Pittsburgh art show cancellation is a microcosm of the Middle East
Three days before the scheduled opening reception, The Mattress Factory abruptly canceled Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship, a show meant as a cultural exchange between artists from Israel, Palestine and the U.S.
According to the museum, the exhibit was canceled because the three Palestinian artists — Bashar Alhroub, Manal Mahamid and Mohammed Mussalam — withdrew their participation.
A statement on the museum’s website also read, “The Mattress Factory and guest curator Tavia La Follette would like to make a public apology to all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition.“
But the circumstances surrounding the cancellation — and the precise nature of the “misunderstanding” — remain unclear.
Possible clues about reasons for the cancellation might be found in additional verbiage on the Filmmakers web page about the exhibit. It read: “Correction: An exhibition description concerning ‘Borders, Walls, and Citizenship’ was prematurely posted without the agreement or prior knowledge of the artists involved. … All participating artists, and those that withdrew are against racism, against occupation, and in support of self-determination for Palestinians and all people. This show was never intended to be about normalization.”
“Normalization” is a controversial topic in Israeli-Palestinian relations; the word refers to the idea that the two states can relate to each other like any two other states. Rejection of that concept has helped fuel activist groups including the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. On its website, the group defines normalization in this context as “the participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.”
The Mattress Factory’s April press release for the show didn’t use the term “normalization.” However, it did say, “The artists have been working collaboratively as part of a yearlong exchange that has allowed them to manipulate and respond to each other’s work in ways that may be impossible to mimic in real life due to the physical boundaries of the countries of conflict they reside in.”
More details here:
The Israeli artists had pulled out of the show one day earlier in order to protect the Palestinians who had been threatened and accused on an Arabic-language Facebook page of “normalizing relations with Israel,” according to Tavia La Follette, the independent curator of the exhibit. La Follette is the founder and director of ArtUp, and an artist-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab.
The trigger for the threats, said La Follete, was the use of the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” within the exhibition’s announcements on the websites of the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers Galleries. But those words were never approved by La Follette or the artists in the exhibition, she said.
“There’s language that was put up on the websites that are words used in the land of art all the time,” she said. “In the art world, ‘collaboration’ and ‘dialogue’ are used all the time. But ‘collaboration’ means something completely different politically. That’s where the problem started.”
But La Follette, who had invited the artists to create works together and individually in response to issues and experiences surrounding the words “borders,” “walls” and “citizenship,” said the shows were “not about normalization and were never about normalization.”
“But we knew the artists would be getting flack at some time because people would be making judgments on what we’re doing,” she acknowledged.
After the Palestinian artists were accused on Facebook of normalizing relations with Israel, all three Israeli artists — Emmanuel Witzthum, Dror Yaron and Itamar Jobani — withdrew from the exhibition to allow the Palestinians to remain in the show, said La Follette, adding that what was supposed to be a celebratory party at her home last weekend, “turned into Camp David.”
“The Palestinian artists said, ‘We can’t be in this show,’ so the Israelis withdrew,” she explained. “The whole idea behind the project was to move it beyond political rhetoric. But we need to protect the Palestinian artists. It shows the integrity of the Israeli artists that they pulled out of the show.”
OK, so the Palestinian artists were threatened because they were working together with Israeli artists on an art project. Horrors!
Having the Palestinian Arabs withdraw because of threats to them by their fellow Arabs would be bad, so to stop that from happening, the Israeli artists offered to withdraw so the Palestinians could continue to participate.
That wasn’t good enough.
The museum put out public apology to all Palestinians everywhere – not to art lovers, not to the artists who canceled for what they thought was the greater good, not to people who love to see cooperation and peace between the two groups. No, they apologized to Palestinian Arabs who are against any kind of peace with Israel – the most intransigent, anti-peace people on the planet who will not be happy until Israel is destroyed.
Did that make the Palestinian artists happy? Did they say that they were touched that their anti-Zionist Israeli art partners went to extraordinary lengths, endangering their own careers, to help the Arabs continue to spread their anti-Israel narrative to the world unimpeded, at the expense of their own viewpoint?
One of the Palestinian artists, Mohammed Musallam, in a Facebook post written in Arabic blamed the city’s “Jewish lobby” for the cancellation of the show.
“It became clear to us that what we considered victory, eliminating Israelis from the exhibit, will be harshly used by the media against Palestinian artists, creating accusations against them and fictional accounts,” he wrote. “Because of these developments in the situation and concerned that the exhibit will continue with its Israeli and American participants, and feed additional lies and stories from the Zionist media in this state, we asked the museum’s management not only that we withdraw, which was easy, but strongly demanded the abolition of the entire exhibit, with the understanding that we are willing for future collaborations without any Israeli participation.”
|Musallam with La Follette before he ruined her year|
Instead of issuing a statement of regret, or saying that he hopes for a peaceful future with his fellow Israeli artists, or apologizing for his role in this mess, Musallam says that he wanted the Israelis to withdraw but decided that the Zionist-dominated press would make the Arab artists look bad for not deigning to exhibit
together with the hated Jews.
How much of this statement is self-preservation in the face of threats and how much reveals the artist’s bigotry is unclear. According to comments on his Facebook page, originally Musallam defended the Israeli artists as people who are as pro-Palestinian as could be – before he turned on them.
But what is clear is that no matter how much the Israeli uber-left “peace camp” does to accommodate Palestinian Arabs as equals., no matter how much Westerners grovel to the Palestinian Arab cause, it will never be enough – as long as Israel exists.
It is actually embarrassing to see how much self-respect the Israeli artists and the museum were willing to throw away for the righteous cause of trying to appease the party in the Middle East conflict that has no “peace camp” – and that actively threatens anyone who can even be considered remotely peaceful.