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Artists alter, deface their own work at YBCA to protest Gaza silence and decry censorship

'Love Letter to Gaza' action calls out institution for not speaking up and allegedly muzzling artists.

Tens of thousands of Bay Area protesters are filling the streets and blocking freeways, and social media creators are flooding feeds with poignant imagery calling attention to the destruction of Gaza and demanding a ceasefire. But most major local arts institutions—supposed bastions of free expression, provocative messages, and artistic truth—have been strangely silent. For entities that often highlight our regional history of anti-war protest and anti-imperialist resistance in high-profile shows, there’s a void where a loud “Ceasefire Now” should be.

Artists themselves are now protesting this institutional silence. Last Thursday evening, during a public community arts event at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts called “Love Letter to SoMa,” a group of artists staged a protest, defacing, adorning, augmenting, or otherwise altering their own displayed work. Calling their action “Love Letter to Gaza,” the eight artists, including participants in the institution’s centerpiece Bay Area Now 9 show, were protesting “YBCA’s silence on the genocide of Palestinians, and the censorship of artists by the institution.”

Artists graffitied their own pieces, hung banners over their work, dropped leaflets, and otherwise “redirected” their art to unequivocally address their support for the people of Palestine.

Artists gathered ar YBCA last Thursday to protest. Photo by Brooke Anderson via Jewish Voice for Peace Instagram

This was the first major protest over Gaza in a local arts institution, after hundreds of arts workers and other protesters occupied the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In the wake of the “Love Letter to Gaza” action, YBCA closed its doors for the weekend, forcing the postponement of a portion of the 15th Annual Fresh Festival, which features performances by artists from marginalized communities.

The charges of censorship apply specifically to the work of Jeffrey Cheung and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo. According to a statement from Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, which organized the action with the Palestinian Feminist Collective, Bay Area Palestinian Youth Movement, US Palestinian Community Network, and the artists: “YBCA censored artist Jeff Cheung from creating a mural in the colors of the Palestinian flag, calling it ‘divisive.’ They invited artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo to propose text for their Statement Marquee sign, which is often a centerpiece for dialogue at the museum. But the artist says: ‘I was told that because my text included ‘Free Palestine’ they could not accept it.'”

(A full response from YBCA to the censorship allegations is at the end of this post.)

The artists have launched a call to action to support their protest of YBCA. More from Jewish Voice for Peace:

The artists’ demands include, but are not limited to, an immediate and permanent ceasefire and for the US to stop arming Israel, an end to YBCA’s censorship of artists, the removal of Zionist YBCA funders and board members, and YBCA’s compliance with its vision to be a space that “empowers artists, inspires community and drives lasting social change.”

“Our attempts to use our platforms at YBCA to catalyze solidarity with the movement to liberate Palestine have been silenced and disrupted,” said Paz G., a Bay Area Now 9 artist and co-organizer of Love Letter to Gaza. “There is no excuse for YBCA’s silence in a time when our public dollars are being channeled to support the destruction of life and communities in Gaza.”

“In recent years, YBCA created robust programming and community engagement in response to social justice issues ranging from Black Lives Matter to the invasion of Ukraine. Why are they silent on the genocide of Palestinians?” said champoy, a Bay Area Now 9 artist and co-organizer of Love Letter to Gaza. “Cultural workers and artists across the Bay are dreaming of a free Palestine. We hope that YBCA would want to be included in that vision, not working against it.”

I spoke with two “Love Letter to Gaza” participating artists, Sholeh Asgary and Leila Weefur, about how they altered their work, and what they hoped the protest would achieve.

Sholeh Asgary is an Iranian-born multidisciplinary artist whose “Shabah e Baad” (Ghost Winds) “is a six-channel sound installation, inspired by a traditional practice observed in smaller Iranian villages, where qanats—ancient waterways predating Roman aqueducts, created by tunneling beneath a system of wells—have enabled sustenance in arid environments.”

“The work taps into the ghost creeks of San Francisco, the ephemeral waterways that have been buried and otherwise disappeared by settler colonialism,” Asgary said. “This is being echoed by the current environmental destruction of Wadi Gaza, and the Gazan waterways in general.” In her work, directional speakers create zones of sound that correspond to a map of the San Francisco creeks.

Sholeh Asgary with Dena Al-Adeeb, ‘From water to water: Wadi Gaza, YBCA.’ Photo courtesy of the artist

“With my protest collaborator Dena Al Adeeb, I created a flyer with a new site map, of the YBCA building itself, overlaid with Wadi Gaza waterways, and arrows that referred to the forced evacuation routes for Palestinians in Gaza. We took text inspired by the Palestinian Feminist Collective’s ongoing “Love Letters to Palestine” project, and then scattered these leaflets throughout the courtyard like the thousands of displacement leaflets the IDF has dropped by drones.

“I want to emphasize the decades-long labor of Palestinian and Arab folks who have laid the groundwork that makes actions such as ours visible, as well as the organizations that supported us,” she adds.

For Asgary, there’s a profoundly disappointing irony to YBCA’s institutional silence on Gaza. “YBCA has embraced these big social justice slogans like Black Lives Matter and Woman Life Freedom and says that it’s creating a safe environment for marginalized artists to express themselves. But when it comes to Gaza, suddenly that’s not allowed. Why invite SWANA [Southwest Asian North African] artists into your show, only to demonstrate that you think of our communities’ safety and humanity as ‘divisive.’

“Why is it this particular movement that’s forbidden from being expressed ? While my communities are being annihilated, living under bombs or the fear of bombs, YBCA’s characterization of the systematic killing of 30,000+ Palestinians and the United States’ complicity in it as an ‘ongoing conflict,’ and its censorship of artists, continues to erase our larger region,” Asgary said.

