This past February, in San Francisco, I witnessed a small but determined protest outside the opening of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s current exhibition, Show Me as I Want to Be Seen. The coalition of protestors — which included Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism and the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action — beat on drums, chanted “Free Palestine!” and held banners that read “Art and Zionism don’t mix” and “Queers don’t buy brand Israel.”
The show being celebrated inside, assembled by assistant curator Natasha Matteson, examines the nature of self-representation and self-determination, asking “How does the concept of portraiture shift when categories are in crisis and visibility itself is problematic?” The introduction to the show invokes the biblical story of Esther, who reveals her Jewishness in an attempt to save her people, calling it “an archetypal Jewish story of claiming and declaring the self as one wants to be seen.” It invokes, too, the legacies of legendary French Surrealist artists and lovers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who were, rebelliously, openly gender-nonconforming, queer, and Jewish in a 20th century moment where antisemitism and queerantagonisms were at a genocidal fever pitch.
Micah Bazant, a co-organizer of the protest, said: “Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore are such precious ancestors to me as a trans Jewish artist. Their lives and art were decimated by a genocidal occupation — how could we possibly celebrate them in a museum that supports another genocidal occupation?” Echoing this, co-organizer Jordan Reznick wrote to me that “in 1938 Cahun signed the manifesto of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art that stated: ‘There will be no freedom until everyone is free.’ These are the same words we hear from movements today that stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine. When you look at the major funding sources and people in leadership roles at the CJM it is clear that this institution is on the side of genocide and apartheid, not the principles of liberation that Cahun and Moore put their lives on the line for.”
These three figures are positioned alongside the 10 contemporary artists in the show — Nicole Eisenman, Rhonda Holberton, Hiwa K, Young Joon Kwak, Zanele Muholi, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Gabby Rosenberg, Tschabalala Self, Davina Semo, and Isabel Yellin — who created work about the particularities of their own selves or some aspect of self-fashioning and self-expression.
Considering the institution’s aforementioned financial relationships, one must ask: What exactly is the idea of self-determination being put forward by this particular show within this particular institution? Who is able to access that coveted agency and autonomy — when and where and how?
Self-determination, agency over the future of one’s community, is a dream, particularly for those of us within a given subjugated diaspora. The word “diaspora” comes from the Greek word diaspeirein, meaning “to scatter across.” The term first appeared in early Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Deuteronomy has a phrase that reads “esē diaspora en pasais basileias tēs gēs” or “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth,” a reference to Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness before they would reach the Promised Land. “Diaspora,” thusly and appropriately, has also come to describe the scattering of peoples from the African continent whether through enslavement, colonial outflows, and other kinds of migration.
The historical persecutions of Jewish and African-descended peoples places diasporic struggles for self-determination into a natural conversation, from Theodor Herzl’s Zionism to “recolonization” to Marcus Garvey’s imagined exodus of Black Americans “back to Africa” (a Black Zionism modeled after Herzl’s). In the introduction to the anthology Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that “Africans and Jews have long looked to each other for an explanation of what it means to be in diaspora.” In fact, he adds, the diaspora as an imagined community cannot be fully understood outside of its interaction with other diasporas.
The inclusion of Black women artists in such a show, then, feels appropriate and necessary. And the three Black artists in the show — Zanele Muholi, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Tschabalala Self — all offer perspectives on African and Afro-diasporic identity and representation. Muholi is famed for their community portraits and black & white self-portraiture, often featuring an almost unnervingly steady, imploring gaze. They want you to see, to inquire about, and perhaps even fear them — but command you always respect them. Meanwhile, in her externalized autobiographical inquiries into place, social dislocation, and immigrant wandering, Nigerian-born Ojih Odutola offers her own elegant renderings of Black people detailed with a chromaticism that makes them seem alive. Her use of pen and pencil and charcoal produces rich complexions flecked with light — she wants to convey what brown skin looks like. And Self’s mixed-media work has a three-dimensionality while still employing a “painting language” that serves the task of representing the Black feminine form. The contrived single dimensionality of racist misogynistic controlling images of Black womanhood and Black female sexuality are shattered through her breathing life into new gendered Black forms in her figure creations.
It is also necessary to question the possible instrumentation of these artists and some of the contradictions that accompany their inclusion. Understanding the work of these three particular artists within this show and within the confines of this creative institution invokes the pitting of “the political” against “the aesthetic.” Writing urgently as fascist ideas and military forces were spreading rapidly across Europe, Walter Benjamin famously notes how the aestheticization of the political (the transformation of material politics into a pure aesthetic through artistic and cultural propaganda) and the politicization of aesthetics (the rejection of the idea that aesthetics are not political and the infusion of overt political overtures in artistic work) are placed in opposition to one another. He writes that the aestheticization of politics is practiced by fascism, and that “[humankind’s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” As described by Ariella Azoulay, an Israeli scholar that has long been critical of the state of Israel in her work on photography and archival politics, “the judgment ‘political’/‘not political’ refers to works of art that deal with subjects that are identified as political.” These judgments ultimately determine how images are classified and evaluated.
