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Censoring Israeli and Palestinian Art: Chicago's Spertus Museum Controversy

How Misplaced Pressure Shutttered "Imaginary Coordinates" Exhibit

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On May 2, 2008, Chicago’s Spertus Museum, one of the city’s most important Jewish institutions, opened an exhibit called “Imaginary Coordinates.” It featured the work of eight Palestinian and Israeli women, well known in Israel and around the world for their work challenging predictable notions of space, geography, boundaries and what may be summed up as the rights to sorrow—who may feel sorrowful for whom and why.

Controversy Over “Imaginary Coordinates”

The exhibit aimed to use its own collection of maps along with the artists’ works to question the notion of boundaries. Had the maps involved virtually any place in the world other than Israel/Palestine, the exhibit would have likely gone unnoticed much beyond Chicago. But it didn’t. It focused on one of the most embattled regions in the world.

Art critics and visitors to the museum were impressed. Some of the museum’s powerful backers were not. They included Chicago’s Jewish federation, which contributes $700,000 a year, or 10% percent, of the Spertus’ operating budget, and whose membership contributed generously to Spertus’ new, $55 million home. “Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel,” Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune.”

An Exhibit Censored

Within days of the exhibit’s opening, it closed, ostensibly to rearrange some of the art work to protect it from harsh light. That was the reason given to the public. In reality, the museum board of directors was battling pressures to shut the exhibit outright. The exhibit reopened during the third week of May with what the board thought would be an acceptable compromise with the exhibit’s opponents: patrons would be accompanied by docents to ensure that the artists’ work was put in context. It was somewhat like the Kremlin sticking official escorts on journalists working in Moscow during the cold war, to ensure that the reporting followed the official line’s proper context.

And it didn’t work. “Imaginary Coordinates” abruptly closed on June 20, three months before the intended closing date. It wasn’t censorship, the museum insisted. “Spertus is not interested in going around and hurting people’s feelings,” Marc Wilcow, a trustee of the Spertus, said. But as Lynn Pollack of Chicago’s Jewish Voice for Peace organization told the Tribune, “These were mainstream artists who are able to display in their own country” (or, at least, their own Territories). “Why can’t this art be seen by American Jews? It’s really a shame.”

Not just American Jews, but any of the millions of Chicagoans and visitors to the Windy City.

Background: Chicago’s Spertus Museum

Chicago’s Spertus Museum began in 1924 as the College of Jewish Studies. It offered a few courses on Jewish history, religion and language twice a week, all for $15. Thanks to a vast donation by Maurice Spertus, the museum was opened in 1968 and the institution kept growing. The college was accredited in 1971, the library grew to more than 110,000 books, and the museum moved into its new, $55 million home on South Michigan Avenue in November 2007.

Spertus’ logo, the museum notes, “is a flame accompanied by the biblical phrase, yehi or, let there be light. It symbolizes the Spertus commitment to learning—through education and the arts, today and for the future.”

Israel/Palestine in “Rewardingly Unorthodox” Light

With that ideal in mind, the museum opened “Imaginary Coordinates.” Inspired by antique maps of Israel/Palestine in Spertus’ collection, the exhibit, the museum said, was to juxtapose “these maps with modern and contemporary maps of this region, all of which assert boundaries. It brings these together with objects of material culture and artworks that question national borders, as a way of charting new spaces, fostering conversation, and imagining new communities.” The exhibit was to be part of Chicago’s Festival of Maps, a year-long celebration of the interplay between art and geography.

The Chicago Tribune called the show “rewardingly unorthodox.” It was satisfying both as the most surprising of eight exhibits the Festival of Maps and as an “unconventional commemoration” of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Tribune art critic Alan G. Artner wrote, “largely because while its focus is the Middle East, its treatment emphasizes the Holy Land as much as an idea as a place, and the old maps chosen often reflect idiosyncratic views that bring them closer to artworks than tools for determining boundaries.”

The Eight Israeli and Palestinian Artists of “Imaginary Coordinates”

The idea was unconventional. The artists making up the exhibit were less so, but only in the sense that they are well-known artists working and exhibiting in Israel, the Occupied Territories and beyond. Noel Jabbour , for example, is a versatile Palestinian artist, a native of Nazareth who lives mostly in Berlin, whose photographs in a recent exhibit called “Made in Palestine” aimed to “portray families in their homes, gathered around photographs and other reminders of their murdered loved ones.” Her work has been displayed in exhibits in Berlin, the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York, Paris and London, among other places.

Ayreen Anastas is a Palestinian native of Bethlehem who lives in Brookly, and whose video art, some of it developed in Jerusalem, was part of the 2008 Sydney Biennale, which described her practice as engaging “with issues of public and political space, language, the everyday, and the question of Palestine.” Yael Bartana is an Israeli video artist also concerned with the idea of conflicted homelands.

Next Page:Comparing one artist’s work to Picasso’s “Guernica,” and what was lost--and gained from the controversy.

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