Asgary traces this “hyperinvisibilization” back to how SWANA artists have been treated by institutions for decades. “By featuring slogans like Woman Life Freedom on the marquee, which was literally displayed above where I was working, but remaining silent on Gaza, they’re hiding behind a social justice facade, while really just tokenizing the artists they need for that validity. It’s another form of Orientalization.”

Leila Weefur’s stickers adorn their YBCA installation, ‘The Chapel of Becoming.’ Photos courtesy of the artist

Oakland artist Leila Weefur’s contribution to Bay Area Now 9 is “The Chapel of Becoming,” a film and architectural work that celebrates the transgender community, queers Abrahamic traditions, and examines systems of belonging in Black and queer lives. The installation includes the words “Come To Be” in large letters on a public-facing glass wall of the building.

For their act of protest, they made 8 1/2 x 11 stickers with the message “The Chapel of Becoming supports Palestine. Free Gaza” which they placed to adorn their installation.

“We came together and altered our work to make visible our allyship with Gaza and Palestine, which mirrors our immediate and extreme closeness as a community within the arts,” they told me. “If one of us is censored, we’ve all been censored.”

“I am very connected to this arts community. When I encounter censorship from an institution that I’m developing a relationship with, it negatively impacts my ability to build unless there is accountability,” Weefur said. 

A sticker in Leila Weefur’s ‘Chapel of Becoming.’ Photo courtesy of the artist

“During the action, from my vantage point, we received a lot of support from the crowd that was there. The public feels hungry for institutions to support Gaza and Palestine. YBCA claims to support artists and their extended communities. Our action should fuel the institution to be an agent of change, but their lack of support is glaring.”

Weefur sees “Love Letter to Gaza” as an opening for YBCA to reclaim its responsibility. “This is an opportunity for YBCA to be a leader, in really being responsive and listening to the needs of the community—and the artists it’s claiming to serve. We have given them this opportunity to step up. We are making them relevant.

“It’s a shame that by closing their doors after the action, they’ve chosen more censorship, by postponing the Fresh Festival, which includes other Black and Brown artists,” Weefur said. “That’s a step in the wrong direction.

“My hope is that YBCA and all Bay Area institutions recognize the collective power of artists—that they work with, celebrate, and uphold artists’ voices. That is the romantic idea they claim to support, and yet they are never prepared for what this really means when artists rise up together and speak out.” 

I reached out to YBCA about the charges that Jeffrey Cheung and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo had been censored. Below is the full reply from Sara Fenske Bahat, CEO of YBCA:

Our mission at YBCA is to be a gathering space for creative expression that fosters meaningful connection for all. In support of our mission, Bay Area Now 9 was curated to provide Bay Area artists with an opportunity to showcase their voices from across different cultures, ethnicities, and perspectives. We work closely with all of our artists to realize their works and, in serving the communities of the larger Bay Area, we are committed to providing a safe space for exploring this diversity of thought and expression. 

Last night during our “Love Letter to SOMA” free Thursday night event, a few of the 30 artists featured in Bay Area Now 9 altered or covered their exhibited work as part of a demonstration in support of Palestine. 

Jeff Cheung created a mural for an outdoor space at YBCA. Jeff’s design, featuring dancing/embracing figures, went through the approval process at YBCA and was approved. After the deadline for printing the work, Jeff submitted a new image that had been changed from what was previously approved, featuring a different drawing with all of the figures using the colors of the Palestinian flag. 

Because the work was intended to be displayed publicly on the exterior of a city building, the curators shared in writing with Jeff:

“As you are aware, public art is both a powerful opportunity, and it also amplifies the need for deliberate care. When it comes to presenting work on the exterior of our building, we have little opportunity to provide context around the authorship and intentions of the work; the audience includes passersby who have not chosen to attend YBCA exhibitions nor programming; and there are stakeholders and partners who may be inadvertently implicated or impacted. The processes and deadlines for this project were structured to make sure we could manage all of these considerations, including… the involvement and approval of city entities, neighborhood partners, and funders. Given all this, we’re not in the position to make significant changes that alter the original tone nor focus of the mural, especially so close to finalization.”

Jeff conveyed his unhappiness with the decision, and proposed a design with one grouping of figures in colors representing the colors of the Palestinian flag. The curators approved the change, and moved forward with production of the new image. In addition, the curators invited Jeff to work with them to identify additional opportunities to share his perspective through programming, engagement, and dialogue.

In regards to Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, this past year, Lukaza was commissioned to create a public artwork on our 3rd Street exterior (initially the loading dock door, which was then extended to include a series of nearby building exit doors). Alongside their artwork, they submitted a poetic text. The curators suggested including an excerpt (“We Fly for a Liberated We, We Rooted in Flight”) on YBCA’s external marquee, to support the unveiling of the public art piece.

Lukaza responded positively, and suggested adding “Free Palestine,” or if not, “to keep as you proposed but make sure to include some recent pieces of mine about Palestine in our social media post announcing this marquee.” Lukaza later changed their mind and no longer felt comfortable putting the excerpt on the marquee if “Free Palestine” wasn’t added to it. Throughout the process, YBCA offered to explore options to highlight their advocacy work through programming and/or on our platforms. Lukaza did not respond to that offer, but continued to collaborate with us on the installation of their public artwork. 

In these instances and across all artist projects, YBCA strives to be honest, transparent, and forthright collaborators in supporting artists’ voices and approaches. YBCA is committed to providing a safe space for diversity of thought and expression, even when that is challenging, which is perhaps when it is most necessary to do so. Central to BAN9 — and to YBCA as an institution — is being in dialogue with a wide range of perspectives and means of creative expression from across the Bay Area.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Marke B.
Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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