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Olivia Colman among 1300+ artists accusing institutions of Palestine censorship

November 30, 2023 at 1:59 pm

Olivia Colman attends the “Empire of Light” European Premiere during the 66th BFI London Film Festival at The Royal Festival Hall on October 12, 2022 in London, England. [Karwai Tang/WireImage]

More than 1,300 artists, including Academy Award winning Olivia Colman and Olivier Award winners Harriet Walter and Juliet Stevenson, have signed an open letter addressed to the arts and culture sector, that accuses cultural institutions in Western countries of “repressing, silencing and stigmatising Palestinian voices and perspectives”. Other signatories include BAFTA winners Aimee Lou Wood and Siobhán McSweeney, Paapa Essiedu, Susanne Wokoma, Youseff Kerkour, Nicola Coughlan and Lolly Adefope.

The signatories said that such repression and stigmatisation include the “targeting and threatening the livelihoods of artists and arts workers who express solidarity with Palestinians, as well as cancelling performances, screenings, talks, exhibitions and book launches.”

Nevertheless, they point out, artists “in their thousands” are following their conscience and continuing to speak out. “Freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights, is the backbone of our creative lives, and fundamental to democracy.”

As examples of censorship, the letter cites Lisson Gallery’s “postponement” of a London exhibition by Ai Weiwei; Folkwang Museum in Essen’s last-minute cancellation of curator Anais Duplan’s Afrofuturism exhibition; and Germany’s Saarland Museum’s cancellation of a solo exhibition by artist Candida Brietz. They add the fact that Hollywood producers have dropped actor Melissa Barrero from Scream VII.

In each case the institution attributed the cancellation to comments made by the artist in support of Palestinian rights and unrelated to the content of their professional work.

Furthermore, this month the publicly-funded Arnolfini, Bristol’s International Centre for Contemporary Arts, withdrew from hosting film and spoken word poetry events curated by Bristol Palestine Film Festival, claiming the events might “stray into political activity”. The events have been moved to other venues in the city.

“This censorship is as frustrating as it is wrongheaded,” said signatory Hassan Abulrazzak, whose play And Here I Am based on the life of a Palestinian actor was cancelled in Paris in October. “Now is the time to listen to Palestinians, to understand what their lives are like.”

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Arts organisations, say the signatories, have a “disturbing double standard” in that “expressions of solidarity readily offered to other peoples facing brutal oppression, have not been extended to Palestinians.” They urged the organisations to “join the calls for a permanent ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip and “stand up for artists who voice their support for Palestinian rights.”

Many artists, they warned, are refusing to work with institutions that fail to meet [these] basic obligations to uphold freedom of expression and anti-discrimination when it comes to speech on Palestine.

Two thousand poets announced a boycott of the Poetry Foundation in the US after its magazine refused to publish a book review it had commissioned. Artists and writers internationally have declared they will no longer work with Artforum magazine, and editorial staff have resigned in response to the firing of the editor David Velasco who had published a letter, signed by 8,000 artists, that called for a ceasefire and for “Palestinian liberation”.

Last Friday, the UN office in Geneva put out a statement under the heading “Speaking out on Gaza/Israel must be allowed” which expressed “alarm at the worldwide wave of attacks, reprisals, criminalisation and sanctions against those who publicly express solidarity with the victims of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.” UN experts noted that, “Artists, academics, journalists, activists and athletes have faced particularly harsh consequences and reprisals from states and private actors because of their prominent roles and visibility.”

Gabriel Frankel, UK legal officer at the European Legal Support Centre, which monitors incidents of repression against advocates for Palestinian rights, added: “We have… seen workers in the sector push back and remain firm in their commitment to justice, and we encourage those who have any concerns to contact the ELSC for advice.”

The full text of the letter and list of signatories can be found here.

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