Art gallery told to remove Palestinian art expo from window

A Tauranga art gallery showcasing Palestinian artists in an exhibition, From the River to the Sea, was told to remove material from its window by its real estate agent, who said there should be “no political stuff in the tenancy”.

A spokesperson for the real estate agency, which had leased the building to the gallery, said the request followed a complaint from a member of the public.

“It wasn’t a stance on the exhibition. It was just a request to remove it from the windows as it was very prominent and had led to a complaint. We are strong supporters of art, and this was merely a request to keep the images off the windows and inside the tenancy,” a spokesperson for the real estate agency said.

Māori art gallery Kūwao.Space is staging a show called From the River To The Sea, which features calligrapher Belal Khaled, who grew up in Gaza, and Palestinian graphic artist Monna Jabali. The exhibition is set to run until January 6.

The title of the exhibition is a highly controversial phrase that may refer to Palestinians’ belief that they should have a state that includes where Israel is sited.

It has been called anti-Semitic by some, including the New Zealand Jewish Council. In the UK, the Labour Party suspended an MP, Andy McDonald, after he said the words “between the river and the sea” at a pro-Palestine rally. The party called his comment “deeply offensive”.

Others disagree and say it highlights that Palestinians were removed from their homeland and have not received equal rights in Israel. This is the stance of Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick who used it this month at a rally.

‘All art is political’

The gallery owners say there was no mention of politics in their rental agreement, that they had previously had several exhibitions about indigenous or marginalised peoples, that the gallery is “a safe space for all”, and that “all art is political”.

Other exhibitions have celebrated Māori, Matariki, indigenous art, decolonising sexuality, water pollution and South Asian women.

“Decolonisation is our baseline, and everything we do within the space, including the use of te reo Māori or supporting our queer community, is politically motivated. Therefore, we cannot imagine a space that contains no political material. We welcome all people,” owner Sian Evans told Stuff.

The day after it opened, gallery co-owner Evans received a text from the real estate agent they lease the property from.

“Sian, no political stuff in the tenancy. Please urgently remove all window posters and any political items from the tenancy. Confirm back when this is going to be done. We are also looking at having the tenancy returned to vacant for viewing purposes,” the text read.

Evans said in the window was information about the exhibition and artists, poems and messages of support.

“There was nothing abusive or hateful or anything that I could even think would be offensive at all.”

After texts from the agent asking her if she had removed it to the point she felt “harassed”, she agreed to remove everything out of the window.

One complaint

The agent told Stuff that they had received only one complaint from a member of the public. She had not spoken to the owner of the property.

The real estate agency spokesperson said that the staff member had identified a risk after the complaint.

“We act for the landlord, and as such have authority to make decisions that we think are in the interests of protecting their premises.”

With Tauranga CBD known for its empty stores and For Lease signs, some businesses are being offered cheaper rentals.

“The agent was happy with this agreement before – and with us, and said it was only when someone had signed up to pay [the] full rate that we would be given notice,” the gallery owners told Stuff.

The real estate agency said it would meet the gallery owners this week to go over their concerns.

“Had the tenant come to us with an issue or objection we would have met with them to discuss in more detail and ideally resolve it. We did not mean to cause them any stress, and it was not directed at the exhibition or any of the art, only the placement of it on the windows, being moved inside the tenancy.”

The gallery has had an offer from an Auckland gallery to hold the exhibition, as well as other galleries around the country.

“It’s not about the tenancy – as we always knew that it was temporary until a permanent tenant is found... It’s about standing up against injustice and suppression, against people misusing their power to silence people. It’s heartbreaking, but the support we’ve had from around New Zealand has been amazing.”

Public Interest Journalism