Activists Stage Pro-Palestine Demonstration at Pace Gallery Opening for Israeli Artist

An opening at Pace Gallery for the Israeli artist Michal Rovner on March 7 was disrupted by protestors calling for an end to the killing of Palestinians in Gaza by the IDF.

Around 30 protestors silently distributed fabric petals around the exhibition space in protest of Rovner’s “cultural appropriation” of the poppy flower, which features predominantly in the works on view at Pace. Poppies grow abundantly in Palestine and are symbolic for many Palestinians of their ancestral connection to the land; each fake petal held the name of a murdered Palestinian artist or writer. Activists also wore red T-shirts baring the Arabic word for poppy, a confrontation of the title of the show, “Pragim”—meaning poppies in Hebrew—and the artist’s celebration of the wildflowers that grow “in her field in Israel”, as stated by the exhibition materials.

Related Articles

A person spray paints a painting of a white men with red paint.

Police Will Investigate Pro-Palestine Activists’ Defacement of Arthur Balfour Portrait at Cambridge

Artists Pull Works from Barbican Show to Protest ‘Censorship’ of Writer’s Talk on Gaza

Max Levin, an arts writer and cultural worker who participated in the demonstration, told ARTnews that Pace’s curatorial statements about Rovner’s work are “contradictory and ultimately normalize occupation, apartheid, and genocide.”

Speaking via email, he said: “On the one hand, the work is “centered on universal questions of the human condition— bringing issues of identity, place, and dislocation to the fore.” On the other hand, Rovner “erases visual information, obscuring specifics of time and place through gestural, abstract qualities.” (These are Pace’s press release words.) Rovner and her supporters appear glad to have it both ways — to appear as if they’re being political in a kumbaya both-sides kind of way, and then also to be obscuring facts of the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian land and culture.”

Per the demonstrators’ accounts, and photography taken by Hyperallergic and demonstrators, and later shared with ARTnews, the protestors, who reportedly arrived at Pace’s Chelsea space in Manhattan around 6:30 p.m., were approached by gallery security who attempted to remove their red veils.

According to Hyperallergic, one man asked why the petals didn’t bear the names of “raped women and burned babies,” in reference to claims of sexual violence and mutilation committed by Hamas during the October 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and involved the taking of more than 200 hostages. Those claims are currently under investigation by the United Nations.

Pace employees reportedly led both activists and visitors outside, and temporarily closed the exhibition for approximately thirty minutes.

Levin, however, said that he was “heartened that some of the attendees at Pace also spoke up vocally in defense of the action last night, and there were great conversations with people on the sidewalk. All 250 fliers that were printed were given out to attendees and staff.”

Activists also criticized Rovner’s video installation Signaling (2023), which features rows of waving figures referencing the over 100 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7; in it, the chest of each person appears to emit a red glow. The video has appeared in Times Square, as well as in public sites in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“Tonight, Pace again uplifts normalization—any project that invokes ‘Israel’ and Palestine without affirming the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and naming the brutal conditions of occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism under which they live,” read a flyer handed out at the opening. “Rendering 100 waving ‘Israelis’ and the Zionist dog whistle #BringThemHome, [Signaling] distorts the reality of occupation and necessity of resistance, ignoring millions of Palestinians under siege,” it continues.

Pace previously came under fire for its decision to exhibit Rovner during the bombardment of Gaza by Israel. In January, Pace’s New York flagship was spray-painted with pro-Palestine messages, joining the list of New York gallery to be tagged with phrases related to the war in Gaza. Images posted to social media and reviewed by ARTnews showed Pace’s facade spray-painted with phrases such as “Free Gaza.” Additionally, the gallery was splashed with red paint intended to mimic blood spatters. At the time, Pace was navigating a social media controversy spurred by an Instagram post promoting the debut of Signaling in Times Square. The initial caption did not mention the Palestinian death toll in Gaza, which as of today surpasses 30,000, according to the local health ministry; at least 300 Palestinians have been killed in the Occupied West Bank.

Among the top-liked comments on the post was one that accused Pace of “art-washing a genocide.”

Pace subsequently edited the caption to include a death toll and a line saying the gallery previously “omitted the broader context of the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the horrific loss of life.”

Contacted by ARTnews for a comment on the demonstration, a Pace spokesperson said, “Our mission is guided first and foremost by our artists. Our role is to provide a platform for their ideas, to present their vantage points, and to amplify their work to our audiences. We believe in the art gallery as a place for discourse and feel it’s our responsibility to offer this space.”

Editor’s Note, 3/11/2024: A previous version of this article said that demonstrators were “met with resistance by security guards.” That statement has been amended for greater specificity.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *