Sunday marked the closing of “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York that, from its opening in November, had been riddled with controversy. It also occasioned one final protest—this one focused on work included in the show by artist Ali Yass.
On Saturday, Yass issued a statement calling for protesters to tear up drawings of his in the exhibition, which focused on the effects of American interventions in Iraq. Yass, who was born in Baghdad and is now based in Berlin, wrote in his statement that the museum had ignored prior protests by artists, which included Phil Collins pulling work from the show, Michael Rakowitz attempting to “pause” a video included as part of an installation, and more than 30 others signing an open letter to the museum.
The prior protests focused on two board members at PS1’s sister institution, the Museum of Modern Art. Much of the surrounding activism has focused on Leon Black, the MoMA board’s chair, whose hedge fund Apollo Global Management acquired Constellis Holdings, formerly known as Blackwater, whose guards killed 14 Iraqi citizens in 2007 in what has become known as the Nisour Square massacre. Some protesters also directed their attention to Larry Fink, whose company, BlackRock, is invested in GEO Group and Core Civic, which own stakes in private prisons. (MoMA and MoMA PS1 maintain separate boards. Black is listed as an ex-officio leader of PS1’s board.)
In his statement, Yass said that Black is “profiting from the wars that continue to harm and extend violence on Iraq’s citizens.” He accused the museum of dropping suggested text about the continuance of American military intervention in Iraq from a wall label accompanying his work. And he called on protesters to tear his drawings as a “reclamation of the narrative surrounding my work.” Yass said in his statement that he would consider tearing the works, which feature abstract creatures that appear to morph into one another, a “further development in their form” that affirms a “voice of protest.”
When protesters arrived on Sunday afternoon, however, there was nothing to tear up—after Yass’s works had been removed by the museum. Instead, some activists brought replicas of the drawings and ripped them in half while Yass looked on via a video call.
“I was emailed by a registrar, not the curators,” Yass told ARTnews on Sunday, regarding how he received the news. “I received no phone call or any kind of discussion, just the email saying my work had been removed before the show ended.”
Yass said that, in removing his work before protesters could get to it, PS1 disregarded his political stance. “For the first time in 16 years, since the invasion of Iraq, I thought that I would have my voice heard,” he said of having been selected for the exhibition. “That I could intervene in my work with support from others to carry out what I cannot living under travel ban in Berlin with no ability to travel to the U.S. to do so myself. That intervention was denied by MoMA PS1. My voice, and my desire to be heard, is in solidarity with the protestors in Iraq, who are intervening in the denial of their voices.”
In response, a spokesperson for the museum said, “There are no circumstances under which MoMA PS1 would accept the destruction of artworks or aggression towards our staff or visitors. When a few dozen protesters arrived at MoMA PS1 on the last day of ‘Theater of Operations,’ they were offered public space within the museum to be heard. The protesters’ threats to staff, property, and art forced the temporary closure of several exhibition galleries to the public. We are proud of the unwavering respect and professionalism our team showed to all.”
Yass’s action follows in line with those by Collins and Rakowitz. Just before the show opened to the public, Collins removed his video, and the gallery in which it was to be shown was left darkened for course of the show’s run. For his part, Rakowitz tried multiple times to “pause” a video he had on view; PS1 declined each time.
In a statement sent Monday by MoMA Divest, one of the activist organizations that spearheaded this weekend’s protest, Rakowitz said of Yass, “To have his work—or any artist’s work for that matter—censored by MoMA PS1 is reprehensible. I offer Ali my unequivocal support and solidarity and I strongly condemn MoMA PS1’s disrespectful silencing of an artist.”