Can the Art World Continue to Ignore Anti-Semitism?

The rise of racism and anti-semitism is gaining momentum following an unprecedented Brexit and US election. The art world at large had completely ignored the signs. During this year’s Frieze London talks, run by Gregor Muir and Omar Kholeif, many questions were raised around how cultural institutions could have been more inclusive of the Brexit camp and could they have done more during the EU referendum campaign? According to Roger Malbert, the visual arts does not “carry an ounce of weight where the political landscape is concerned. The challenges that lie in that the art world could have employed a much stronger voice through its internet presence to better understand and highlight how strongly divided the UK really was: from city to countryside, the generational divide, and class division.” Statement exhibitions such as the traveling British Art Show is open to artists of any background or citizenship but who have worked in the UK, highlights the multi-cultural aspect of being British but how can more shows be produced through public art spaces highlighting these societal issues?

Anti-semitism, for one, is being silently observed but not acted upon. Recently, a lot of headlines were made around Iran in making its surprise and mysterious decision in withdrawing a part of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection from being displayed at the highly anticipated exhibition in Berlin in October, a decision that was surprisingly unanimously supported by the local artist community.

According to Kamran Diba, the architect and first appointed Director of the TMOCA in 1977, during the late Shah’s dynasty, had advised Majid Mollanoroozi (current director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art), to refrain from sending works to Washington due to fears of the Americans seizing the collection never to return to Iran, a fear that remained with them well after the potential loan to the US. Diba pointed out that although the collection is an old one, little has been achieved post-Islamic Revolution in terms of acquisition and the basic infrastructure the museum needs in order to sustain itself which is currently in financial constraints, “the Berlin exhibition could have generated the funds needed for the Museum to source in-house curators and general staff, which it currently lacks.”

Around the time that the deal between Tehran and Berlin was being called off, it became increasingly apparent that not many people in the art world were aware of the fact that Majid Mollanoroozi was involved in participating in Iran’s Holocaust International Competition earlier this year, a prize that receives submissions from artists all over the world, including Europe and the UK, producing caricatures portraying Nazi views, images mocking the Jewish community and the Holocaust. The event is organised by the Islamic Organisation for Propaganda and has taken pride in the 150 works it has exhibited both in public spaces and online. The questions raised is what steps can the international art community take to make sure there is more transparency in who they are working with? One would imagine that institutions such as Tate and Whitechapel Gallery would take a strong position in standing up against racism, including anti-semitism but this has not been the case. Although the Tate has already engaged in conversations with TMOCA around certain projects, their response to this article is that they currently have no plans to work with Tehran but were cautious not to make statements regarding anti-semitism.

The Whitechapel Gallery released the statement that “… as well as exhibiting art from the Arab world, we have also presented many significant artists of Jewish descent ranging from David Bomberg, Mark Gertler (and the so called Whitechapel Boys) to Eva Hesse and Lucian Freud. We have a due diligence policy for all of our potential significant partners, sponsors, donors where we look into their core business values and practices.” However, the Barjeel Art Foundation, a major partner of the Whitechapel, has refrained from making any comment whilst exhibiting their Arab artists at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art which comes to a close on December the 23rd.

Regardless of one’s religion or ethnicity, anti-semitism and the Holocaust applies to all of humanity. Nobody in the UK or Europe should forget the Holocaust and if institutions do not take decisive actions to address this increasing problem, then where are we to say that community outreach projects, education programmes, art and cultural patronage are essential assets to society? Even where Middle East based museums and foundations are concerned whom voice great concern around white supremacy and the rise of populism, a discrepancy is practiced when exhibiting artists at those very institutions reflect the views being opposed. Cultural institutions cannot be referred to as agents of soft power and cultural diplomacy  whilst simultaneously engaging in extremism.

Major cultural institutions in the UK such as Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, The British Museum and the likes must take a step back and ask themselves where they are leading our communities and how they can best address these issues. Certainly, there are curators and artists alike who would want names of such artists and professionals to be known allowing them to make better and more informed choices in who they choose to work with. More tools are needed to give access, support and the safety in raising our voices and reshaping what the art world should be about. We must not forget that during Hitler’s Germany, even though the Germans knew what was going on, they turned a blind eye. The art world and its leading institutions must not remain complacent as that would be a very dangerous place for us all.