Taking aim
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Taking aim

Members of the panel discuss the complexity of Palestinian expression as a Mattress Factory audience of 175 listen. (Photo by Jim Busis)
Members of the panel discuss the complexity of Palestinian expression as a Mattress Factory audience of 175 listen. (Photo by Jim Busis)

The challenges confronted by artists who present Palestinian narratives through art was the subject of “Difficult Work,” a panel discussion at the Mattress Factory Museum on Dec. 9. Featured on the panel were Carnegie Mellon art professor Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, co-directors of Conflict Kitchen; and Tavia La Follette, the curator of a Mattress Factory exhibit of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists called “Borders, Walls and Citizenship” that was canceled amid outcry last May.

“We find ourselves in a very complex situation, as artists, curators, directors of cultural institutions,” moderator Joseph del Pesco of San Francisco’s Kadist Art Foundation told the 175-person crowd. “If we present the work of Israeli and Palestinian artists [together], we are in violation of BDS,” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

On the other hand, he said, if artists present only the work of Palestinian artists, they risk “pro-Israeli Jewish groups” becoming critical of the project.

“This leaves us with the option of showing the work of Israeli artists,” del Pesco said, “but that’s clearly missing the point. So what is to be done?”

Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, co-directors of the Mattress Factory, and Germaine Williams of the Pittsburgh Foundation, a funder of “Borders, Walls and Citizenship,” also participated on the panel.

“Our goal tonight is to think beyond the binary logic of us versus them,” del Pesco said at the commencement of the discussion, “to add complexity and nuance to our collective understanding of what has transpired and what will continue to transpire.”

La Follette’s exhibit was canceled last spring just prior to its scheduled opening when its Palestinian artists were accused by BDS supporters of normalizing relations with Israel and were threatened on Facebook.

Conflict Kitchen is a Schenley Plaza kiosk that opened in 2010 whose stated mission is to serve food “from countries with which the United States is in conflict,” and to stimulate discussion about the “culture, politics and issues at stake within the focus region.” The project focuses on one region at a time and provides programming and printed literature to accompany its food service.

Conflict Kitchen’s current Palestinian iteration, launched on Sept. 30, has been criticized by some in the Jewish community for presenting an unbalanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for propagating falsehoods against Israel on the pamphlets it calls “wrappers” at the kiosk and at its events.

One of its funders, the Heinz Endowments, has been openly critical of the project. While the foundation gave the restaurant a $50,000 grant to relocate last year, it publicly disavowed its support of the Palestinian iteration. In response to a letter from B’nai B’rith International last month expressing concern about the grant, the Heinz Endowments’ president, Gary Oliphant, wrote, “I want to be especially clear that [Conflict Kitchen’s] current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments, and we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding.”

The foundation “emphatically does not agree with or support either the anti-Israel sentiments quoted on Conflict Kitchen’s food wrappers or the program’s refusal to incorporate Israeli or Jewish voices in its material,” Oliphant continued.

At the panel discussion, La Follette described the sequence of events that eventually caused the Mattress Factory to cancel “Borders, Walls and Citizenship,” which showcased the work of three American artists, three Israeli artists and three Palestinian artists, one from the West Bank, one from Gaza and one from Israel.

Problems arose, she explained, when a colleague of the artist from the West Bank saw a blurb on the Mattress Factory website which used the words “dialogue” and “collaboration” in describing the exhibition. Accusations of “normalization” arose before the participating artists had a chance to issue a statement in support of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), although that statement was forthcoming, she said.

“PACBI boycotts projects that present Palestinians and Israelis together rather than as oppressor and victim,” del Pesco explained.

A petition began circulating “beyond the Arab world,” La Follette said, asking the Palestinian artists to remove themselves from the show. She became concerned for their livelihoods and their safety, she said.

