troops were scrutinized for their violent mistreatment of demonstrators.
After years of development, the show was suddenly called off in late July over email. In the message, Mesa Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis explained that the center would instead be used to host celebrations for Mesa’s recently awarded designation as an All-America City.
Now, however, the Mesa Arts Center says it will host the exhibition series, though an opening date and list of artists and artworks included have not been released.
“Last Thursday, after hearing from patrons and staff, Mesa decided to move the All-America City community experience to other city-owned spaces, still to be determined,” Ana Pereira, communications director at the MCA, told Hyperallergic over email. Hyperallergic has also contacted the City Manager’s office for comment.
“Mesa staff have been communicating with artists and are working to develop a new timeline for the exhibit,” Pereira continued. “We will provide a date and confirmed artists once we have concrete details.”
The change in the city’s decision also follows an August 10 joint open letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decrying the cancellation of the exhibition. Addressed to the city of Mesa, the letter urged the city to reinstate the exhibition and “recognize the City’s duty to uphold freedom of artistic expression.”
It remains to be seen whether the exhibition series will include Fairey and the artwork that was requested to be removed.
Tonya Turner Carroll, one of the organizing curators and Swoon’s Santa Fe gallerist, told Hyperallergic that despite the City’s announcement, she still considers the exhibition as “canceled” until the reinstallation date is set in stone. Having dealt with censorship cases before, Carroll said she “is not going to believe it until we have a date in hand.”
“I feel like [the City] is just trying to cover up. They’re trying to make themselves look good after committing a really grave error,” Carroll said. Speaking for Swoon, Carroll also said that the Brooklyn-based artist will not be participating in the arts series “unless all of the works are able to be included for all of the artists as originally planned.”
The move by the City also compromised the original curatorial vision of Tiffany Fairall, the MCA’s Chief Curator, Carroll opined.
“Unless everyone’s practice can be honored, then I don’t think that the city of Mesa deserves to have a show of his caliber,” Carroll explained, noting that the cancellation of the show not only censored Fairey but also took away opportunities from Native artists including Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache, Akimel O’odham) and Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Akimel, Tohono O’odham).
“Native people have experienced the violence of omission, forced removal and forms of censorship for over 500 years,” Miles told Hyperallergic over email.
“Native artists need to be given more opportunities and platforms to share their unique visions of America as we know it. Without these platforms Native artists, people, and communities are rendered invisible.”
Hyperallergic has contacted the other participating artists for comments and more information.