When I added work that said ‘FREE PALESTINE’ to my installation as part of my end-of-course group show at a local gallery in Southend, I did not expect it to be removed and spark a difficult negotiation around political neutrality in council-funded arts spaces. 

The work in question, a black hoodie with ‘FREE PALESTINE’ hand stitched on the front by myself and draped over an armchair, was flagged to be removed two days after the show’s opening. Contractually, we are obliged to remove works at the request of the gallery: 
The Beecroft has the right to remove any works from display, this decision will be made with all parties present, and any compromise will be sought prior to any final decision’. The gallery claims to be a politically neutral space and, had they known this was going to be in the show in advance, they would have sought advice on its potential inclusion. 

I am left to wonder why the books in my installation were left untouched, including Feminism, Interrupted, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Towards A Gay Communism, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, and Slaughterhouse Five. I wonder how the pieces of work where I explore the violence of state bureaucracy faced by disabled people could be seen as politically neutral. Or if my parody seaside tourism poster commenting on a local station’s continued inaccessibility is ‘politically neutral’, despite visitors telling me to post it to the local MP. I am angry and frustrated at the contractual limitations we as artists are up against. This culture of fear means that small tokens of solidarity become discursive battlegrounds and ultimately distract from the horror of what is unfolding in Gaza.

In response to the work’s removal and censorship, I decided to cover up the work I have in the show and put up a statement about my decision to do so (which the gallery added a statement in response to, as did TOMA). The three statements and the installation now covered by floor-length black fabric will be up until the show closes on July 14th. In the statement, which had to be approved by the gallery, I lay out the facts of the incident and discuss the selective nature with which certain work is deemed ‘political’:

“Showing solidarity with people in the face of genocide is not more or less political than the rest of the works I have on display, which explore subjects such as the bureaucratic violence of the state. Politics is weaved throughout my work, and as a disabled, trans and queer artist my work is inherently political. The struggles we face are interconnected and I do not feel comfortable having some of my political work on display and not others, especially in the absence of any policy that dictates the nature of the gallery’s political limitations.” You can read the statement that the gallery allowed me to put up and more about the original installation here

The process of making this happen has been slow and time–intensive. I am grateful for the guidance and support of The Other MA (TOMA) – TOMA’s director Emma Edmondson in particular – in navigating the constraints of bureaucracy around censorship (TOMA are now working with the gallery to get proper definitions of what they consider to be political work). This slowness and intensiveness feels like a distraction. As someone with multiple energy-limiting health conditions, the limited energy I do have that I want to use to support Palestinian liberation is not best used writing statements and grappling with bureaucracy. It feels frankly ridiculous that I have spent so much time on this, but I couldn’t let this happen without pushing back. 

This exact issue is playing out at large across the art world, from global institutions to local art schools and community spaces. In November last year, Arnolfini withdrew from hosting events as part of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival (prompting a boycott and eventual apology). At Chelsea & Westminster hospital, an art display made in 2012 by children at UN schools in Gaza was taken down after threats of legal action. In February, the Barbican Centre cancelled a lecture organised by the London Review of Books that was due to discuss Gaza, after previously warning guest speakers to “avoid talking about free Palestine”. In response, several artists shown in the exhibition ‘Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art‘ (Diedrick Brackens, Yto Barrada, Mounira al Solh, and Cian Dayrit) pulled their work. Again, an apology was issued later by the institution. This month, graduates from Ruskin School of Art’s BFA programme had to manually tape in their statement of solidarity with the Oxford Action for Palestine encampment into their programmes after the university print studio refused to the version that included it. And beyond the UK we see similar patterns - in Germany, Johanna Hedva’s solo show at Kunstverein Braunschweig was cancelled, with the unofficial reason they were given by the gallery’s leadership being that it was because they wanted to reference genocide in their press release. As Hedva says in their statemement: “There is a difference between words and bombs, discourse and starvation, a press release and a death. Who carries the weight of this difference?

A number of institutions, galleries, art fairs and spaces have always been ideologically opposed to Palestinian liberation. The art world is dominated by large corporations who run and sponsor institutions that ultimately act as a form of soft power, in turn affecting the programming of these institutions - whether its shutting down work that sits in contravention to the corporate interests of a sponsor, or profiting from issue-based works that ultimate fund the political issues that the work is seeking to challenge. However, we are also seeing more and more spaces that were once receptive to showing work in relation to Palestine becoming increasingly fearful, and in turn hostile. In response to this hostility, artists and arts and culture workers are organising boycotts and collective actions, educating in the sector and beyond about Palestinian liberation and who is complicit in occupation, providing resource and solidarity to those in Palestine. This stuff works: in recent weeks we’ve seen funding, sponsorship and institutional policies change as a direct result of the efforts of groups such as Bands Boycott Barclays, Fossil Free Books, and Artists for Palestine.

But there remains a gulf between those who are working to move the world in a direction of justice, and those who are working to stop even the merest mention of Palestine. In the space in between, there are those who don’t think it’s their place to do anything at all. They think that this action should be happening outside of institutions and cultural spaces. It is a luxury to be able to play it safe and be silent in order to not ‘rock the boat’. And it simply isn’t good enough. The world changes when we draw lines in the sand and say:
this may cost me but being complicit isn’t worth it - and this my duty as a human being”. 

I’ve had numerous people tell me how sorry they are that this has happened to me and how f***ed up this is, which a sentiment I obviously appreciate. It’s been inconvenient, stressful, exhausting, and expensive to respond to this. I’ve had people tell me it’s a ‘shame’ that I have to respond this way. In the gallery’s statement, they said: “We are sorry that the artist felt they had to self-censor their work in response to the decision made by the gallery and we hope our visitors have the opportunity to experience this installation in full in the future”. 

But an installation that can have its politics cherry–picked is not something I want other people to experience. The idea of leaving everything that remained as it would be creating a tainted space. To be honest, I am still deeply frustrated it took so long to make the response happen, to the point where I actively told people not to come to the show until my work was covered and my statement was up. In all of this, the costs emotionally, in time and financially are simply incomparable to what Palestinian people are enduring. And the minimum of what they are asking us to do, through speaking up, through boycotts, through holding our decision-makers to account, is within each of our grasp. Each day we are presented with opportunities to do better. To say ‘stop’ where previously we have said nothing. To use our power where previously we have been actionless. And in the context of a (art) world that seeks to sanitise politics and the struggles that occupied and marginalised people face, the effort to push back and step up matters more than ever.


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