Artists withdraw from Manchester exhibition to protest director’s ousting over pro-Palestinian message
Tai Shani, Mandy El-Sayegh, Oscar Murillo and Hrair Sarkissian are among more than two dozen artists who have announced their decision to withdraw their work from an upcoming exhibition at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. in a (n open letter Addressed to the school’s president and vice-chancellor, Nancy Rothwell, they condemned the alleged ousting of former museum director Alistair Hudson for allowing a pro-Palestinian message to be displayed.
“We are outraged and appalled by the University of Manchester’s attempt to force Director Alistair Hudson to resign from The Whitworth following pressure from British Lawyers for Israel,” the open letter reads read. “The unfolding of events in response to the declaration of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle that Forensic Architecture displayed during their 2021 exhibition ‘Cloud Studies’ at the Whitworth is a direct attack on political freedom and artistic expression.”
The pro-Palestinian message in question was penned by Forensic Architecture (FA) as part of their exhibition cloud studies at Whitworth last summer, which looked at how air pollution is being weaponized against vulnerable populations. At the entrance to the show, FA included a statement decrying Israeli military violence against Gaza and “Honour[ing] the bravery of the Palestinians who continue to document and tell stories on the ground and fight against this violence, apartheid and colonization.” The words drew sharp criticism from the pro-Israel lobby group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which successfully pressured the university to remove the statement.
In response, FA threatened to shut down the exhibition altogether, and pro-Palestinian activists organized campus protests against “racism and censorship” at the museum. The message was subsequently recovered along with a new, “contextual” statement written by local Jewish groups. But last week, the Guardian reported that Hudson, who has headed the Whitworth since 2018, was asked to resign over the reinstatement of the FA text. UKLFI told the newspaper that last September it “proposed that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action against the director”.
Now, 25 Artists and an art collective are speaking out against Hudson’s allegedly forced retirement and are threatening to withdraw her participation in the ninth edition of the British Art Show (BAS 9) “unless meaningful remedial action is taken”. The exhibition, a five-yearly touring exhibition of British contemporary art organized by the Hayward Gallery, includes several stops including the Whitworth in May.
A call for the reinstatement of Hudson’s position was also made by L’Internationalea group of seven modern and contemporary art institutions in Europe, including the Reina Sofía Museum of Art in Madrid and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. in one statement Released this weekend, its members said the director’s removal was “serving[s] to silence critical debate about the Palestinian occupation” and constitutes “an attack on art’s ability to pose pressing questions to the public”.
The university has been reluctant to address the controversy surrounding Hudson’s departure, telling Hyperallergic that “personnel matters remain strictly internal.” In response to our most recent request for comment since the publication of the artists’ open letter, a school spokesman refuted claims that “the university has in any way suppressed academic and artistic freedoms or bowed to external pressures.”
“Museums and galleries have traditionally been places for experimentation and challenge and we hope the Whitworth will be a place where we can debate, debate and disagree well,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the school at ” Protection of Academic Freedom”. and “Obligations under Equal Opportunities Acts”.
But signers of the latest letter claim that the “fear of censorship” following the incident makes it impossible to uphold the “healing, caring and redemption story” values they believe are at the core of the BAS 9 show.
“We believe there is no space for such actions, nor possible collaboration with the university and its platforms, particularly when public expression is restricted and evidence of human rights abuses is obscured,” the artists wrote. “Truth must be made public, and cultural spaces must remain open to difficult discussions.”