SFSC Letter – re Palestinian Artist Rehab Nazzal’s exhibit in Ottawa’s City Hall

I am writing on behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee based in Vancouver, BC. Seriously Free Speech was founded six years ago. We are, as our web site says- (www.serioulsyfreespeech.ca) “committed to free expression of views on Israel/Palestine. Members are concerned about growing intimidation, censorship and legal threats against individuals and organizations who criticize Israel’s actions.” In that context you won’t be surprised to know that we have followed the situation of the art of Rehab Nazzal at the Karsh-Masson Art Gallery in Ottawa’s City Hall.

We have not seen the exhibition but that is not the issue. We are not critics. We are concerned at the comments made by the Israeli ambassador and the Ottawa Jewish Federation as well as those of Ottawa civic officials. The Israeli ambassador clearly is displeased and I suppose this is to be expected. The fact that he has expressed his view that the art should not be shown is, it seems to us, just as legitimate as our expressing opinions about the actions of his government in his country and we hope he would defend out right to do so. The call of the Ottawa Jewish Federation to take the art down is unsurprising. The fact that a Canadian organization would call for the banning of the right of a Canadian artist to make a political statement with her art is disturbing but not surprising. Of course the Federation has the right to criticize the work but calling for it to be taken down is a clear violation of the right of free speech. Who gets to decide? This is the nub of the question about art. It goes back many years- as long ago as art really, and has repercussions far beyond this artist and this exhibition. Not a great distance from your office is the office of the Canada Council for the Arts. They have had a long experience defending the right of artists to make art which is provocative, inflammatory, and always, in the eyes of someone or the other, objectionable. The tradition in this country of peer review in deciding what merits being shown in public spaces is an important one and, it appears, one that has been respected, used and defended in the case of Ms. Nazzal’s work.
We were happy to see that the work stayed up and that the process of how the work was assessed and chosen was explained. The latter seemed a bit defensive to us but was accurate and perhaps educates the public about how decisions are made. We congratulate you and your associates in resisting the pressure to become censors and in defending free speech in this case.
On the other hand, from what we can tell from newspaper accounts, there is a disturbing undertone to the notion of a review. We read in the May 22 Ottawa Citizen that “The city is reviewing its policy governing artwork selection for a City Hall gallery following concerns about the latest exhibit, including calls to remove it from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa… The federation is encouraged the city is reviewing the gallery’s art selection, president and CEO Andrea Freedman said in a statement, which added changes should “ensure that such outrageous messages advanced under the guise of art are not allowed.” Ottawa Citizen May 22. We hope that any review of the city’s policy regarding the showing of art would lead to a ringing endorsement of the right of a committee of knowledgeable curators to make their decisions free from any political pressure. Ms. Nazzal has written in a letter to supporters that “This time the show is not taken down, how about in the future? Would curators be afraid to curate work by Palestinian artists and show work with content about Palestine? That is what at stake.” We agree. That is indeed the question. There needs to be a very clear message sent by the City of Ottawa, especially given that it is the capital city of Canada that freedom of artists to make controversial statements with their art begins in Ottawa.
We congratulate you again for defending Ms. Nazzal’s rights as an artist. We hope that this defence will be at the heart of your review and look forward to following this case.
Yours for Free Speech,

Gary Cristall
Member Seriously Free Speech Committee

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