Curator Danah Abdullah was told that the work of artist Ghada Wali was too politicised and did not fit in with the rest of her exhibition at P21 Gallery in London. When Abdullah kept pushing the issue, it was suggested she alter the posters to remove text that could be perceived as controversial.
A London gallery has found itself in a censorship dispute, after deciding not to exhibit 12 prints satirising Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and jailed former president Mohamed Morsi. Click here to see the images.
In The City, an exhibition dealing with the four Arab cities of Alexandria, Algiers, Baghdad and Nablus, is currently taking place at the P21 Gallery. Twelve posters by Egyptian artist and graphic designer Ghada Wali, making up the piece Film Ikhwany, were supposed to be part of the Alexandria portion. Using images of Mohamed Morsi on a series of film posters, it aims to deny the “’Brotherhoodisation’ of Egypt”.
However, four days before the opening on 26 September, curator Danah Abdulla was told by the gallery that the prints were not to be exhibited after all. She was told they had taken legal counsel and that the images were deemed “too risky”. She was asked to find new pieces to go in their place.
When she challenged the decision, she was told the work was too politicised and did not fit in with the rest of the exhibition. This came after the images had been used in press releases. When she kept pushing the issue, it was suggested she alter the posters to remove text that could be perceived as controversial.
“I was told the gallery was not a political space, but they have had two extremely political exhibitions in the past,” she said, referring to their recent one dealing with the Syrian civil war. ”This exhibition is not purely political, it is about the city, therefore you do touch on the politics. I’m not going to pretend the city is unicorns and ponies.”
“The work is opinion, it’s not fact. Everything is opinion, it’s not stating anything factual. It’s freedom of expression, plain and simple, so I didn’t really understand why they were so worried about the work,” she explained.
The designer Ghada Wali said she wanted to shed light on the political struggle in Egypt through her work, but never though it would be deemed too risky to exhibit in the UK, where freedom of expression is valued and protected.
“At the end of the day, I am a free artist; I sense what I want to communicate in my artworks and which angle to tackle. This is art after all, it is not science and not literature that can be proved wrong. In Egypt, where the political agony is actually happening, I still can never be deprived of displaying my pieces. Yes, my designs can be sprayed by brotherhood supporters because they disagree with me, however I can never find an official entity crossing out my work.”
She added: “As an artist, I believe that my work has to play around the edges of the issue. My core belief as a person and my mission as an artist is to tackle a real issue. However, maybe drawing around a real issue nowadays is perceived as ‘risky’?”
The images have since been displayed London’s Hardy Tree Gallery as a solo show, with the title “The Censored”.
“It’s not to embarrass the [P21] gallery. It’s to say this [censorship] is happening here in London, and it shouldn’t happen,” concluded Abdulla.
Index has made repeated attempts to contact P21, but so far have not revceived a response to our questions.
P21 responded with a statement saying the works did not adequately support the exhibition narrative, and there were worries they would “negatively impact the exhibition, the P21 Gallery and the other 11 designer’s exhibiting works.” They added that there were concerns about the level of attention the curator appeared to be placing on Film Ikhwany, as well as “about the Gallery being used for an offshore political agenda with indications that the graphic designer in Egypt was influencing the exhibition via the curator.”
They also said a number of alternative options were offered to and discussed with Danah Abdulla, including postponing the show, contact the designer directly to find a solution and exhibiting other works by the designer in future shows.