Artists Drop Out of CalArts MFA Show After Venue Bans Pro-Palestine Language

Malavika Rao, “dream home” (2023), gouache on paper, 29 x 22 inches, one of the works withdrawn from the MFA show at UTA Artist Space (image courtesy the artist)

LOS ANGELES — Seven artists have withdrawn their work from Infrastructures, a California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) MFA exhibition at the UTA Artist Space, claiming that the Beverly Hills organization denied their requests to include expressions of Palestinian solidarity in their artist statements. Hours before the exhibition’s opening on January 20, artists Laura Ohio, Zoe Josephina Moon, malavika rao, GIAHN, Jungsub Eom, lauren mcavoy, and Ásgerður “Ása” Arnardóttir removed their pieces from display.

Each year, recent CalArts MFA graduates organize an exhibition of their work at a gallery in Los Angeles. A total of 39 students had expressed interest in participating in the 2023 graduating class’s show at UTA Artist Space, according to Steven Lam, dean of the School of Art at CalArts.

In mid-January, a handful of artists decided to amend their artist statements, viewable via a QR code next to each work, to address Israel’s attacks on Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 assault and express solidarity with Palestinians. “In light of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, I would like to add that painting has been a medium through which I have been able to envision what I want of the future — almost like a vision board or a map,” read one statement, by malavika rao. “If I am mapping out a future world liberated from the structures of capitalism and colonization, then how can I do so without mapping out a free Palestine?”

Artwork by Ása Arnardóttir withdrawn from Infrastructures (Courtesy the artist)

In the days leading up to the exhibition, however, representatives for UTA and CalArts informed artists that they could not amend their statements, according to Rao. At an emergency zoom meeting on the morning of January 20 with Dean Lam and exhibition curator Meghan Gordon, the artists were told that they could not include the words “Gaza” or “Palestine,” said Katie Nolan, a participating artist and one of the exhibition organizers. In a decree that allegedly originated from Arthur Lewis, the creative director of UTA Fine Arts Division, the artists were also informed that any action or protest at the opening could get the entire show canceled, at which point they decided to withdraw from the exhibition entirely.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a UTA spokesperson said, “We respect those students’ decision to withdraw from the exhibit.” The organization declined to comment further.

UTA Artist Space was founded in 2016 in Boyle Heights as the exhibition space for UTA Fine Arts, the visual arts branch of Hollywood talent behemoth United Talent Agency. In 2018, they moved into a 4,000-square-foot former factory in Beverly Hills, redesigned by Ai Weiwei, who signed with the agency in 2016. (Coincidentally, Ai’s exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London was recently canceled following the artist’s social media posts criticizing Israel.)

Zoe Moon (Courtesy the artist)
Zoe Moon, “I Will Spend My Life Looking For A Lost History” (2020), US flag and precision knife, 3 x 5 feet (image courtesy of the artist)

In addition to their individual statements for the MFA show at UTA, eight artists drafted a collective text that they intended to read aloud at the opening. “We feel it is important to express alignment with the Palestinian liberation movement, and call attention to our responsibility, as artists, to demand an end to institutional silence and to help shape a world that protects freedom of art, expression, and life,” they wrote.

Lam told Hyperallergic that time constraints meant that other possible options to incorporate the artists’ perspectives could not be explored before the opening. 

“There are very different thresholds of acceptance between commercial settings and academic ones and unfortunately the past week in Indiana and elsewhere proves that the latter is also being challenged,” Lam added, citing the recent cancellation of Palestinian artist Samia Halaby’s exhibition at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at the Indiana University at Bloomington. 

Zoe Moon picking up her artwork at the opening of Infrastructures (photo by and courtesy Carmen Bird)

One artist, Zoe Moon, said UTA asked her to edit her statement even though the original version she provided months earlier already addressed Palestine. In November, Moon had decided to restage a piece she made in 2020 in response to the Rwandan genocide, an upside-down United States flag with a poem speaking of “lost history” cut into it. In her statement, which was initially accepted along with the artwork, she mentioned the work’s relevance in light of contemporary events. 

“I look at this flag now in the midst of the genocide against Palestinian people, and see a common thread. Black, Brown and Indigenous people are cyclically subjected to crimes against humanity and are expected to watch their entire community being annihilated with no trace,” read part of the text. “We all have a collective duty to speak up against our government because colonization thrives on silence.”

At the emergency meeting, Moon was told that the inclusion of her statement was “an oversight,” and that she would have the option of presenting her work without an accompanying text, revise it to remove mention of Palestine, or withdraw from the show. 

“I chose to pull out,” she told Hyperallergic. “I was given that ultimatum at 11am, for a noon opening … It was so awful. I got there at 12:05pm, walked in, and saw my name scratched off the wall.” She requested that her work be removed from all promotional material supporting the show.

She describes the desire of some of her fellow artists to change their artist statements as “performative,” expressing frustration that she was given the same ultimatum even though her work and statement were accepted early on. “This was my way of preserving history,” Moon said. “People don’t understand what a movement takes. It’s not just staging a sit-in just because you can, right here, right now. It’s more strategic than that.”

Noland echoed Moon’s frustration while also criticizing UTA’s position. “In order to effectively write statements about a genocide in Palestine, we should have started to organize earlier and work with the gallery about statements.” Even so, she said, “censoring the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Gaza’ was not the right thing to do.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *