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

A group of artists have joined two collectors in their protest of the Barbican Centre in London, which canceled a talk centered on Palestine and Israel by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra.

The artists—Diedrick Brackens, Yto Barrada, Mounira al Solh, and Cian Dayrit—have requested their works be removed from the center’s current textile arts exhibition, “Unravel: the Power and Politics of Textiles in Art,” following the lead of the collectors, Lorenzo Legarda Leviste and Fahad Mayet, who last week pulled their loan of two quilts by Loretta Pettway. A work by Pacita Abad, loaned by Art Jameel in Dubai, has also been withdrawn. In total, nine artworks have been removed from view.

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A Barbican spokesperson confirmed that the works will be removed from the show. “We respect the decision of the artists to withdraw their works from Unravel. The works will be removed from display and signage will be put in place,” the spokesperson said.

Brackens, an American weaver who explores the historical complexities of queer and black identities, withdrew his work fire makes some dragons.

“I want to be clear that my textile and larger practice and what I [have] known about this institution,” he said in a statement shared with ARTnews. “It is disheartening that this exhibition has to be dismantled work by work in order to expose the complicity of the institution in silencing those of us who are speaking out against the historical and ongoing violence being committed in Gaza.” He added that the continued withdrawal of works by artists he finds inspiring has “unfortunately” meant the “sullying” of the curatorial team’s “well-intentioned vision.”

On February 29, Legarda Leviste and Mayet withdrew two quilts by Pettway, a member of the Southern American artist collective Gee’s Bend, from the show following reports that the Barbican would no longer present a lecture series organized by the London Review of Books set to take place over February and March. The decision was made in protest of the center’s “censorship and repression” and “in solidarity with Palestine,” the couple said in a statement later published online.

The Barbican Centre has since installed a plinth where the two Pettway works were displayed. Affixed to that plinth is text reading: “These two works have been withdrawn at the request of the lenders, as an act of solidarity with Palestine, in response to the Barbican’s decision to not host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series.” 

Mishra’s planned talk, titled “The Shoah after Gaza,” examined the historical connections between the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust) and the Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, where 31,000 Palestinians have died since October 7, per the local health ministry. “The Shoah after Gaza” was ultimately held at St James Church in Clerkenwell.

A statement from the Barbican published February 14 said that no official agreement to host the talk was finalized before the details of the event were “prematurely” publicized. The center’s senior leadership did not have time “to do the careful preparation needed for this sensitive content.”  

In a statement to the Art Newspaper French Moroccan artist Yto Barrada cited the “creeping normalization of censorship across art institutions.

“Today, we cannot take seriously a public institution that does not hold a space for free thinking and debate, however challenging it might feel to some staff, board members or anxious politicians,” she wrote, adding that that she requested that the reason for her withdrawal “be indicated in the gallery,” echoing the statement that accompanied the withdrawal of Loretta Pettway’s quilts.

Barrada concluded: “I pray for peace, justice and an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.”

A Barbican spokesperson said the exhibition would not close early due to the removals. 

Chief executive Clare Spencer said in a statement that the center regrets “not able to get the necessary logistical arrangements in place to host the LRB Winter Series.” She continued that the center is now “thoroughly reviewing the circumstances in which this decision was taken.” 

[Update 03/12/2024: The article has been updated to reflect that the total of artists participating in the protest is now six, with a total of nine artworks pulled from “Unravel”.]

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