BDS-backing Artist Asked Haifa Museum to Remove His Controversial 'McJesus' Sculpture

After artwork sparked a violent protest last week by local Christians, the Finnish artist discovered his artwork is still on display, although he had asked it to be removed back in September

'McJesus,' on display at the Haifa Museum of Art.
Vilhelm Sjöström

Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, creator of the “McJesus” artwork on display in the Haifa Museum of Art, which belatedly triggered protests by hundreds of Christians last week, had asked the museum to remove the piece in September because he had joined the BDS movement.

The museum contacted Leinonen a year ago, suggesting that he participate in its "Sacred Goods" show, which opened in August. Leinonen referred them to the gallery that owned "McJesus" – which depicts the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald, the clown-mascot of the global fast-food empire – and a loan agreement was signed, as is the norm in the art world.

>> 'McJesus' affair: In Israel, culture is now a dirty word | Analysis ■ Culture minister's demand to remove work of art is an insult to culture | Editorial

After the artist contacted the museum, its staff asked the gallery whether anything had changed and the gallery replied that it could continue to show the work.

At the end of last week, protests by Arab Christians offended by the artwork erupted after a fire-bomb was thrown at the museum, and involved stone-throwing and other violence resulting in several injuries. The museum has since screened off the artwork and erected a sign warning of potentially offensive content.

In response to a query from Haaretz, Leinonen wrote that he had contacted the museum in September, saying that the "McJesus" work was being displayed against his wishes, and that he wanted it removed to protest human rights abuses in Israel. Israel openly uses art and culture to whitewash and justify the occupation regime, Leinonen wrote, adding that he thought the Haifa museum had taken it down – only to learn, after hearing of the demonstrations outside the museum, that it was still on show.

He told Haaretz that he has contacted the museum again asking them to take it down but hasn't received an answer yet.

Churches make moves

Meanwhile, on Monday the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Church in Haifa petitioned the local district court to force the museum to remove three works from another exhibit, "Shop It," on the grounds that they also offend Christian sensibilities. The works show Jesus and Mary as commercial objects – such as Mary in the form of a Barbie doll.

The petition quotes Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev who told the management of the Haifa museum management on Thursday that the works debase Jesus.

Nissim Tal, director of the art museum, commented that the court will have to make its decision. "We stand behind the works, and behind the entire exhibition," he said. "I don't think anybody in Israel is going to take down the work."

Last Thursday, even before the demonstrations erupted, Tal had received a letter from Regev, demanding that "McJesus" be removed. “I’ve received many complaints about a grave insult to the Christian community’s sensibilities,” the minister wrote, and she also threatened to cut her ministry’s financial support for the institution.

Tal declined to comment on Regev's letter, however he did say that Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch backs the museum's decisions.

Asked why he thought the whole thing blew up five months after "McJesus" was first put on show, Tal said that somebody had mentioned it in the social media – and the story went viral.

"Tens of thousands of people have visited the exhibition in recent months and there's no reason for anything to change," he said. "Our role is to stand like a wall against censorship. We will not tell artists how to create or what to draw."

Yet another source of opposition to the works in question has also emerged, in the interim: the pro-communist Hadash party faction in Haifa. Freedom is not an absolute thing, and Israel and other countries sometimes impose constraints on freedom of expression, wrote Hadash council member Raja Zaatry on his Arabic-language Facebook page. For instance, in Israel, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal, as is burning the Israeli flag, and there are limits on discussion of the Holocaust.

Zaatry and his party colleagues condemned what they called Minister Regev’s cynical attempt to exploit the protests to clamp restrictions on the freedom of expression, in this case. However, they noted in their demand that "McJesus" be removed that Leinonen himself wanted it taken down, after his decision to join BDS in September.

A letter from the Zetterberg Gallery to Haifa Museum, which Haaretz has seen, says they were surprised about the artist joining BDS, and despite his request, they are honoring the agreement signed with the museum, and say the artist cannot demand that the work be removed. They also apologized for the unpleasantness caused to the museum.