Israeli Artists Decry 'Self-censorship' at Tel Aviv Museum After Weiwei Show Nixed

Museum reportedly called off an exhibit by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman because of political pressures.

Ai Weiwei and Miki Kratsman at the Chelouche Art Gallery.
Nira Itzhaki

Israeli artists responded harshly to Wednesday's report in Haaretz that the Tel Aviv Museum had canceled a planned exhibit by photographer Miki Kratsman and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, apparently due to political considerations.

The sculptor and Israel Prize laureate Ya’acov Dorchin called the museum’s actions “absurd and stupid,” adding, “I think that it’s unbelievable that the museum is censoring itself.“ He said he felt “something is seeping in here that has no form at this point, but it brings up all sorts of manifestations."

Dorchin said he had participated in a number of exhibits at the museum and “except for budgetary considerations that are common to almost all the institutions, I don’t remember such phenomena.” The cancelation made the Tel Aviv Museum of Art seem “provincial and idiotic,” he said.

The director of Umm al-Fahm’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Said Abu Shakra, wrote a letter to Kratsman proposing that the exhibit, which was to have included portraits of thousands of Palestinians taken by the photographer, as well as Ai Weiwei’s works on refugees, be held at his institution.

According to Abu Shakra, “Kratsman is not an artist who can be ignored nor can his political message, which is humanistic by all accounts. His message opposes the occupation of another people but this is an opinion that is acceptable to a large portion of the people. I might expect this of a private gallery, but a museum on the level of the Tel Aviv museum must not reach a situation where a prestigious exhibit is cancelled out of fear of the response. I very much hope this is not really the reason.”

The artist Tsibi Geva, who represented Israel in the 2015 Venice Biennale said that “foot-dragging on future exhibits happens all the time in museums and this is nothing new." In this case, however, "there is a feeling of political ‘discomfort’ that went around like gossip (one person told the other), hiding behind bureaucratic claims like an available hall, dates, etc. When one really doesn’t want to do something, there’s always the claim of ‘no available hall’ and ‘previous commitment,’ etc. It’s hard to put a finger on a negative conspiracy about this exhibit, but it’s clear that there is no positive conspiracy to do it. The foot is on the brakes.”

Porat Salomon, an artist with the Pardes art school, said: “The function of art is to raise questions. At the height of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Freud wrote an article taking apart the myth of Moses, the myths of his own identity. People asked how he dared dismantle his own identity when Jewish identity was under attack. To me this is the function of an artist. In this sense if that’s what Krantsman’s works do, raise real and sincere debate that doesn’t entrench people even more in their positions it’s a disaster to silence him.

However, Salomon said the debate should be among artists, and not “the various Doron Sabags, not PR people,” referring to art collector and Tel Aviv Art Museum board member Doron Sabag. Salomon added that he wished the museum was “much more political and much more involved.”

The painter and Israel Prize laureate Michal Na’aman said she could not point a finger at the Tel Aviv museum’s director and chief curator Suzanne Landau for “putting up a smokescreen" to hide the desire to avoid this exhibit, but "suspicions are very serious and weigh heavily. Apparently something did happen and something changed.” Na’aman also said that although she could not decisively say so, she thought there was a “trend that could be called self-censorship” and a “lack of will to deal with explosive materials.” Na’aman added, “in any case, I hope [Culture and Sport Minister] Miri Regev’s bullying will not be worth her while.”