Artists, writers, and other creators across the world are facing backlash after voicing their support for Palestine as Israel’s air strikes continue to pound the Gaza Strip. Canceled talks, de-installed artworks, and severed collector relationships are among the forms of retaliation experienced by artists and cultural workers who have been vocally expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian people and calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Israeli forces have killed more than 6,500 Palestinians after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages. Israel has since declared a total siege on Gaza, displacing over half of the region’s 2.3 million residents and leaving the population without clean water and electricity.
Amid the ongoing violence, an outpouring of fundraisers and open letters have provided artists with ways to publicly voice their support for the besieged region. Since then, Hyperallergic has spoken with multiple artists, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, who said they had received threatening phone calls and emails from their collectors and galleries after publicly showing support for Palestine. Some of them had signed an open letter from the cultural community calling for a ceasefire in Gaza that was immediately repudiated in a subsequent petition signed by several Israeli artists, leading multiple signatories to request that their names be removed from the list.
In one instance, a young artist explained that collectors cut ties with her after one of them noticed that she had “liked” an Instagram post about one of the aforementioned open letters, even though “liking” an Instagram post does not necessarily imply the user’s endorsement. (In a similar fashion, organizers of the German art exhibition Documenta publicly condemned members of the curatorial group ruangrupa earlier this month for reportedly “liking” videos from pro-Palestine rallies in Berlin.)
“As a young female artist, this feels like yet another thing to add to the list of reasons to mistrust galleries,” said one of the artists Hyperallergic spoke with, who cited fear of further retaliation in their request to remain anonymous. “It broke my heart to feel so threatened and disrespected by people who had supported me for years. It’s really scary to watch in real-time as wealthy collectors and gallerists try to take away our freedom of speech by punitively threatening our livelihood.”
Some artists who signed their names on petitions and letters faced near-immediate repercussions. New York City’s 92nd Street Y (92NY), a Jewish cultural organization in Upper Manhattan, canceled a talk by author Viet Thanh Nguyen last week after the author signed an October 18 open letter demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. Nguyen, who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer (2015), was one of 750 writers who added their names to the document. 92NY notified Nguyen a few hours before the event, according to NPR, noting in a statement to the news outlet that the organization wanted to “take some time to determine how best to use our platform.” After an undisclosed number of staff members resigned, 92NY put the entire reading series on pause.
The literary organization Litprom, which presents an award at the Frankfurt Book Fair, canceled its ceremony for this year’s winner, Palestinian author Adania Shibli. The honor was for her book Minor Detail (2017), which recounts the true story of the 1949 rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman in Palestine.
In a statement about its decision, Frankfurt Book Fair cited “the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering.” Shibli publicly clarified that she had not been consulted in the cancellation decision, and over 1,000 authors and publishers signed an open letter condemning Litprom’s choice.
Back in the United States, organizers of upstate New York’s Witness Palestine Film Festival at the Little Theater announced last week that the arts and culture event originally scheduled for late October would be postponed “due to safety concerns for festival organizers, Little patrons and staff.” Similarly, University of Vermont officials recently canceled a lecture featuring Palestinian poet and Nation reporter Mohammed El-Kurd due to alleged security risks. The abrupt axing of the event, initially scheduled for tomorrow, sparked student protests on the school’s campus yesterday, according to local news reports.
And closer to home, in New York City, two artists said earlier this week that East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio walked back its decision to publicly display their Día de los Muertos altar featuring a Palestinian flag to avoid making visitors feel “uncomfortable.”
“It’s extremely disturbing to see art world leaders use their wealth and influence to bully artists and stifle dissent,” another artist who said they were impacted told Hyperallergic. “I want to work with collectors who are willing to learn from artists — not control them.”