Why the Artworld Must Stand with Palestine

13th attempt to break the Gaza blockade by sea, 2018. Photo: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani on the importance of solidarity

At the Academy Awards in 1999, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his profound contribution to cinema. As a director, Kazan often broached the brutal social realities of postwar America – his films narrated the era’s complex conditions, relations and struggles that slashed Hollywood’s intoxicating screen and bled onto its celluloid fantasies.

But Kazan was also an informant. When he was called upon in 1952 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – an investigative committee of the United States House of Representatives tasked with investigating alleged acts of disloyalty and subversion by citizens, public employees and organisations – he named in his testimonial eight former colleagues from the ‘Group Theater’ troupe in New York who, like Kazan, had been or were members of the Communist Party. He did this so that he could continue to work, while those he named were blacklisted and denied their livelihood and the pleasure of a life well lived at the service of what they love. He never expressed remorse for ruining their lives.

When, at the age of eighty-nine, assisted by his partner, he walked slowly onto the stage, his frailty made it difficult for me not to feel compassion for him. Yet, amidst a very uneven and awkward standing ovation, some of the audience resolutely sat in their seats, discernibly furious, indignant at this spectacle of both forgiveness and forgetting. Although uncomfortable, acknowledging his cooperation with state violence was the right thing to do.

During the McCarthy era, an abysmal chapter of American history, 151 entertainment-industry professionals were blacklisted for being affiliated with the Communist Party USA, or for being communist sympathisers. From official literature to the popular press, such political ideology was relentlessly depicted as dangerous. And this campaign of leftist suppression never really ended; it is written into today’s mainstream politics. It is the engine that keeps the interests of structural white supremacist, carceral, capitalist patriarchy protected and obfuscated.

While Kazan was naming names (and in On the Waterfront (1954) making a film that celebrated the figure of the informant), the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo refused to testify and name names. For his refusal he was imprisoned, and on his release was told he would not be permitted to work in the industry unless he disavowed Communism under oath. He refused again. Years later, Trumbo wrote the script for Spartacus (1960), initially under a pseudonym. In the climactic, famous scene Crassus asks the exhausted, defeated slaves to identify their leader. One by one they stand up and declare “I’m Spartacus” to protect the real Spartacus among them. A case for the power of refusal and solidarity.

In the forever night of the eternal ‘Red Scare’, undead McCarthyism has risen again, its tactics and influence reanimated in the immoral ‘fight’ to erase Palestine from the public sphere. The same cynical, toxic strategies are being deployed against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Palestinian artists, as well as those who support the idea that Palestinians should have human rights, have been charged with antisemitism, unremitting lawfare attacks, and intimidation to such an extent that the very word ‘Palestine’ has been reimagined as controversial.

The actual objectives of the BDS movement have been silenced and obscured by the intense weaponisation of antisemitism. The charge is now levelled at criticism of Israel that is not only valid, but essential given the violations of human rights to which it is rarely if ever held to account by Western governments.

To quote the Palestinian BDS National Committee’s own description of the campaign:

‘BDS is a Palestinian-led, global movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity […] It draws inspiration from decades of Palestinian popular resistance, from the South African anti-apartheid struggle, from the US Civil Rights movement, among other others. It inspires Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights worldwide to speak truth to power, to challenge hegemonic, racist power structures and to assert that Palestinian rights must be respected and implemented.’ 

The legitimisation of global anti-BDS campaigning is an open invitation to right-wing authoritarianism – effortlessly cutting through the liberal, progressive facades of institutions, revealing how vulnerable they are to the influence of extremist agendas. Cannibalising the language of social justice, pro-Israel lobby groups have demanded the removal of statements of solidarity with Palestinians, and demanded the removal of Palestinian artists who do not express gratitude for the subjugation of their people. How dare they?

When the model Gigi Hadid recently pledged to donate all of her ‘Fashion Month’ earnings to people in Ukraine and Palestine, Vogue magazine initially reported on it via its Instagram account. But after coming under pressure from social-media users, it deleted references to Palestine from their caption.

Just like that, ‘Palestine’ disappears from virtual walls, then from our mouths, then our minds.

Within the artworld, there are currently two Palestine-related hotspots:

A group that glorifies the Israeli Air Force and calls itself The Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism recently posted an anonymously authored blog attacking Documenta 15 artists and its artistic directors, collating screenshot ‘evidence’ from a number of open letters and social-media posts seeking to ‘prove’ their support for the liberation struggle of Palestine, and in some instances BDS. The blog singles out Palestinian artists in particular.

The noxious atmosphere around expressions of solidarity with Palestine means that an anonymous blog can incite a political scandal all the way up to the German minister of culture, spurring reactionary op-eds in respected newspapers, such as Der Zeit, with headlines such as: ‘Does Documenta have an anti-Semitism problem?’.

Here in the UK, a group called ‘UK Lawyers for Israel’, have pressurised the University of Manchester’s Vice Chancellor to, and I quote, ‘consider appropriate disciplinary action’ against the director of the Whitworth Gallery, following an exhibition by the collective Forensic Architecture which included a statement of solidarity with Palestine. In the past, UKLFI has hosted a talk by a representative from the prominent rightwing settler group Regavim; the group also led a campaign that targeted Defence of Children International – Palestine, claiming that donations to the charity could be linked to acts of terrorism – allegations which UKLFI later recanted.

In a mismanaged, collapsing ruthless world order, there is an economy of attention, and the news cycle focuses our empathy on different erupting crisis points. Nobody can be blamed for being unable to bear the pain of consistent attention to all injustices at once. But understanding the interconnected structures that produce these injustices is important.