“My most concern was for Mohammed, who was from Gaza, and his children and his family and his wife were living in Gaza,” she said. “And it’s run by Hamas, so would he even be allowed back into the country? Would he be arrested when he got back into the country? What’s going to happen to his wife and his kids?”

In an effort to allow the show to continue, the Mattress Factory tried to come into compliance with the terms of the boycott by correcting the wording on its website, according to Luderowski.

“We spent five hours on Memorial Day trying to fix the wordology,” she recalled. “I don’t think we ever solved the problem.”

The show had already been installed, Olijnyk noted, adding that he still was unsure if the museum made the right decision in canceling it.

“This is the first time in 37 years that the Mattress Factory has not opened an exhibition,” he said. “This is the first time in 37 years that we feel we silenced the voice of an artist.”

La Follette acknowledged that the Israeli artists withdrew from the show first in an effort to allow it to continue with their Palestinian and American colleagues.

“It should be noted that the Israelis pulled out of the show first, in the hopes that would squash the fire,” she said. “So no one could accuse the show of going against BDS if there’s no Israelis in the show. But it didn’t matter.”

Susanne Slavick, who was one of the American artists scheduled to exhibit in the show, explained from the audience that the cancelation of “Borders, Walls and Citizenship” was a direct result

of the “occupation” and not the fault of the Palestinians.

“The last thing I want to do is make it sound like it’s the Palestinians’ fault,” La Follette responded, stressing that she had intended to comply with the terms of the cultural boycott against Israel. “I thought that because we were not taking or receiving any money from any governments, that we were going to be focusing on human rights issues, that we were technically following all the rules of the BDS.”

No one on the panel or in the audience challenged the premise that the artists should indeed comply with BDS, observed audience member Ben Schachter, professor of visual arts at St. Vincent’s College, who has exhibited his work at the Mattress Factory.

“Everyone wanted to abide by BDS,” Schachter noted. “That’s a false premise, just accepting that this is the way we should behave. They were just accepting the terrorist point of view.”

At the same time, Schachter said, the curator claimed that the purpose of the exhibition was to promote dialogue.

“We can’t abide by both the false premise that you can accept the boycott position of no-dialogue and at the same time have a show about including multiple perspectives,” he said. “It’s an inherent contradiction.”

The issues faced by the Mattress Factory in trying to present art with a Palestinian narrative were brought to the fore again with the recent challenges confronting the Conflict Kitchen, according to Luderowski.

“Conflict Kitchen’s problem amplified our problem,” Luderowski said, “and it’s now out in the open, and this is why this [panel] is taking place. I didn’t realize until now that we were so aligned in our central point of view about giving full voice and the information to create a dialogue. I mean, that’s always been a verbal goal. It really is a First Amendment thing.”

Weleski and Rubin gave a synopsis of the controversy surrounding Conflict Kitchen and the intention behind the project.

Weleski explained that Conflict Kitchen’s programming and literature were not intended to provide a comprehensive look at the conflicts, but only limited perspectives meant to foster discussion.

“We don’t provide all of the information or facts,” she said. “We’re trying to provide perspectives. And through that, we hope that discussion will provide an opportunity for people to formulate their own opinions.”

Rubin claimed that a representative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh complained to the dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College, a sponsor of Conflict Kitchen, before the Palestinian iteration was launched, postulating that its first panel discussion might be anti-Semitic and asking for representation on the panel.

“Unfortunately, after that event, it was characterized by members of the Jewish Federation to the media as a hate-speech event and that people felt unsafe because of the focus on Palestine,” Rubin said.

A groundswell of critical press reports, Rubin added, eventually led to the Heinz Endowments disavowing its support for the project.

“That is when the s—- hit the fan for us,” he said, “and that’s when we couldn’t be silent anymore.”

Rubin said he met with Oliphant, who “said some things that were really deeply troubling to me, and not very well informed about the arts or our project.”

