(Editor’s note: This story has been significantly updated since the original post on May 28.)
A local art exhibition that was to be an exercise in progressing beyond the rhetoric of Israeli/Palestinian politics instead has become a fatality in the cultural war against Israel driven by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship,” scheduled to run at the Mattress Factory museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side from June 1 to July 27 — with a corresponding exhibit scheduled to run at Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland from June 6 to Aug. 1 — was the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago and featuring the work of three Israeli, three Palestinian and five American artists.
It was canceled on May 29 after the Palestinian artists withdrew from the show.
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.”
On Tuesday morning, following the pullout of the Israelis, the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers Galleries ran the following correction on their respective websites:
“Correction: An exhibition description concerning ‘Borders, Walls & Citizenship’ was prematurely posted without the agreement or prior knowledge of the artists involved. As of May 25, 2014, the Israeli artists participating in the exhibit have withdrawn from the show. All participating artists, and those that withdrew, are against racism, against occupation and are in support of self-determination for Palestinians and all people. This show was never intended to be about normalization.”
The Palestinian artists — Bashar Alhroub, Manal Mahamid, and Mohammed Musallam — withdrew from the show the following day. Representatives from the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers Galleries declined to speak with The Chronicle about the reasons for the Palestinians’ withdrawal, and the Palestinians themselves were not available for comment.
La Follette did not respond to requests from The Chronicle for further comment after her show was canceled.
Following the cancellation of the exhibition, both the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers posted an apology to “all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition” on their websites.
No apology to the Israeli artists or to the American artists was posted.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel states that “cultural events and projects involving Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis that promote ‘balance’ between the ‘two sides’ in presenting their respective narratives, as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the ‘conflict,’ are intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible,” and calls for the refrain from “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.”
The cancellation of the show is an example of how the academic and cultural boycott against Israel can stymie attempts for Israelis and Palestinians to work together, said David Ainsman, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of AIPAC.
“They don’t even let people get to the point where they can unite for any academic or cultural reasons,” he said. “This is a reflection of a BDS movement that is doing exactly the opposite of what it is intended to do. It’s decreasing the possibility of a Palestinian state by increasing the divide between peoples.”
La Follette assembled her team of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists a year ago, and traveled with them to Israel and the West Bank.
“It was hard finding Palestinians that wanted to work with us on the project,” La Follette told The Chronicle a week before the cancellation of her exhibition. “There is a cultural and academic ban in Palestine, a voluntary boycott. I had no problem finding Israeli artists who wanted to participate.”
The project was to be an opportunity for the artists to “communicate what is difficult to discuss,” she said.
“We’ve got to get together if we’re going to survive as a civilization,” added La Follette. “I believe in the human spirit. I have to have hope and faith in the human spirit. That’s really what this project is about.”
Following the cancellation of the show, Palestinian artist Musallam, who is from Gaza, wrote about the turn of events on his Facebook page, laying blame on the Jewish community and the press. His post contradicts the reasons La Follette set forth regarding the Israeli artists’ withdrawal from the show.
“We have struggled long with the museum’s management, and for several days, and threatened to immediately withdraw if the Israeli artists stayed,” wrote Musallam in Arabic. The post was translated for The Chronicle by Ethan Pullman, a doctoral student who teaches Arabic for the modern languages department at Carnegie Mellon University and the linguistics department at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a native speaker of Arabic.
“After that, serious events developed with enormous pressure towards us from the Jewish lobby, which has a strong presence in the city, and the newspapers began to follow us,” the Facebook post continued. “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. 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.”
In an interview prior to his withdrawal from the show, Israeli artist Yaron said he was looking forward to working alongside the Palestinian artists, whom he met a year ago on the joint trip arranged by La Follette to Israel and the West Bank.
“The Palestinians could only join us on the West Bank,” he said. “But we visited places and talked to people to learn about what’s going on. It was a shared experience.
“It’s the first time in my career I’ve worked with Palestinian artists,” he continued. “They are great people to work with. And it was a pleasure to travel together. I learned a lot. It was inspiring.”
On Thursday, Yaron declined to speak with The Chronicle in the absence of an agreement for review and approval of this article prior to publication.
“We all feel terribly heartbroken that the world is the way it is,” said Wendy Osher, a local American Jewish artist who was slated to be part of the exhibition. “It was a valiant effort, and this is just terribly sad.”
The exhibition was sponsored by the Allegheny Regional Asset District, the Benter Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Pittsburgh Region Artists Program, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts Project Stream.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)