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    Frick Pittsburgh struggles with Middle East politics

    This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O’Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

    Earlier this month, the Frick Pittsburgh postponed the touring exhibit “Treasured Ornament: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art,” which would have opened this Saturday.

    The Frick initially blamed the postponement on a scheduling conflict. But as first reported by TribLive, the real reason was museum officials’ concern that, given the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, the exhibit would prove “divisive,” in the words of museum executive director Elizabeth Barker.

    It’s not the first time the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has scuttled an art show in Pittsburgh.

    In 2014, the Mattress Factory museum canceled “Sites of Passage: Walls, Borders & Citizenship,” designed as a cultural exchange among Palestinian, Israeli and American artists.

    Just as that exhibit — an explicitly political collection of new, room-sized installation works — was quite different from “Treasured Ornament,” so were the reasons for not mounting it: The three Palestinian artists were pressured to withdraw by a social-media campaign that accused them of violating the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement. BDS, among other prohibitions, bars participation with Israelis in projects that are not expressly about opposing Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

    At issue was an online statement the Mattress Factory posted about the show, whose language seemed to critics to “normalize” Palestinian oppression. And though the Palestinian artists viewed the exhibit of installation art as a way to expose that oppression, even an offer by the Israeli artists to withdraw from the show was insufficient to save it.

    By contrast, no one, according to the Frick, had complained to the museum about “Treasured Ornament,” whose opening the museum announced Oct. 3.

    Given that that announcement came just four days before Hamas attacked Israel from its stronghold in the Gaza Strip, the Frick’s concerns about how the show would be received might be understandable. The war has been horrific, with hostage-taking and with death tolls reaching 8,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis. Mourning mixes with anger. And it all occurs against the backdrop of more than a half-century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, which a U.N. rights expert last year characterized as apartheid.

    And now, an exhibit the Frick had marketed as a way to bring people together “beyond borders and boundaries” has created its own controversy. This week, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement decrying the Frick’s decision, saying the postponement perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims by implicitly associating Islamic art with terrorism.

    The Frick’s Elizabeth Barker responded that the postponement was not a political statement. Still, the whole episode feels doubly ironic because “Treasured Ornament,” a touring exhibit organized by West Virginia’s Huntington Museum of Art, sounded as purely aesthetic and as close to apolitical as an art show might be.

    It featured “fine glassware, ceramics, metalwork, painting, weaponry, weaving and more from countries across the Middle East,” according to press materials. Some of the pieces were nearly 1,000 years old, and none of them, a museum curator told WESA, postdated the 1800s.

    A spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told WESA, “I believe that few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibit on Islamic art, because we understand that has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”

    Barker, of the Frick, framed the episode as a learning opportunity.

    She said “Treasured Ornament” was planned “years” in advance, adding that the museum should have worked with appropriate groups in the local community to provide more context for the objects on display. And had the museum had a few months to prepare after the war began — rather than a handful of weeks — it would have done so, she said. Indeed, she added, it plans to do just that whenever “Treasured Ornament,” or another exhibit similarly highlighting traditional Islamic art, might return.

    If history is a guide, there is a bit of hope here. Just two years after the Mattress Factory exhibit was canceled, one of the Palestinian artists returned there to create another new installation, a powerful work incorporating passports and barbed wire and expressing “the torment he and all Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from.”

    Let’s leave the final word to the Mattress Factory’s late founder and director, Barbara Luderowski. After that 2014 exhibit was canceled, she said, “The world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” and added, “Where is the communication in the future going to happen if it isn’t going to happen in the arts?”

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