At 1pm on Sunday, August 28, there was no one on the third floor of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) to speak for the opening panel of the library’s new Painting the Streets exhibition. Hours before the scheduled event, the exhibition’s co-organizers announced they were both boycotting the panel and calling on the library to take down the show entirely.
Their sudden decision was in protest of an incident earlier this year: In May, SFPL canceled a separate exhibition, titled Wall + Response, over a mural’s inclusion of the phrase “Zionism is Racism.”
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Painting the Streets is a collaboration between EastSide Arts Alliance, an arts and culture nonprofit, and Nomadic Press. The latter published a 2022 book titled Painting the Streets: Oakland Uprising in the Time of Rebellion that compiled murals from Black Lives Matter protests alongside poetry, essays, and interviews. Like the book, the namesake exhibition — which opened on August 20 in the library’s third-floor African American Center Exhibit Space — places art and literature side-by-side, highlighting SFPL’s collection of writings by Black authors.
The opening panel this month, titled “Art Activism and the Oakland Uprising,” was to feature artists, activists, and organizers involved in the protests that yielded the exhibition’s works.
“I’m not participating in no way shape or form with programming held at nor sponsored by SFPL until they get their minds and actions right!” Kufue, an arts educator who was one of the six panelists, wrote in an August 28 Instagram post about the boycott in protest of SFPL’s “Zionism is Racism” censorship. “I can’t speak on healing-centered art and activism through visual discourse at a space that actually censors community truths and sufferings.”
Another panelist, curator Ashara Ekundayo, wrote on Instagram: “I cannot talk about freedom and creative art practice and public art as an arts organizer, curator and artist on the platform of a library that will censor artists and the voices and stories of occupied Palestine. I am angered and disappointed by the actions of the SFPL.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, SFPL said: “We regret that Nomadic Press and EastSide Arts Alliance decided to cancel their panel. By canceling the panel discussion, we feel it was a missed opportunity for them to publicly share their concerns about the library’s decision, and also promote the book and the transformative work they’ve done in Oakland with a broad audience.” The library says it hopes to speak with the two groups directly in the coming days.
“We are hopeful that we can find a pathway to keeping the exhibit up, since we believe it has great value to the community,” SFPL added.
But in a statement, EastSide Arts Alliance and Nomadic Press said they are calling for the “timely removal” of their exhibition until the library reinstates the Wall + Response show, curated by artist and organizer Megan Wilson and poet Maw Shein Win.
In May, SFPL canceled Wall + Response, an exhibition encompassing four murals painted in the Mission District’s Clarion Alley. It would have included contributions from 16 poets responding to the artworks’ “social/political/racial justice narratives,” according to SFPL. The library, however, took issue with one of the murals. A collaboration between the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Art Forces, and the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), the painting depicted four Arab leaders: Rasmea Odeh, Mehdi Ben Barka, Naji Diafullah, Leila Khaled, and Basel al-Araj. When the SFPL exhibitions team reviewed the work in early March, it noticed the phrase “Zionism is Racism” painted on a protest sign in the lower right-hand corner.
“The slogan ‘Zionism is Racism’ is widely considered to be antisemitic,” an SFPL spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “Staff was concerned that, if put on view in an open public space, it would cause harm to members of our community and library workers and violate the City’s Equal Employment Opportunity Policy which prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs.”
Wall + Response‘s organizers, artists, and poets penned a March 8 letter to the library expressing their concerns with its censorship of “Zionism is Racism.” The letter also refuted the library’s statement: “We do not agree with the rationale of not showing the mural because of the harm it would do to the community. While art may challenge dominant narratives, causing difficult and uncomfortable conversations, the harm to community comes from ignoring or denying the experiences of others.”
In a call with SFPL Communication Director Kate Patterson, CAMP representative Megan Wilson agreed to remove the phrase “Zionism is Racism” from the mural using Photoshop. Wilson later said, however, that her agreement was meant sarcastically, and the library postponed the exhibition. On May 6, City Librarian Michael Lambert spoke with representatives from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, who also refused to remove the phrase. SFPL then canceled Wall + Response.
A petition demanding the reinstatement of the exhibition, launched by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, has amassed nearly 1,700 signatures.
“Zionism is the official ideology of Israeli apartheid. This phrase captures the experiences of Palestinians and others struggling against apartheid and Israel’s settler-colonial violence,” the petition reads.
Beyond the petition, the library’s censorship of “Zionism is Racism” attracted further attention. In a June 23 letter, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff attorney Hannah Kieschnick urged City Librarian Michael Lambert to rescind the decision, arguing that it ran afoul of First Amendment rights and noting the responsibility of the library as an institution. “Public libraries play a special role in the education of community members and the free exchange of diverse ideas and information,” the letter reads. “That role is severely undermined when a library devalues certain viewpoints over others.”
Painting the Streets opened August 20 and is slated to run through November 27. The library has not announced whether or not the show will be canceled.