Hundreds of artists, arts writers, and academics are voicing their outrage in the wake of the last-minute cancellation of a planned lecture by Walaa Alqaisiya based on her forthcoming book, The Politics and Aesthetics of Decolonial Queering in Palestine. The lecture was to be part of the Spring Curatorial Program 2022: Art Geographies, a series organized by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Verein K, and had been scheduled to take place May 30 at Mumok Kino, the theater belonging to the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Wien, Vienna (Mumok). Alqaisiya, a Marie Curie Fellow whose work is sponsored by the European Commission, told colleagues and fellow participants in Art Geographies that she received a call on May 26 from the organizer letting her know that her lecture, which promised a “critical, decolonial, and feminist” approach, had been canceled following complaints from pro-Israel groups, including the Austrian Union of Jewish Students and Keshet Austria, who charged that Alqaisiya’s work was anti-Semitic. Alqaisiya noted that she was later invited to “come and engage students on academic freedom at the same institution that has canceled my lecture.”
Quick to denounce the cancellation was the program’s curator, Jelena Petrović, who in a joint letter with the leaders of co-organizer Verein K pointed to Alqaisiya’s credentials as a researcher at New York’s Columbia University and Cà Foscari University of Venice, and to her work as a teaching fellow in the fields of gender, peace, and security and at the London School of Economics, casting her speaking and writing as grounded in meticulous research.
“The program does not express, support or imply any anti-Semitic attitudes,” wrote Petrović. “On the contrary, it deals with complex and difficult issues in the context of exhausted geographies through artistic, theoretical and research practices, searching for possibilities of planetary sustainable and politically responsible coexistence in conditions of the permanent geopolitical peace, trying to reflect the diversity of positions on the topic.”
Petrović and her colleagues went on to reject allegations of anti-Semitism, which they posited as “an attempt to discredit the lecture and censor its content.” They additionally contended that “the Spring Curatorial Program distances itself from antisemitism, censorship as well as from any manipulative political misinterpretations that instrumentalize difficult and complex topics, making it impossible to discuss them.”
Johan Hartle, the rector of the Academy of Fine Art Vienna, issued a statement defending the cancellation, contending that “the text announcing the lecture contains de-differentiations and essentialist exaggerations in relation to Zionism, which were perceived by numerous members of the academy as untenable assertions and an affront; in particular the Austrian Union of Jewish Students understandably pointed out this transgression of boundaries. Among other things, the announcement text speaks sweepingly of ‘Zionist(s) structure with the aim of eliminating the indigenous population,’ and thus constructs Zionism generally as an enemyimage, so that a discursive and open debate would hardly be possible anymore.” Hartle offered to host the lecture at the academy as planned, provided it was accompanied by a discussion on “discursive border crossings.”
Shortly thereafter, on May 30, Verein K pulled its entire Spring Curatorial Program from the premises of Academy Fine Arts Vienna and Mumok Kino. Mumok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The cancellation comes as Indonesian curatorial collective ruangrupa also finds itself facing unsubstantiated charges of anti-Semitism owing to its inclusion of its inclusion of artists and collectives who signed, alongside a number of Jewish signatories, an open letter arguing that the German Parliament’s 2019 BDS Resolution, which casts the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel as anti-Semitic, “is a threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech. A series of talks meant to address the allegations were canceled, with German news website DW reporting that the rescission came on the heels of a letter sent by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to Claudia Roth, Germany’s state minister for culture and media, who had originally greenlighted the talks. Weeks later, the racist vandalism of a Documenta art space occurred, causing more than 130 participating Documenta artists to come to the curators’ defense.