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Palestinian American's art exhibition in Indiana canceled after criticizing Gaza bombings


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Now a story about an exhibition you cannot see.

Some arts institutions have been roiled by tensions in the ongoing war in the Middle East. And one controversy has unfolded at the Art Museum of Indiana University, where a prominent Palestinian-American artist was scheduled to have her first American retrospective this month.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown : A work of art returning from an exhibition carried up the stairs to the New York studio of its creator, Samia Halaby.

Samia Halaby, Artist: Here it is, the Queen Bee being treated like a princess.

Jeffrey Brown : But this is no routine return. The Queen Bee was never put on display. The exhibition, titled Centers of Energy, and scheduled to be shown at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, was canceled in late December.

Samia Halaby: The only thing they told me was two-sentence letter. The show is canceled and the artwork will be returned safely. That's all.

Jeffrey Brown : Eighty-seven-year-old Samia Halaby is known for her large and vibrant abstract paintings, which she's been making for more than 60 years. In addition, she creates sculptures and works with fiber and textiles, and was an early practitioner of computer and digital art, teaching herself how to write computer programs starting in the 1980s.

She's also a passionate supporter of Palestinian culture and advocate for Palestinian rights. She was born in Jerusalem in 1936, when Palestine was under British control, fleeing with her family amid the fighting that eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the period known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Her family eventually came to the U.S. and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Samia Halaby: As an intellectual, I chose to be an abstractionist. I am a Palestinian, and I believe in the Palestinian will to have freedom. I believe in the right of self-determination and self-defense.

I love Palestinian culture. All of these things are me.

Jeffrey Brown : Her tie to Indiana University is strong. She received her master of fine arts degree there in 1963 and later taught, before moving to Yale in 1972, where she was the first woman to have the title of associate professor at the School of Art.

Her work is in the collections of major U.S. museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Guggenheim in New York. And she recently had a large retrospective in the United Arab Emirates. The cancellation came as she was using Instagram to express outrage at Israel's bombing of Gaza in response to the October 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel.

She called Israel's retaliation a genocide and compared Gaza to Auschwitz. Though she was well aware of the tensions at universities around the country, including Indiana, she says the cancellation was a surprise.

Samia Halaby: I thought stupidly that I was immune because I was an alumni and belonged there. And so it came as a surprise. My first reaction was to be upset, because, hey, this is my second home. You know, someone is now stealing my second home from me.

But then I got over that quickly and I thought, ah, the community there is really very upset about it.

Ethan Sandweiss, Indiana Public Media: It's been quite a big deal, and the fallout is still coming.

Jeffrey Brown : Ethan Sandweiss has been covering campus reaction at Indiana as a multimedia journalist with Indiana Public Media.

Ethan Sandweiss: We're seeing a lot of students and faculty organizing protests, sit-ins, teach-ins. A venue in town is putting on a retrospective in the place of the museum. So, the response here has been quite significant.

Jeffrey Brown : The university itself, however, has said little publicly.

In response to the "NewsHour"'s request for an interview with university president Pamela Whitten, we were referred to this previously released short statement: "Academic leaders and campus officials canceled the exhibit due to concerns about guaranteeing the integrity of the exhibit for its duration."

Last month, university provost Rahul Shrivastav also cited security concerns at a faculty forum, saying, in part:

Rahul Shrivastav Provost and Executive Vice President, Indiana University: In this case, we had clearly competing values. We had an exciting debut exhibit of a major international abstract artist and alumna three years in the making.

We also had a potential lightning rod at a charged political moment that might draw ongoing or major protests and require significant and long-term security we would need for hundreds of other events.

Jeffrey Brown : Reporter Ethan Sandweiss sampled responses across the campus.

Ethan Sandweiss: I haven't spoken with anyone who feels like this is a compelling enough reason to cancel the exhibition. I have talked to faculty members who say, if there is a security risk, then that's why we have an I.U. Police Department that can provide that extra security.

So I don't think a whole lot of people are buying it within the I.U. community.

Jeffrey Brown : Halaby had worked on the exhibition for several years with a curatorial team headed by Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert, who told us she was instructed to refer press inquiries to university communications officials.

In lieu of an interview, she sent an e-mail statement to the "NewsHour" saying: "I am immensely proud of the work that Samia Halaby, Rachel Winter, and I accomplished together. Anyone who has the privilege to witness Halaby's artwork in person will understand some small piece of the beauty and joy we have experienced working together over the past several years."

The controversy at Indiana is just one example of the conflict in the arts and culture world since the October 7 Hamas attack, including 92NY. The cultural center in New York, canceled an October event with a novelist who signed a public letter critical of Israel. Several staff members resigned in protest and other authors pulled out of their events.

The editor in chief at "Artforum," a prominent arts magazine, was fired after the magazine published an open letter from artists calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. At another Midwestern university, the Wexner Center for the Arts the arts at Ohio State decided to keep an exhibition by a Palestinian artist that had opened prior to October 7. But it had canceled a public panel she was scheduled to take part in.

In a follow-up e-mail to the university administration, we asked if it was aware of specific security risks, whether it had canceled the exhibition due to Samia Halaby's public statements, and if it had received pressure to cancel the exhibition from politicians or donors. We were once again referred to the one-sentence statement.

Samia Halaby, however, believes she knows why her exhibit was canceled.

Samia Halaby: Oh, it's obviously an extension of what's happening in Gaza, where Palestinians are not allowed to speak or express our opinion, or, in my case, because it wasn't a political show, provide a role model to students as to what intellectual activity could be like.

Jeffrey Brown : But a museum or a university in this case does have a right to decide who they're going to exhibit?

Samia Halaby: Yes, and they decided to take me two-and-a-half-years ago, so they changed when the genocide began. So, what gives here?

Jeffrey Brown : So, you have no regrets about using that language?

Samia Halaby: Do I not have a right to express my feelings? My feelings is that I'm horrified. I'm equally horrified when I see other things happening. I'm equally horrified at the Holocaust of the Jews. I'm equally horrified at -- about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm horrified by what happened to the African Americans.

When I read about all of these things, they bring me to great sadness.

Jeffrey Brown : Meanwhile, on campus, a petition to reinstate the exhibition is circulating, and reporter Ethan Sandweiss is hearing fears of another kind of fallout.

Ethan Sandweiss: A lot of faculty that I have spoken with are worried that these signals that the university could be sending, perhaps inadvertently, that they are not standing strongly enough by their researchers, it could send a signal to people who might apply to I.U. as students, as graduate students, as faculty that Indiana is not a place where they would be welcome and it's not a place where they would be able to perform their research undisturbed.

Jeffrey Brown : As for Samia Halaby, her work will next be shown at the upcoming Venice Biennale, one of the world's leading international art exhibitions.

And her canceled retrospective exhibition is so far scheduled to run at its next venue, Michigan State University's Broad Art Museum, beginning June 29.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown .

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