Activists Stage ‘Guerrilla Festival’ of Palestinian Art in Barbican Centre Amid Censorship Controversy

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Demonstrators occupied the Barbican Centre in London for a “guerrilla festival” on Saturday afternoon, filling its foyer with poetry and dance by Palestinian artists.

The action, organized by the advocacy group Culture Workers Against Genocide, was a response to the Barbican’s decision not to host a talk on Palestine by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. That decision has spurred allegations of censorship against the institution, and inspired several high-profile artists to withdraw from its current programming. 

Standing on the center’s mezzanine, demonstrators unfurled a massive banner that read “Stop Cultural Genocide” and “Let Us Speak.” Below, protestors waved white kites bearing the words “Stop Killing Artists,” a reference to the Palestinian writers and artists counted among the more than 30,000 killed in Gaza since October 7.

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“The Barbican have been complicit in censoring and silencing the voices of Palestinian and Pro-Palestinian allies,” read a flier handed out at the event and later shared by the Instagram page Censorship at the Barbican. “This censorship aids the attempted erasure of Palestinian culture now occurring alongside the mass murder committed by the Israeli army,” the flier continued.

The controversy erupted following reports that the center had retracted its support for Mishra’s talk. Titled “The Shoah after Gaza” and organized by the London Review of Books, it examined the historical parallels between the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust) and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A statement from the Barbican published February 14 said that no official agreement to host the talk was finalized before the details of the event were “prematurely” publicized. Additionally, the center’s senior leadership did not have time “to do the careful preparation needed for this sensitive content.”

On February 13, a major show of textile art, titled “Unravel: the Power and Politics of Textiles in Art,” opened at the Barbican; less than two weeks later, artists and collectors began pulling their works from the show in solidarity with Misha and Palestine.

As of Monday, artists Diedrick Brackens, Yto Barrada, Mounira al Solh, and Cian Dayrit have removed their works from the show, following the lead of London-based collectors Lorenzo Legarda Leviste and Fahad Mayet, who on February 29 withdrew their loan of two quilts by Gee’s Bend weaver Loretta Pettway. A work by Pacita Abad, loaned by Art Jameel in Dubai, has also been withdrawn. In total, nine artworks have been taken away from view. 

Culture Workers Against Genocide has demanded from Barbican chief executive Clare Spencer and its board of trustees “full transparency over the decision-making process” that led to the cancelation of Mishra’s talk and the “censorship” of Elias Anastas, a co-founder of Palestine-based Radio Al Hara. In June of last year, Anastas was invited to give a livestreamed talk at the center, but during the soundcheck for the event was reportedly warned by a Barbican employee via text message to “avoid talking about free Palestine at length.” The Barbican later apologized for what it described as an “editorial note.”

The advocacy group has also demanded that the center platform Palestinian artists and writers “without the threat of censorship, in an active response to attempted cultural erasure.”

In a statement to ARTnews, a spokesperson for the Barbican said, “We respect people’s right to express their views and protest peacefully.”

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