Lenders Withdraw Works From Barbican Show, Alleging “Censorship”

Art collectors Lorenzo Legarda Leviste and Fahad Mayet have withdrawn quilt works by Loretta Pettway from an exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre in protest of the arts organization’s alleged repression of free speech around Palestine. 

The pair’s choice to have the works removed from Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art was made nearly two weeks after the exhibition opened on February 13, following the Barbican’s decision to back out of hosting a lecture series organized by the London Review of Books (LRB). The canceled program, consisting of talks by three speakers slated to take place over February and March, included a lecture by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra assessing historical throughlines between the Holocaust and Israel’s current destruction of Palestine.

Leviste and Mayet had contributed two cotton quilts by Loretta Pettway to the Barbican’s ongoing Unravel exhibition.

On February 6, the Guardian reported that “senior leadership” at the Barbican opted out of hosting the LRB‘s annual Winter Lectures Series. The arts center publicly stated that it “had been in conversation” with the LRB about the program since late 2023. But upon learning the topic of Mishra’s conversation, the organization decided against presenting the series.

“We knew that Pankaj Mishra’s lecture — titled ‘The Shoah after Gaza’ — would need dedicated and thoughtful care given the importance of the topic, and we were in the process of discussing that with the LRB,” the Barbican said in its February 14 statement. Because the event was “prematurely” publicized, the Barbican said, the center was unable to “properly consider” how to present it.

Less than a week later, the Barbican opened Unravel — a group exhibition contending with legacies of imperialism and colonialism through fiber and textile art co-curated by Barbican staffers Lotte Johnson, Wells Fray-Smith, and Diego Chocano and Amanda Pinatih of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

For the exhibition, collectors Leviste and Mayet had lent two double-sided cotton quilts by American quiltmaker Loretta Pettway. But on February 20, they contacted the arts center with concerns about its decision regarding the LRB program.

“I cannot understate how disturbing and alarming this blatant act of repression (and lack of transparency) by the Barbican is: one of the country’s most important arts institutions censoring one of the country’s most respected public intellectuals and literary publications from speaking openly about crimes committed by Israel that we are all watching with our own eyes, on our phones, daily; crimes that are currently being investigated by the International Court of Justice,” Leviste wrote to the exhibition curators and catalogue contributors in an email correspondence re-published online.

“The message it sends to arts institutions across the UK, and the precedent it sets for further suppression of speech, is chilling,” Leviste added. 

Citing the exhibition’s anti-colonialist and Indigenous themes, he also pointed out a “grim irony” in the reality that the project’s host institution is “exert[ing] its own forms of fascist Zionist repression.”

Leviste told the Barbican that he and Mayet, his spouse, were “seriously considering” withdrawing the Pettway works and asked that the arts center directly address their concerns.

withdraw note
The sign explaining why Pettway’s quilts were de-installed from the exhibition

Last June, the organization conducted an internal review after a Barbican team member asked Elias Anastas, co-founder of the Palestine-based Radio Alhara, to avoid talking about “free Palestine” during an event. In 2021, employees accused the center of institutional racism, compiling years of racial prejudice in a book, according to the Guardian.

In an email response to Leviste, a Barbican staffer whose name was redacted from the correspondence reiterated the center’s public statements about the LRB series and the incident with Anastas and linked to a 2023 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strategy and action plan. The staffer also asserted that the Barbican “aims to host the broadest and most diverse range of artists and thinkers” and pointed to its 20-year history of hosting the London Palestine Film Festival as one example.

Leviste was dissatisfied with the organization’s response. “The Barbican has no interest in holding itself accountable for its censorship of the LRB lecture, nor reflecting on how these acts of repression can be prevented from happening again,” he wrote back, requesting that the works be de-installed.

The arts center complied and on February 29, the works were removed, replaced with signs explaining their absence.

The labels now on display read, “These two works have been withdrawn at the request of the lenders, as an act of solidarity with Palestine in response to the Barbican’s decision not to host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series. We respect the lenders’ decision and are in touch with the artist.”

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