A number of artists and curators have said they are cutting ties with Art Canada Institute (ACI) after the arts nonprofit was accused late last month of attempting to suppress the voices of a group of Arab and Muslim artists. A dozen Canadian artists are accusing the online art platform, which is part of the Massey College at the University of Toronto, of failing to uphold its own mission statement after the organization asked the participants of a group photography exhibition for a last-minute “sensitivity review” just days before the show was slated to go live. Amid the fallout, several other artists have withdrawn from projects with the ACI, citing Founder and Executive Director Sara Angel’s backing of a letter targeting former Art Gallery of Ontario curator Wanda Nanibush.

Before it was canceled on November 28, the online exhibition Lands Within brought together a dozen Canadian artists of North African and Southwest Asian backgrounds to explore and recontextualize the historically misconstrued region through landscape photography. After months of planning, which included a Letter of Agreement signed in August and an exhibition layout review in early November, ACI’s managing director Michelle Yeung emailed the group’s curator Amin Alsaden on November 23 to inform him that the exhibition would undergo a so-called “sensitivity review.” Yeung said the process was put in place to affirm that the show would not unintentionally alienate or offend readers, according to email communications reviewed by Hyperallergic.

It is unclear whether the sensitivity review is standard practice for ACI, and the institution has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated inquiries and requests for comment. Documents shared with Hyperallergic describe the review process as an inspection by two readers, who would preview the works in advance of the exhibition opening and submit feedback. It is unclear if these readers would be from within the ACI or outside of the institution. In response, Alsaden pointed out to Yeung that this review was never flagged or agreed upon beforehand and that the exhibition’s content had been thoroughly assessed throughout the development process.

“What is disturbing here is that ACI’s so-called ‘sensitivity review’ apparently targeted this exhibition because of our cultural background,” Alsaden told Hyperallergic. “I am perplexed as to how our birth identities, or landscape photography, suddenly became offensive to them.”

Palestinian-Canadian artist Rana Nazzal Hamadeh, another participant in the exhibition, told Hyperallergic that she had “little doubt” that the review “was an attempt to police our work as Palestinian, Arab, and other SWANA artists.”

ACI is an online arts platform based at Massey College at the University of Toronto. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“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,” Hamadeh said, adding that “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.”

After Alsaden sent a lengthy email expressing concerns with the sensitivity review process, ACI agreed to publish the exhibition without it. Lands Within went live on November 28, but shortly after on that same day, the curator and artists collectively withdrew their consent for their work to be featured on the institution’s website and ACI removed the exhibition from its platform. The group is currently working to find another space for the project.

ACI was founded in 2013 by Sara Angel as a digital art museum and open-source library. Although it is not publicized in her biography on ACI’s website, Angel also sits on the board of directors for Israel Museums and Arts, Canada (ICAAM) — a pro-Israel organization that was criticized last month after an email from its leadership sent to the director of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) was leaked on social media. The email, which was signed by Angel alongside other ICAAM leaders, complained about the pro-Palestine social media posts of Anishinaabe artist Wanda Nanibush, who was AGO’s Canadian and Indigenous art curator at the time. Nanibush subsequently departed from the gallery without comment, prompting thousands of artists, educators, curators, and cultural workers to call on the museum to publicly address her exit. Hyperallergic has attempted to reach Angel for comment.

Last Thursday, November 30, AGO Director and CEO Stephan Jost issued an open letter reiterating the museum’s commitment to uplifting the voices of Indigenous artists through its programming. This week, Ada M. Patterson withdrew her artwork from the traveling exhibition, Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s—Now, which opened yesterday at AGO, citing AGO’s “acquiescing to Zionist propaganda and political pressure against Nanibush’s solidarity with the Palestinian people and their struggle” in an email to the Toronto museum shared on social media.

“The real policies that these institutions have about diversity and inclusion, all this talk about freedom of speech — it is all talk,” Lynn Kodeih, a Lebanese photographer whose work was featured in Lands Within, told Hyperallergic. Kodeih said it was “disappointing” that ACI is failing to uphold its stated commitment to “inclusive multi-vocal Canadian art history.”

In response to Nanibush’s sudden departure from the Art Gallery of Ontario, another online exhibition by Toronto-based visual artist Sandra Brewster has been removed from ACI at the artist’s personal request, along with an essay written by Canadian arts curator Pamela Edmonds. Additionally, artist Jamelie Hassan and cultural historian Dot Tuer, who have been collaborating together on a monogram about Hassan’s work since 2020, have pulled their book project from the institution.

Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen also told Hyperallergic that she cut ties with the ACI this past summer after it allegedly promoted “racist misinformation” about her installation, The Black Canadians (after Cooke) at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). The two-story photographic mural, which examines the legacy of Canada’s colonialism through the lens of Bowen’s own family, sparked outrage from White curators Charles Hill and Christopher Varley before its opening for what they saw as the defamation of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven Canadian landscape artists, prompting NGC to issue a statement to dispel the inaccurate claims. Bowen told Hyperallergic that after ACI “jumped on board by republishing [Hill’s] comments” in a July 29 newsletter, she will never work with the institution again.

“Arts institutions and museums create a canon that is seen as truth,” Hamadeh said. “If major institutions like ACI normalize a practice that threatens to infringe on the freedom of expression as artists, it is imperative that we refuse to patronize them or contribute our cultural production to them.”

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *