Where does art deemed controversial go after it’s been removed, banned, or denounced? One possible destination: the Museu de l’Art Prohibit, opening later this month in Barcelona to house a wide assortment of censored artworks.
Spanning two floors with over 200 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, and more by mostly modern and contemporary artists including Gustav Klimt, Ai Wei Wei, Tania Bruguera, and Banksy, the museum’s diverse collection explores the censorship of art due to “political, social or religious reasons.”
That includes, for example, Fabián Cháirez’s provocative nude painting of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata atop a horse. In 2019, the artwork sparked outrage among members of farmworker unions that led to clashes with LGBTQ+ activists. Eventually, Zapata’s familial descendants, government officials, and museum leaders decided to leave the painting on view with an accompanying wall label addressing the work’s differing interpretations, a move that was met with disagreement from critics who saw the addition of an explanatory text as artistic censorship.
The new institution will be located in the center of Barcelona’s historic Eixample district, only a block from the sculpture-filled Plaça de Catalunya, in an early 20th-century building designed by architect Enric Sagnier. Overlooking the interior’s spiral staircase, a silver gelatin print of Zanele Muholi’s “Lena, London” (2018) gazes over the middle space of the museum. As a human rights activist who uses their lens as a tool to give visibility to South Africa’s marginalized LGBTQ+ population, many of the Black queer participants in Muholi’s portraits have faced physical and sexual violence. The artist’s photography was honored in 2013 with the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Arts Award.
The unconventional Barcelona museum is the vision of Tatxo Benet, a Catalan business executive whose personal collection of censored artwork is the foundation for the new cultural institution. In a 2020 conversation with Hyperallergic, Benet explained how he began amassing his reserve of censored artwork “by chance “ when he first bought Presos Políticos en la España Contemporánea (2018) — a photographic series of 24 pixelated portraits of imprisoned Catalan cultural, social, and political figures by Santiago Sierra that was exhibited during the 2018 ARCOmadrid art fair.
“The work had caused a stir because it talked about political prisoners in Spain, and it was removed from Galería Helga de Alvear’s booth shortly after I purchased it,” Benet explained at the time. “After that, I acquired a few other works that I remembered had been banned in Barcelona, in museums.”
The works on view will include Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s anticlerical engraving series Los Caprichos (1797-1799) as well as David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) — a contemporary film notorious for its removal from the National Portrait Gallery after members of the Catholic League and conservative legislators criticized its depiction of ants swarming over a crucifix. The Museu de l’Art Prohibit will open to the public on October 26.