“At that point, we were sort of spinning,” Rubin continued. “And the Post-Gazette came out with several articles in which essentially they weren’t presenting our viewpoints, and more important, they weren’t presenting the viewpoints of any of the Palestinians here locally that we’ve worked with.”

Rubin stressed that because his project is art and showcases opinion, any need to “vet facts” is obviated.

“The viewpoints presented in our material are the viewpoints of Palestinians,” Rubin said. “We present them as such. We do not need to vet facts on viewpoints.

“We’re artists,” he added. “We can be out there. We don’t have a lot of strings attached. And we’re going to be one voice. But we don’t have to be everyone’s voice.  Right now, we are the voice of the Palestinians.”

Rubin was critical of the media throughout his presentation and called out Fox News for reporting that Teresa Heinz Kerry was funding anti-Israel propaganda via the Heinz Endowments’ grant to Conflict Kitchen, while excusing himself from the need to fact-check, Schachter observed.

“[Rubin] said, ‘We don’t have to fact-check opinion; we’re quoting opinion,’ ” Schachter recounted. “Then, in the next breath, he said something about Fox News’ failure to fact check. He’s saying that as an artist he doesn’t have to fact-check. And that’s his security blanket.”

The Conflict Kitchen project, according to Schachter, has “inflamed anti-Semitism,” despite Rubin’s steadfast denial that such is the case.

Some Jewish community members in attendance picked up on another audience member’s accusations against the “power and the influence of one particular group that has a lot of money.”

That comment, according to Schachter, was a repetition of the common anti-Semitic canard of “the rich, powerful Jew who can sway institutions to his will — the powerful, rich Jew.”

“I went in to the program with an open mind, thinking and hoping it would not be anti-Semitic,” said a man in the audience, who asked not to be identified, following the discussion. “But when an audience member’s comment, criticizing ‘the small group that controls the money’ went unchallenged by anyone on the panel, I realized that we had fallen down the rabbit hole. The concerns that Jon Rubin said the Federation had raised with him had come to fruition.”

For his part, Rubin, who is Jewish, told audience members that he knows what anti-Semitism is and that his project is not anti-Semitic.

Rubin stressed that it was not his objective to present a balanced view of the conflict, because there is an imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“It’s not an equal platform,” Rubin said. “And we’re fools if we’re going to say it is. Or, we’re deluding ourselves. And that’s fine. We’re welcome to do that. But I think that, again, language is important. And language can be used as a weapon, right? Or it can be used to clarify what is perhaps shared difficult territory for us to try to negotiate.”

The challenges of getting funding for art projects that highlight a Palestinian narrative were also discussed, with La Follette explaining that she was advised to withhold the subject matter of the art from potential funders.

ArtUp, a gallery La Follette founded and directs, “applied for a grant, and for the first time ever, didn’t get funding,” she said, adding that she was advised in applying for grants to focus on the artists themselves “and not about what we were going to be talking about.”

Rubin asked Williams of the Pittsburgh Foundation to opine on whether foundations should be required to add a “freedom of expression clause” to their grants, allowing artists carte blanche in their work, and questioned him on the propriety of the Heinz Endowments’ disavowing its support for Conflict Kitchen.

For funders, “risk assessment” is critical in determining which projects to support, said Williams. And private foundations, such as the Heinz Endowments, may have different concerns than foundations that control pubic funds.

“All funders are not the same,” Williams said. “The Heinz Endowments is not public dollars. There are differences.”

Last week, Rubin received the Carol Brown Established Artist Creative Achievement Award, an unrestricted cash prize of $15,000 funded jointly by the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation.

“I have decided to put it entirely into the current Palestinian version of Conflict Kitchen,” Rubin said at the awards ceremony. “The byproduct of this is twofold: First, the money will allow me to bring more Palestinian voices into our city and add greater depth to an iteration of the project that I very strongly believe in; and second, this will provide a great opportunity to the funders of this award to stand up against the criticism that will certainly come again their way because of the use of these funds.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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