Forensic Architecture: Whitworth Art Gallery and the University of Manchester appear to capitulate

By Sally Hobbs

You may have read this week about the lobbying efforts from pro-Israeli voices demanding the removal of a statement supporting Palestine at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. This led to the director and artists of the exhibit announcing their withdrawal from the Gallery of their exhibition.

The decision to remove the artists’ statement of solidarity with Palestinian people was made by the University of Manchester, who own the Gallery and have substantial governance oversight. The artists’ stand was to refuse to continue with their exhibition without it: a principled and strong action of solidarity which was widely supported by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, University student union activists, Labour Party members and many others.

Negative news coverage for the University and Gallery’s stance, solidarity protests and protests in writing to the Vice Chancellor and Gallery Director led to a climb-down by them only a few days later with an agreement that the statement could be reinstated, and on this basis, the artists agreeing to continue to exhibit.

But in case we get complacent about this, the Gallery have opened a space for “balancing statements” to be allowed in response to the exhibition and the Director of the artists, Professor Eyal Weizman (Forensic Architecture and Goldsmiths University) reserved the right to pull the exhibition if this proved to be unacceptable in terms of representing a true response to the work.  At the time of writing, an untruthful and unrepresentative statement has been placed at the entrance to the exhibition, not on the table at the end where other visitors are able to write their responses. It remains to be seen if this is allowed to stay.

The University of Manchester has a particularly poor and troubling record on Palestinian and Israeli issues. As a large investor in Israeli businesses and state activities, the University has consistently refused to clarify its investment portfolio, and has refused to allow on-site use of its premises for student activists to hold Palestinian support meetings or forums, particularly in relation to Boycott Divestment Sanctions.

The PSC and BDS student organisers advise that the University has a partnership agreement with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With a base in East Jerusalem, one street away from the recently reoccupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, that university’s expansion plans are a concern that the University of Manchester has not addressed. It continues to operate an exchange programme despite the demolition of Palestinian homes to make way for student housing. A further concern is the alleged links between the Israeli military and the prestigious Graphene Institute in its uses for military purposes in the context of the continued abuses of human rights by the occupying forces of Israel.

Visitors should see the work and why the pro-Israeli lobby might be getting so anxious about it. If you can get to this exhibition or go on line to see it, I would really urge you to do so. Follow the link here or paste this link into your browser

 During Manchester International Festival on July 1st visited the exhibition. It is by a collective of artists, researchers, lawyers and others known as Forensic Architecture. The one at Whitworth Art Gallery is Cloud Studies and since seeing it I have been urging everyone I know to visit this. It’s a literally forensic piece using film and detailed analysis of the origins and impacts of corporate and state violence across many areas internationally. The results are powerful and devastating, the evidence robust and hard to refute.

They have compiled their work to provide evidence to the International Criminal Court on human rights abuses and as a witness and testimony for those fighting repression and state terror. It is a really important work and builds on Forensic Architecture’s practice of bringing testimony and evidence to the voices of the repressed and disempowered. Previous work includes research on Grenfell Tower, on the dehumanising design of refugee camps, on extra-judicial killings in Palestine. 

In Cloud Studies, film evidence traces the way in which our air is evidence of state and corporate inhumanity from bombing and chemical attack, through air pollution: from London to Beirut, the US-Mexico border and Indonesia. It highlights environmental racism along the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana where majority-Black communities, whose ancestors were enslaved on these grounds, breathe the most toxic air in the US – leading to the region’s nickname, ‘Cancer Alley’.

Unsurprisingly, given the interests of Forensic Architecture, there is considerable focus on the repression and state terrorism of the Israeli government and military in Gaza and Palestine. The work shows the use of illegal white phosphorus bombing in Gaza against civilians and where it was fired from, how herbicide is sprayed from positions upwind of Palestinian crops to destroy food growing in a place already under siege, and the scale and targeting of bombing civilians.  A Palestinian, part of a bonfire protest sending smoke the other way to the Israeli wall in response to the chemical warfare on crops by Israel, is filmed as he is kneecapped by a sniper.

The exhibition is unremittingly clear about where the repression is from and who is on the receiving end. So the statement posted outside was bound to be problematic to a pro-Israel narrative faced with such irrefutable evidence within the exhibition.

The statement states: “While working on this exhibition, we witnessed another attack by Israeli occupation forces on Palestinians. Partners and friends in Gaza told us first hand their experiences of the attacks that destroyed multi-storey buildings, homes, the offices of news organisations, schools, hospitals and businesses… We honour the courage of Palestinians who continue to document and narrate events on the ground, and to struggle against this violence, apartheid and colonisation. We believe that this liberation struggle is inseparable from other global struggles against racism, white supremacy, antisemitism and settler colonial violence. We acknowledge its particularly close entanglement with the Black Liberation struggle around the world.”

Sally Hobbs is a local activist and Labour Party member in Levenshulme Manchester. 

Upcoming action on Israel-Palestine

RESIST DSEI: STOP ARMING ISRAEL DEMONSTRATION Sunday 12th September 2021 – Assemble 1pm, Forest Lane Park, E15
Find out more here
Thursday 16th September 6.30-7.30pm, Royal Victoria Square

Find out more here

LABOUR CONFERENCE FRINGE MEETING: Speaking Up For Palestine – A Litmus Test for Labour

Tuesday September 28, 17.30, Grand Hotel, Brighton.
Retweet here to spread the word – RSVP, share & invite on Facebook here

With: H.E Husam Zomlot, Palestinian Ambassador // Karma Nabulsi, Palestinian Writer & Activist // John McDonnell MP // Kim Johnson MP, Vice-Chair, APPG on Palestine // Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP // Mick Whelan, ASLEF General Secretary & Unions for Labour Chair // Louise Regan, Palestine Solidarity Campaign & National Education Union
Tony Burke, Unite AGS // Gemma Bolton, Labour NEC member // Hugh Lanning, Labour & Palestine // Chair: Simon Dubbins, Labour & Palestine + Unite Director of International

Fringe meeting at Labour Conference 2021. Organised by Labour & Palestine. Kindly Hosted by Unite the Union.

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