Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

LOS ANGELES — Over the past two months, many cultural workers who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians or simply demanded a ceasefire in Gaza have faced a barrage of criticism and even had their careers negatively impacted. These include well-known figures like Ai Weiwei, whose solo show at Lisson Gallery was canceled after the artist made a social media post, and Jewish South African-born artist Candice Breitz, whose upcoming exhibition at the Saarland Museum’s Modern Gallery in Germany was nixed after she made comments online decrying “the inhumane and grotesque bombardment of Gaza.”

Amid headline-grabbing reports of professional retaliation and backlash, however, a considerable number of galleries, organizations, and art workers are advocating for Palestinian liberation and an end to the mounting civilian deaths in the region, and they are doing so publicly and vocally.

Zach Feuer, who owned a namesake gallery in New York and is now the curator of the Gochman Family Collection, had been critical of Israel long before October 7, but says the tone of people’s reactions has grown increasingly hostile in recent weeks.

“At first, when angry Zionists came at me, I was taken aback,” Feuer told Hyperallergic. “I didn’t realize that people would be upset about requests for aid, for ceasefire. That was shocking.” Feuer, whose father was born in Israel and is descended from Holocaust survivors, said that he is fortunate that his career is not dependent on keeping his opinions to himself.

“The art world that I’m engaged with, they clearly see who the oppressed and oppressor are,” Feuer added. His observation makes plain that while the market-focused section of the art world has mostly remained silent or issued pro-Israel positions, other parts of the cultural sector do not necessarily share that sentiment.

LAST Project’s booth at the Tryst Art Fair at the Torrance Art Museum, October 27–29, 2023 (photo by and courtesy Ilona Berger)

In LA, the nonprofit Coaxial Arts held a Day of Collective Action, Solidarity, and Community-building in support of Palestine, featuring workshops focused on contacting elected representatives to demand a ceasefire.

“We were horrified about the responses from different arts organizations and artists we admired. It was clear to us that taking a stand against colonial occupation was having real consequences,” said the board members of Coaxial Arts in a collective statement shared by artist Marlo Delara. “While we did not want to endure the same criticism and attacks, we all felt that standing by in silence seemed even more destructive than not advocating for the survival of the People of Palestine.”

Eden Hain, the general manager of Junior High Los Angeles, another LA-based organization, told Hyperallergic that although they have concerns about potential negative reactions, their networks of funding and support are largely aligned with their values. “We do not have any large donors or monetary Zionist ties, and we have no interest in courting that money,” they explained. “To borrow from Toni Cade Bambara, it’s my job to make empathy irresistible.”

In response to criticism they had received for being Jewish and in support of the Palestinian cause, Hain responded, “I do not believe that there is any dissonance in my stance to demand a permanent ceasefire and to end all nationalistic violence. Standing up for all people to live dignified lives in peace should be a neutral position.”

Junior High has organized two screenings of the film Israelism (2023), a documentary critical of Israeli propaganda that had showings canceled elsewhere in the United States, in collaboration with If Not Now and Whammy Analog. They have also donated funds raised from events to Gaza aid organizations.

Peter Kalisch performing at Coaxial’s Day of Collective Action, November 30, 2023 (photo by and courtesy @tinnituspaparazzi)

Several nonprofits cited their dedication to social justice, as opposed to commercial success, as being instrumental in their decision to make a clear, public statement.

“This is a regular part of our intersectional feminist practice, and also a position we expect much of our community shares,” Kamala Puligandla of the LA-based Feminist Center for Creative Work, told Hyperallergic. “It’s not lost on us that some parts of the art world might not support our values, but our work hasn’t changed, our values haven’t changed, and if you know us, it shouldn’t be a surprise.”

This Sunday, Los Angeles Filmforum and Human Resources will co-present a series of films about Palestine curated by Zaina Bseiso and Jorge Ravelo. “We have a long tradition of including ‘progressive’ works in our overall screening mission. Most of what we show is not overtly political, but I also think that all art is political, often by its sheer existence,” said LA Filmforum Executive Director Adam Hyman. “I still have concerns regarding funders, retaliatory press, and targeted right-wing campaigns to defund the arts, but we will see how it plays out. I feel that the lengthy and difficult conversations that might result are worth having.”

Alongside nonprofits that have issued statements or planned events, several commercial galleries have also done so — in spite of chilling reports of collectors blacklisting artists and entities that take a pro-Palestine position. Although the economic models are different for these two types of spaces, they are both beholden to various degrees to networks of philanthropists, donors, and buyers whose approval and support, or lack thereof, are crucial to their survival.

“I feel a certain responsibility to my artists. If I’m going to be losing support and business because of something I post, that gives me trepidation, but I couldn’t not acknowledge what was happening. I felt like I had to do something,” Ilona Berger, co-founder of LA’s LAST Projects, told Hyperallergic. The gallery filled its booth at the recent Tryst Art Fair with art related to Palestine or addressing the current violence, featuring work by Rachid Bouhamidi, Amitis Motevalli, Palestinian-American Karim Shuquem, and centenarian artist Ernest Rosenthal, an Austrian-born Jew whom Berger met at a pro-Palestine rally in 2014. A portion of proceeds from sales went to Gaza relief organizations.

Firas Shehadeh, Like An Event In A Dream Dreamt By Another – Rehearsal (2022–23), will screen as part of a program organized by Los Angeles Filmforum and Human Resources (image courtesy Firas Shehadeh)

Eric Fallen, who owns the gallery Peninsula in New York and who has voiced support for Palestinians on social media, echoed Berger’s unease about affecting the gallery’s artists but reported that he has not seen “any serious fallout.” Like Hain, Berger, and others, Fallen stressed that his Jewish identity was instrumental to, and not at odds with, his support of Palestinian liberation.

“My decision to publicly condemn Israel’s siege on Gaza was not a difficult one to make,” he said. “I should also mention that I belong to a growing community of Jews who have long opposed the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians and deplore the use of the Holocaust as a justification for what many regard as an apartheid state.”

Fallen’s perspective echoes that of several people interviewed, who expressed that, although they recognize a climate of fear amongst like-minded colleagues, the art world in which they operate has a far more nuanced view of the Palestinian struggle than might be gleaned from the backlash that has issued largely from legacy establishments.

On October 13, Evrim Oralkan shared an image of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Forbidden Colors” (1988), consisting of panels in the hues of the Palestinian flag, to the Instagram account of Collecteurs, the online collection management platform he founded. Since then, he has shifted the focus of his posts from art to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza amid Israel’s relentless military assault, posting several images or videos daily.

“This is not a subject I ever wanted to be vocal about,” Oralkan told Hyperallergic. “But something was eating at me. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.” His posts have garnered a massive amount of online threats and hateful messages, though he says he gets “10 times the amount of supportive messages” from people who are afraid to speak publicly. When asked if he has misgivings about being so outspoken, sharing his messages to his more than 330,000 Instagram followers, he doesn’t hesitate: “I don’t regret anything.”

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