In May 2021, confined within the restrictions of a global pandemic, the violence of the Israeli occupation emerged viscerally, but temporarily, into visibility. The whole world was watching in horror at Israel’s massacres in besieged Gaza, and watching as the Palestinian uprising across historic Palestine unfolded. This resulted in a public outcry and condemnation of Israel’s brutal acts, and the sometimes unfamiliar yet always hopeful spectacle of public expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Several months later and another war is being waged, this time within Europe. The illegal war in Ukraine has resulted in over three million refugees in less than a month. The outrage, sympathy and assertive calls for significant action – sanctions, boycotting, all-out war, the opening of borders, waiving of paperwork – have been swift and widespread. As much as BDS is declared as ineffectual or extreme, ad hoc boycotts of Russia have been eagerly adopted, and have ranged from articulate positions, such as the resignation of curator Raimundas Malašauskas and artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov from the Russian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennial, to inane actions like the removal of Turgenev’s Oak Tree from the European Tree of the Year competition.

The humanitarian response has been profound and moving: people opening their homes, offering transport and supplies to those seeking refuge and of course donating money. This is the only acceptable response to a humanitarian crisis, though one cannot but notice that this is largely an exception – the disparities in compassion in the context of other conflicts have been made very explicit. Other tragedies sadly play out daily in numerous places where our imperialist wars have been exported or delegated by proxy, or where they have destroyed all social infrastructure – places inhabited by people that aren’t white or Christian, people that the white imagination bleakly struggles to humanise. Lest we forget, we live in a loveless country that has enthusiastically legislated for the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would seek to criminalise those who help a person seeking refuge who is drowning in the sea.

And Palestine has vanished again from the spotlight. Since June 2021, 47 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. There are obviously no adequate statistics to interpret the ambient violence of water shortages, the shortage of medical supplies, the wilful running down of infrastructure, the interruption of energy provision, loss of freedom of movement, humiliation, separation and general hopelessness that define the reality of a brutal, illegal occupation with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Conservative government is busy closing spaces of resistance, legislating against protest in the streets. Its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill severely curtails the right to protest peacefully. The independence of cultural and educational spaces is being infringed upon via the strategic placement of board members, chairs and directors, and by the imposition of ideological guidance as terms for funding. They are setting educational agendas. And they are trying to pass anti-BDS legislation.

We must find ways of protecting the shrinking platforms we have to facilitate critical thinking, express solidarity and demand an equitable future. Cultural and educational spaces are flawed, exposed to the ethical paradoxes of philanthropy and the agendas of state funding. But they remain important, discursive sites within the body of radical politics.

In May 2021, I, along with 1000 other artists, joined the #visualartsforpalestine pledge, which asserted:

‘We support the principled call from Palestinian artists to refuse to exhibit with, or sell to, Israeli international arts institutions that are complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses. As long as Israel maintains its apartheid regime, we refuse to artwash its brutal oppression against Palestinians.’

What does ‘complicit’ mean? It can be ambiguous and open to interpretation. But for me it is clear. It means validating the attack on Documenta 15’s artists and organisers, agreeing to the removal of statements of solidarity or criticism of Israel, and a university’s capitulation to an external pressure group that demands the resignation of a museum director. This is complicity.

Our age seems to be defined by a dispersion of accountability. Within this nebulous hall of mirrors, it can feel impossible to find the person responsible for wrongdoing. Responsibility always seems to lie in an ever-more inaccessible, bureaucratised elsewhere. We are always interacting with powerless representatives of power. When points of clarity – a demand for ethical behaviour, for instance – emerge, we must act decisively.

The only meaningful action artists have in the face of huge networks of power and systemic injustice is the right of refusal. Especially when all the structures that benefit from not only our work, but also our politics, leave us ethically vulnerable. By remaining silent, on the other hand, we are suggesting that Palestinians deserve to live dehumanised, torturous lives under occupation, quietly and in absolute submission.

Solidarity is beautiful in deep, meaningful ways that can banish the flat darkness of nihilism. Solidarity is the boundless mess of the imagination put into action – sometimes it can feel frictionless and safe, but sometimes it also demands risk. Though the beauty of solidarity is that a group can come together and find safety and strength collectively, to effectively hold power to account. The victory of any nefarious, racist, fascist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, ableist or white supremacist faction in a space where we share our work and ideas should never, ever be acceptable to us.

Refusal works. Refusal and collective action has resulted in 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars writing to the German government stating that boycotts are a legitimate and non-violent tool of resistance. The GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit Initiative saw the heads of leading public cultural and research institutions in Germany reject the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution. With Nothing can be Changed Until it is Faced, artists, academics, writers and cultural workers who live in Germany and/or work with German cultural institutions also rejected the resolution. These pressures have contributed to seven German courts confirming the right to BDS.

There is a personal history here too. My mum was born in June 1945; her mother had been pregnant with her in the German concentration camp, Ravensbrück. My mum is recognised by the German state as a Holocaust survivor and is in receipt of reparations. I have spent a lot of time wondering how fascism becomes acceptable. It politely knocks on the open door, sits comfortably with bourgeois sensibilities. It is legislative, bureaucratic, distorts language, willfully confuses; it is resourceful in its abuse of loopholes and its cynical interpretation of legal ambiguities. But even fascists don’t want to be called fascists, and wish to be perceived as morally virtuous, which is where their fragility lies. Criticism is not tolerated because seeing their true reflection is unbearable and terrifying even to themselves.

In 2021 the WHO used the slogan ‘No one is safe, until everyone is safe’ in relation to the pandemic and vaccine inequity – a play on Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1971 powerful speech ‘Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free’. Variations on this proclamation resound through the civil rights movement and into modern day abolitionism. Its logic resonates in all liberation struggles.

Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free.

Free Palestine.

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