Canadian Art Platform Accused of Suppressing Arab and Muslim Voices

The controversy arose when the ACI requested a last-minute "sensitivity review" for a group photography exhibition featuring a dozen Canadian artists of SWANA backgrounds.

Canadian Art Platform Accused of Suppressing Arab and Muslim Voices
Image credit: The Art Canada Institute

Artists and curators are severing ties with the Art Canada Institute (ACI), an online art platform and nonprofit linked to the University of Toronto, following accusations of suppressing Arab and Muslim voices.

The controversy arose when the ACI requested a last-minute "sensitivity review" for a group photography exhibition featuring Arab and Muslim artists. Canadian artists are accusing the ACI of failing to uphold its mission statement, which states that the nonprofit is “dedicated to making Canadian art history a contemporary, multi-vocal conversation” and “[promotes] the study of inclusive Canadian art history to as broad an audience as possible.”

The online exhibition which received a sudden scrutiny, titled "Lands Within," featured a dozen Canadian artists of SWANA backgrounds exploring and recontextualizing the historically misconstrued region through landscape photography. Despite months of planning, including a signed Letter of Agreement in August and an exhibition layout review in early November, emails uncovered by investigative art publication Hyperallergic show that on Nov. 23, the ACI's managing director Michelle Yeung informed the group’s curator Amin Alsaden that the exhibition would undergo a last-minute "sensitivity review" to ensure it wouldn't unintentionally alienate or offend readers. The exhibition was ultimately canceled Nov. 28.

It's uncertain if the ACI regularly conducts sensitivity reviews, and the institution has not responded to inquiries. According to documents shared as part of the Hyperallergic investigation, the review involved two readers providing feedback on the works before the exhibition opened, but it's unclear if those readers were internal or external to the ACI.

The artists affected by the ACI’s scrutiny seem to agree that the sensitivity review was an attempt to suppress the work of SWANA and particularly Palestinian artists.

Alsaden highlighted to Yeung that the review was not agreed upon beforehand, emphasizing the thorough assessment of the exhibition's content during development. Alsaden later told Hyperallergic that, “the ACI’s so-called ‘sensitivity review’ apparently targeted this exhibition because of our cultural background.”

“Over the past two months, we’ve seen a wave of denialism and censorship in arts institutions across Canada that targets Palestinians and those who voice even slight empathy with us,” said Palestinian Canadian artist Rana Nazzal Hamadeh, one of the exhibition’s participants. “Not only are Palestinians refused the right to mourn or challenge the unprecedented violence waged against our friends and families back home, but our very existence is seen as a threat.”

Following Alsaden's concerns about the sensitivity review, the ACI agreed to publish "Lands Within" without it. The exhibition went live Nov. 28, but on the same day, the curator and artists withdrew their consent for their work to be featured on the ACI's website. The ACI subsequently removed the exhibition from its platform. The group is now seeking an alternative space for the project.

The ACI was founded in 2013 by Sara Angel as a digital art museum and open-source library. Angel also sits on the board of directors for Israel Museums and Arts, Canada (ICAAM), a pro-Israel organization that was criticized last week for Zionist sentiment from its leadership. In a now-leaked email, ICAAM’s leadership complained about pro-Palestine social media posts by Wanda Nanibush, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) curator at the time. Nanibush left without comment, sparking public calls for AGO to address her exit. AGO Director Stephan Jost addressed the situation by reiterating his support for Indigenous voices in an open letter. His response was not enough for Ada M. Patterson, who withdrew her artwork from an AGO exhibition for AGO’s “[acquiescence] to Zionist propaganda and political pressure against Nanibush’s solidarity with the Palestinian people and their struggle.”

Amid the fallout, several other artists have withdrawn from projects with the ACI, citing both the "Lands Within” sensitivity review and Angel’s supposed involvement in the letter against Nanibush. The incident adds to a trend of alleged censorship in the ACI and North American arts institutions as a whole, raising concerns about freedom of expression and inclusion.

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