After censoring a pro-Palestinian message posted in an exhibition by the London-based research collective Forensic Architecture (FA), the Whitworth gallery at the University of Manchester has reversed its decision, allowing the exhibition, which was almost canceled, to continue with the original statement.
At the center of the dispute is a statement of solidarity with Palestinians posted by FA as part of its exhibition Cloud Studies at the Whitworth. The exhibition, which opened on July 2, examines air pollution as a tool of warfare against marginalized populations in countries including Palestine, Lebanon, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The exhibition also features FA’s investigation into “environmental racism” against US Black populations along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, who live in an area heavily polluted by large petrochemical facilities. Other exhibits address the pollution caused by tear gas, bomb clouds, and chemical weapons.
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At the entrance to the exhibition, the group posted a statement addressing Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza in May. “We honor the courage of Palestinians who continue to document and narrate events on the ground and to struggle against this violence, apartheid and colonization,” the group wrote. “We believe that this liberation struggle is inseparable from other global struggles against racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, and settler colonial violence and we acknowledge its particularly close entanglement with the Black liberation struggle around the world.”
The statement soon drew backlash from pro-Israel groups in Manchester and the UK at large, led by a group named UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI).
In a letter to Manchester University’s vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell dated July 28, which was obtained by Hyperallergic, UKLFI’s director Daniel Berke labeled the exhibition as “propaganda” and warned that its use of “inflammatory language” might provoke “racial discord.”
Last week, members of UKLFI and local Zionist groups in Manchester met with representatives from Manchester University and the Whitworth gallery. In a blog post, UKLFI said that the university’s vice-president Nalin Thakkar delivered a written apology on behalf of the gallery, which reads: “We are very sorry for any distress which has been experienced by members of our Jewish community in connection with aspects of the Cloud Studies exhibition, particularly the accompanying written statement.”
“We note, and understand, the concerns expressed about the inclusion of that statement within the exhibition space, including regarding how it might be received by visitors to the gallery and around its potential impact on members of our Jewish community,” Thakkar’s letter continues, according to UKLFI’s blog post. “We consider it appropriate for it to be removed, which we have now done.”
This is the second time this year that UKLFI pressured the Whitworth to retract a statement of solidarity with Palestinians. In June, it successfully persuaded the gallery to remove a statement that it had posted on its website in support of Palestinians, calling it “one-sided.”
After learning that its statement had been removed from the exhibition, FA requested to withdraw all of the collective’s works from the gallery. On Sunday, August 15, the gallery tweeted that the exhibition was closed due to “unforeseen circumstances.”
But today, August 18, while pro-Palestinian groups protested the gallery’s “racism and censorship” on campus, the Whitworth reversed its decision, allowing the exhibition to continue with FA’s original statement in support of Palestinians.
In a statement, the gallery said: “The University, as a non-political organisation, has tried to balance extremely complex issues raised by the exhibition, but we believe that the worst outcome for all parties concerned would have been to close this exhibition for an extended period of time.
The statement added that the Whitworth has developed a “space which gives voice to different perspectives on the issues raised by the exhibition and help contextualise them.” The gallery did not specify the contents of the new installation but said it will be “displayed prominently in the gallery.” The gallery also said that it will be conducting a review of its governance around issues of free speech and artistic expression.
Samaneh Moafi, a senior researcher at FA, and Eyal Weizman, the group’s director and founder, arrived at the gallery today to personally reinstall the removed statement. FA shared a video with Hyperallergic showing Weizman nailing the statement to the gallery’s wall. “Today, Manchester reclaimed one of its cultural institutions for Palestine,” Moafi wrote in an Instagram post publicizing the action.
On Twitter, the Whitworth announced that it will be closed until tomorrow for “reinstallation.” The exhibition will resume later this week.