Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Controversy continues over MoMa PS1 protest as artists call out questionable philanthropy

Artists are protesting the affiliation between Leon Black, the chairman of MoMA, and Constellis Group, the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater

Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz poses in front of his sculpture 'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' in Trafalgar Square in London. AFP
Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz poses in front of his sculpture 'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' in Trafalgar Square in London. AFP

Controversy continues over an exhibition about the Gulf wars, Theater of Operations, at the contemporary art space MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York.

Of the 80 artists involved in the show, 37 have signed a public letter and are protesting the affiliation between Leon Black, the chairman of MoMA, and Constellis Group, the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater.

“To have a cultural institution getting money from companies that are involved in war, or in security – this is the whole aspect of what we are talking about,pioneering Iraqi artist Dia Al Azzawi, who signed the letter, tells The National. “It’s an exhibition where all the work is against the war, and then we find somebody on the board has contact or relations with the companies that work in Iraq.”

Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has also defied museum curators by pausing his video in the show, entitled RETURN (2004–ongoing), and posted a statement alongside it explaining why he had done so. He called on Black to divest from Constellis, or, failing that, MoMA to divest from Black, or, failing that, for PS1 to divest from MoMA.

People visit Tthe Theatre of Operations - Gulf Wars 1991-2011' exhibition at the MoMA PS1 in New York in November 15, 2019. Getty Images
Thomas Hirschhorn's 'Hotel Democracy' (2003), a motel-like installation about the Iraq War, at MoMA PS1's 'Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011'. Getty

Rakowitz says he took it upon himself to pause the video, after twice asking museum curators to do so.

When they did not follow his request, he went to PS1 and did it himself. He says this is an "evolution of the work", rather than a cancellation.

However, reports in the media say that after he left, the museum turned the video back on.

The show is not locked inside some kind of vitrine, hermetically sealed from the era in which the work was made. That era in which the work was made is happening now. And MoMA PS1 is part of the battleground. MoMA’s just rebuilt itself. It could rebuild its board and lead the way

Michael Rakowitz

Now, a representative from Shady Lane, the production company for British artist Phil Collins, who was also involved in the PS1 show, told The National that he had also requested changes to made to his work, baghdad screentests. The alteration Collins proposed as a means of protest was likewise not accepted by the curators, he says, and he withdrew his work in late October, just weeks before the show opened.

Collins was contesting the trusteeship of Larry Fink, whose corporation BlackRock is an investor in the private prison companies GEO Group and Core Civic.

“Museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others,” Collins said in a statement provided to Hyperallergic at the time.

The fact that Collins and Rakowitz’s protests are each directed towards different board members shows the scale of the campaign to research and understand the various investments of major museum board members in the US, where institutions are heavily reliant on private philanthropy. The separate instances show also the deep importance artists are now attaching to these financial affiliations.

It was to show solidarity with Collins’ protest of Fink’s board membership that Rakowitz, Iraqi artist Jananne Al Ani, who is also showing in the exhibition, and Iraqi writer Rijin Sahakian, who contributed to the exhibition catalogue, met PS1 director Kate Fowle, and the two curators of the exhibition, Eleey, and Ruba Katrib on the week of the show’s opening in November. During these meetings Sahakian brought up Black’s ownership of Constellis.

“There was a further connection that brought this closer to home in the context of the Iraq war exhibition, and that was Blackwater,” says Rakowitz. “Once that seemed a part of it, it was almost impossible to ignore. The subtitle of the exhibition says 1991 to 2011 — but for the Iraq people, the war has not ended. For there to be somebody on the board of this museum that is enabling the conditions for ongoing war in Iraq and enabling the conditions for an exhibition about these wars seemed pathological to me.”

However, Rakowitz says he was dissuaded to not distract from the show. The exhibition is a significant investigation of the fall-out of the Gulf wars and gives a prominence that is still unique in the US to Iraqi artists.

Black, who is also an ex officio trustee at MoMA PS1, co-founded the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, which acquired Constellis in 2016. Blackwater, now named Academi, is a division of Constellis, and it was widely criticized for its actions in Iraq during the country’s civil war, when, as a private contractor, it was not bound by the same code of conduct that governed military engagements. Most notably it was responsible for the Nisour Square Massacre, when Blackwater security forces escorting a US military convoy shot at Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and injuring around 20. MoMA and PS1 have been affiliated since 2000. They have separate boards but share other administrative departments, such as development, education, and financial planning.

According to Rakowitz, Eleey instead suggested a day of public dialogue around Black’s affiliations and Blackwater. Rakowitz says he told them he also wanted to post his statement and pause his video, intercessions he viewed as an evolution of his work itself. Rakowitz is the grandson of Iraqi immigrants in New York who ran a date import and export business, which is the subject of his work for the exhibition. He uses this history as a means to comment on migration, interconnection, and the various hurdles faced by Iraqis.

An piece in the Theatre of Operations exhibition at MoMA PS1. Getty Images.
Ali Eyal's textile work 'Painting Size 80 x 60cm' in 'Theater of Operations' at MoMA PS1. Getty

“The way that I presented it was that this is an ongoing work, the work has always responded to the dates being caught up and not able to get across borders,” explains Rakowitz. “It was absolutely in keeping with the intention of the work to do this – the statement was typeset using the same font that my grandfather’s import/export company used on their stationery.”

Rakowitz says that after he returned to Chicago, where he lives, he ultimately decided to continue with his plan to pause his work. He says that he asked the curators twice to effect the change and to post his statement next to it, but they ignored the request.

“I live in Chicago and have two small kids so I can’t just fly over and do it," he says. In January, he had a show opening in New York. He researched the media player they were using and sourced a remote for it. En route from his parents’ house on Long Island to his gallery in Manhattan, he went into the room in PS1 showing his work, and pressed pause. He tacked his statement up on the wall, and his colleagues posted a picture of him standing next to it. These then quickly circulated on social media.

The MoMa PS1 is under fire for accepting money from military organisations. Getty
MoMa PS1 is under fire for the affiliation between MoMA board member Leon Black and the private military contractor the Constellis Group. Getty

It was at this point that the artists decided to also send a letter to MoMA and MoMA PS1. Last week the letter was sent to Fowle, Eleey, and Ruba Katrib, as well as MoMA director Glenn Lowry. The 37 artists and writers who signed it include Rakowitz, Al Ani, Sahakian, Rasheed Araeen, Al Azzawi, Karen Finley, the Guerrilla Girls, Mona Hatoum, Hiwa K, Laura Poitras, Martha Rosler, Nada Shabout, and Jalal Toufic.

The letter stops short of calling for any direct course of action and seeks to call attention to the affiliation between Black and MoMA: “We appreciate the visibility this exhibition gives to the Iraq wars and to the work of Iraqi artists,” it reads. “However, we also wish to make visible MoMA’s connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars.”

Chairman and chief executive of BlackRock, Larry Fink is under fire for his association with art galleries. AFP
Chairman and chief executive of BlackRock, which invests in private prison services, MoMA trustee Larry Fink has also been called out by artists in the exhibition. AFP

The museum has released a statement in response, saying: “We support these artists' right to make their voices heard."

“It is an important exhibition,” says Rakowitz. “Nobody is saying that it isn’t. But at the same time, the show is not locked inside some kind of vitrine, hermetically sealed from the era in which the work was made. That era in which the work was made is happening now. And MoMA PS1 is part of the battleground. MoMA’s just rebuilt itself. It could rebuild its board and lead the way.”

Updated: January 21, 2020 02:50 PM

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