Artists Decry “Censorship” of Shepard Fairey Anti-Police Artwork

MESA, Ariz. — The Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (MCA) at Mesa Art Center was gearing up to open a suite of exhibitions featuring four solo shows of artists Swoon, Douglas Miles, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, and a traveling exhibition of Shepard Fairey. The shows were centered around public and street art, murals, social justice, and civic engagement and were slated to open on September 8, before an email was sent to the participating artist on July 28 abruptly postponing them. 

“It was recently brought to my attention that some aspects of the Mesa Contemporary Art Museum fall/winter exhibitions still need to be finalized,” reads the email sent to the artists by Mesa Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis, reviewed by Hyperallergic. “Because this was intended to be a thematic showcase, we are in the position of having to postpone the exhibition in its entirety.”

The postponement took place just 41 days from the scheduled fall opening celebration for shows that had been in planning for years. And according to Douglas Miles, Breeze Marcus, and one of the organizing curators, Tonya Turner Carroll, the decision boils down to censorship.

Though multiple themes about genocide, violence, and social justice were part of the overall framework of the four exhibitions, the work “My Florist is a Dick“ by Fairey has seemingly drawn the ire of the City of Mesa. The contentious work, which was part of the artist’s traveling exhibition Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent, depicts a police officer in riot gear with the shadowy face of a skeleton clutching onto a nightstick with a flower blooming from one end. On par with Fairey’s well-known agit-prop aesthetic, the piece positions itself in direct opposition to state violence and police brutality, created specifically as a response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson which spurred the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri. 

The request from the City Manager’s office to remove the work came in late July. When staff at the MCA declined to remove the work from the exhibition, the City in-turn shut the entire fall line-up of exhibitions down and instead, per the email from Lewis, “will be repurposing the space during this time for another high community priority, celebrating our recently awarded designation as an All-America City.” Fairey’s studio has not returned Hyperallergic’s request for comment. 

Yesterday, August 10, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona penned an open letter to City Manager Chris Brady and Lewis citing violations of the First Amendment. Co-authored by Elizabeth Larison, director of the NCAC’s Arts & Culture Advocacy Program, and Jared Keenan, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, beseeched the City to reconsider their actions. “We urge you to revert to the vibrant schedule of exhibitions that were originally planned, and recognize the City’s duty to uphold freedom of artistic expression,” they wrote. 

Neither the City Manager’s office nor representatives from the MCA have responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment. 

Artworks by Douglas Miles developed for the since-postponed exhibition (image courtesy the artist)

For Miles, the news not only came as a jarring shock but feels tantamount to erasure. “One of the last emails I got from the curator is that they were ready to pick up my work, I was preparing for that, then the show was canceled,” he said in a phone call. “For me, it just feels institutionally racist — two of us are Indigenous.” Miles, who is San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham, spoke about his and his colleague’s work. 

“Thomas Breeze Marcus and I live and work in this community, we are part of the voice of this community,” he said. “Our work is born in a crucible of Native communities. So, for this show to be removed with this immediacy, it feels like an anti-Native bias [to me] and disallows an opportunity to have these bigger conversations with artists like Fairey and Swoon.” 

On top of the censorship and concerns over free speech are realities of time, labor, and costs that artists have incurred preparing for the show. Miles shared that he had spent thousands of dollars in materials for the exhibition and countless hours preparing for it — just for it to be canceled a few weeks out from the opening. “I was looking forward to showing with these artists. I was very excited. I was wanting to bring an Apache perspective, a Native perspective,” said Miles. 

For Breeze Marcus, who is Akimel and Tohono O’odham, the notification was, to say the least, befuddling. When asked if there had been any concerns raised throughout the research and planning process of developing the show, the artist said there were “zero” conversations around potential concerns. 

“From my experience having worked with them before on previous exhibitions, there was never an issue [regarding censorship], and also knowing the body of work [I’ve created] over 15 plus years, they were always allowing the work to speak freely,” said Breeze. He had participated alongside fellow Indigenous artist Cannupa Hanska Luger in the 2021 exhibition Passage and shared that going into the 2023 solo project with the museum, “censorship was never a thought [or concern] I had.”

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Artworks by Douglas Miles developed for the since-postponed exhibition (image courtesy the artist)

In a July 26 letter obtained by Hyperallergic from Brady to Acting Arts and Culture Director for the City of Mesa Illya Riske, Brady writes that this year’s All-American City Award “recognizes communities that engage residents in innovative, inclusive and effective efforts to address critical challenges.” 

Brady goes on to write, “The city is interested in providing a significant publicly accessible venue where the programs, participants and art from the All-American presentation can be exhibited. I am requesting that the timing for this display take place during the Mesa Arts Center Season Kickoff on September 8. I recognize that this will require us to postpone the current exhibits that were planned for these dates.” 

According to Turner Carroll, when the organizers and artists asked when the shows would be rescheduled, the City declined to answer.

This award, which is conferred by the National Civic League (NCL), and its tenets are paradoxically at odds with the City’s actions to censor a politically critical works and postpone an exhibition that includes women artists and Indigenous artists from the greater Phoenix community. To participants, Brady and his office’s decision to remove these shows in favor of exhibitions and programming celebrating the NCL honor feels like an egregious act of retaliatory censorship based on the MCA staff’s refusal to remove the Fairey work, and a malignant form of governmental gaslighting that attempts to erase the lived realities of those who have experienced violence at the hands of law enforcement and the state. 

This is a developing story.

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