Kunstmuseum Bern, hosting Tracey Rose retrospective, branded ‘despicable’ by artist

Tracey Rose, A Muster of Peacocks: THE SHOAH, 2012, single colour video played on iPad with stereo speaker. Courtesy the artist

The artist Tracey Rose says her solo show at Kunstmuseum Bern was censored and she was not told of, nor invited to attend, a public discussion on artistic freedom programmed to run alongside the retrospective.

The South African says the 2012 video A Muster of Peacocks: THE SHOAH, which features the line ‘Stop the Muslim Holocaust’, was removed from the touring show because it could not be shown under Swiss law. The video featured in the two previous iterations of the exhibition, at Zeitz Moca, Cape Town – where the exhibition originated and whose director Koyo Kouoh curates the show – and at New York’s Queens Museum.

Rose wrote on social media that she was told the term ‘holocaust’ was ‘not applicable’ to ‘any other mass genocidal slaughter such as the Native American Holocaust, the African Holocaust and the current Muslim Holocaust’. Addressing Kunstmuseum Bern senior management, Rose goes on to say: ‘Europe fails to recognise its blood thirsty offerings across this beautiful Earth of ours, that you yet again in your failure to recognise your inhumanity that declares some human lives as more precious than others.’

The impetus for making the issue public now however was an event held in Bern on Sunday, billed as a ‘panel discussion on the occasion of the exhibition Tracey Rose’, which Rose claims she had no prior knowledge to and featured only German speakers, among them Kouoh; Nina Zimmer, the director of the Kunstmuseum Bern; and Ralph Lewin, of the Swiss Federation of Israelite Communities. The subject was ‘the meaning and limits of artistic freedom, the role of museums as public platforms for exchange and discussion, and how fragile minorities can be protected’. The event page notes Rose was among hundreds of artists who had previously signed a letter condemning the Israeli ‘apartheid’ and its current military incursions into Palestine, an issue that had previously been brought up in Swiss media when the exhibition first opened.

Rose responded in her open letter to the curatorial team, ‘The despicable treatment I have received from all of you will be public knowledge as you all place the public institutions which employ you in disrepute, by the manner in which you treat artists. You are all public servants not deities, history will judge you harshly. You all have both censored and censured a Mother, a Wombman, a South African, and most horrifyingly you Nina Zimmer, you Thomas Soraperra, you Kathleen Bühler, and you Marie-Noëlle, Koyo Kouoh have ALL censored and censured an Artist! You all disgust me!’

Kunstmuseum Bern have denied claims of censorship. “During the installation, we left it up to the artist whether she wanted to show the work A Muster of Peacocks: The Shoah (2012), in which the phrase ‘Stop the Muslim Holocaust’ appears”, a spokesperson for the Kunstmuseum told ArtReview. “The exhibition was previously shown in Cape Town and Queens NY. It is customary to adapt an exhibition for local context. In Queens, for example, among others, all the works of Tracey Rose showing Blackfacing were not shown. In the political situation earlier this year, we advised Tracey Rose not to show the work A Muster of Peacocks: The Shoah (2012). She decided to follow our advice and has not since signalled to the curators of the exhibition or the Kunstmuseum Bern that she would like to revise her decision.”

“Tracey Rose’s criticism is based on a misunderstanding”, the Kunstmuseum said. “She was under the impression it was a panel discussion about her artistic work. In fact, however, it was a panel that took up the criticism of Kunstmuseum Bern for showing such an exhibition. In the run-up to the exhibition, there had been calls for it to be closed. We brought together different voices to debate the limits of freedom of art and freedom of expression on a more general level. Tracey Rose was in Bern for the exhibition set-up, press conference and vernissage and had several opportunities to make public appearances – in fact, her works speak loudly for her in the extensive exhibition that has been on display since February.”

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