Per Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a supporter of the protest: “The Contemporary Jewish Museum sought legitimacy by including queer and trans artists of color in an exhibition. However, the paradox here is that it is an institution [funded by donors who also support] anti-Muslim and anti-Arab groups.” The political act of artwashing — a description of the way pro-Israel politics use art to sanitize Israeli state violence and “utilize the arts to counter misconceptions about Israel in the media and popular culture” — serves as a depoliticization of art by furthering the idea that it exists within a social vacuum unaffected by societal influences and ideologies. Reznick describes how artwashing functions similarly to “pinkwashing,” which they describe as “the ways in which the Israeli state publicly asserts its liberal acceptance of queer and trans subjects as a display of the ‘freedoms’ the state’s citizens enjoy.” (“There is no queer liberation without Palestinian liberation. Any celebration of queer and trans freedom that…isn’t committed to racial justice, is just white supremacy,” writes Bazant.) They described how the United States government used abstract expressionism during the Cold War to describe the conflict as “defending the apparent freedoms of American citizens against the restraints of communism.” Similarly, “Israel pours millions of dollars into [public relations] campaigns to promote itself as an oasis of liberal freedoms to make people believe that its campaign against the Palestinian people is one of freedom vs. repression and modernity vs. primitivity.”
One response to this manipulation of artistic projects and discourse is the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s calls for a cultural boycott. This has ranged from appeals to boycott Eurovision which was hosted in Tel Aviv this year to compelling musicians like Lorde and Radiohead to refuse to play in Israel, just as there was a politically equivalent call for artists to refuse to play in the resort complex Sun City during South African apartheid.
Those protesting Show Me were there to remind us that the artwork inside a museum must necessarily be viewed within the context of that institution’s politics. The action was described to me by Bazant as being in explicit support of and in dialogue with the actions taken by Decolonize this Place at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The vice chairman of the museum, Warren Kanders, is the founder and chairman of Safariland, the weapons manufacturer that made the teargas the United States government fired at the Central American migrant caravan at the end of 2018 (and Forensic Archictecture’s contribution to the 2019 Whitney Biennial reveals Kander’s company may have been complicit in war crimes “in fourteen countries, including six states or territories of the United States,” including Palestine).
The fliers handed out at the protest described why the Contemporary Jewish Museum is in violation of the guidelines of the BDS movement. In addition to receiving funding from the Israeli Consulate, one funder of the museum is the Koret Foundation, an organization named by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s (IJAN) 2015 report, “Business of Backlash” as also being a major funder of anti-Palestine solidarity work, having donated over $64 million to complementary conservative organizations between 2010 and 2015. While artwashing arguments position art as not being motivated by politics (and so capable of bringing together opposing factions of contentious political divides), IJAN notes that the foundation uses artistic spaces to forward its political interests. In 2009, the foundation withdrew its funding from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival after the festival refused to remove the film Rachel, a documentary feature about American activist Rachel Corrie who was killed while trying to block an Israeli military bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada, from its lineup. Another funder of the museum is the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which is named in the IJAN report as having donated $10,000 to the Amcha Initiative, which strategically targets university campuses considered hubs of Palestine solidarity organizing. Bazant added that “the CJM’s new Director, Lori Starr, was hired despite being widely criticized in her previous position (as [Executive Director] of the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto) for censoring a Jewish anti-Zionist artist.”
The flier describes that they protested the exhibition because it uses anti-fascist artists Cahun and Moore as the foundation for an expansive and radical notion of self-determination, “yet is situated within an institution that disavows the selfhood of Palestinians and sanctions their dispossession.” We might also understand the positioning of the displayed Black artists’ work as the kind of cultural exploitation that Aruna D’Souza describes in her book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. When art is used as a means of sparking open dialogue, D’Souza writes, it is contradictorily inhered with “de facto limits of who can speak and what can be said.” The allegedly open dialogue is always already policed and censored.
This artistic exploitation rests on the back of Israel’s self-branding as a “progressive democracy in the Middle East” (despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of fascist leaders including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro abroad and the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party domestically) and belies the fact that Black people in Israel are not included within this structure of self-determination. Israel has historically mistreated Ethiopian Jews (dumping and rejecting donated blood for fear that it was “contaminated” with HIV, and even administering sterilizing Depo-Provera contraception to Ethiopian Jewish women without their consent), and detaining and deporting already vulnerable African migrants. And, of course, the state of Israel has hamstrung and suppressed opportunities of and any potential for self-determination for Palestinians through forced displacements and evictions, grossly disproportionate uses of military force and retaliatory collective punishment, the ongoing maintenance of international law-violating settlements, and, perhaps most devastatingly, the denial of the Palestinian diaspora’s right to return to their homeland.
The politics within Show Me as I Want to be Seen remind us that neither art nor museum institutions are and can never be value-neutral. Reznick shared that it was upsetting to centralize the theme of self-determination when this is a right so violently denied to Palestinians. “As a trans non-binary person,” they said, “gender self-determination means not only the freedom to live as the person that I feel myself to be, but it means that my own self-determination is entangled with that of others…To have gender self-determination stripped of its solidarity with other forms of self-determination is to cleanse it of its politics and pretend that it is only aesthetic or merely an act of individualism.” Bhutto described how these individualistic and often oppositional understandings of self-determination ultimately make already vulnerable marginalized communities even more so. He lamented that “Arabs and Muslims are not being listened to, we are being shunned, our voices and concerns silenced. If this is the current reality on the ground then it brings me tremendous grief to ask: What hope do we have of political and creative solidarity with Palestinians (of all faiths), Arabs and Muslims around the world?”
This was my first time at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and I arrived at the opening reception enthusiastic about this opportunity to engage inter-diasporic interactions about self-making and to see the work of three of my favorite [Black] visual artists. But after interacting with the protests, a bad taste was left in my mouth. Their work was as impressive as I’d anticipated it would be and Matteson is a capable curator, but I wasn’t able to concentrate on the art. I was preoccupied with the protest and the way that it forced me to further politicize not only the work and the curation, but also the institutional container holding the work. I wavered about writing this given the fraughtness of the topic at hand, but I am steadfastly critical of the use of Black creative labor in the implicit support of a politic that Black people are punished for opposing in public. Black art deserves better than that.