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Palestinian Voices Will Not Be Erased

After artists collectively removed their work from a Manchester arts centre in protest at its censorship of a Palestinian literature celebration, bosses were forced to reinstate the event — in a stunning victory for those opposing genocide in Gaza.

Manchester artists protest at HOME theatre.

It had been so long since I’d had my work hanging in a gallery, and having a selection of my ‘Women of Discord’ on display in not just any gallery but a proper one in central Manchester did give me the feeling of being back on track after so many years of artistically floundering.

Amongst those I chose to include in my wall hanging were my all-time hero, the Socialist Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst; Asenath Barzani, the first female Rabbi (that we know of) from Kurdish Iraq; Frida Kahlo, the iconic Communist Mexican artist; my best friend, disability and asylum rights activist Manjeet Kaur who died in 2020; Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist who was killed by the Israeli military in 2003 in Rafah, Gaza; and Queen Nzinga who fought the Portuguese colonisation of Angola, amongst others.

At the 2024 Open Exhibition, the walls were alive and busy, not just with some beautiful and fascinating pieces but also with many overtly political works — pieces championing feminist ideals, LGBT+ perspectives, and anti-austerity politics.

It was the height of irony when HOME cancelled Voices of Resilience last week, a sold-out Palestinian literature event featuring Maxine Peak alongside Palestinian speakers. Following a campaign by pro-Israel groups, the venue suddenly declared itself to be a ‘politically neutral space’. It’s not out of the norm to see institutions hide behind the political neutrality argument, but I don’t think that facade has ever been more conspicuously transparent than with HOME.

An open letter signed by hundreds of theatremakers and cultural workers highlighted the hypocrisy of HOME suddenly declaring itself a politically neutral space while showing countless films, theatre productions, and exhibitions centred around political events. A statue of Engels himself stood right outside, the colours of the Ukrainian flag still not entirely faded from his surface.

Days after up to 1000 people demonstrated outside HOME in protest at their decision to censor Palestinian voices at a time when they could not be more urgent, I and dozens of other artists gathered to remove our art en masse from the venue’s exhibitions. One artist, Freya Wysocki, justifying our actions, explained: ‘We are removing our art pieces to support the event producers and, more importantly, to support the Palestinian people whose stories must be told.’

The message of our action was clear: we will celebrate the fight for human rights and against colonialism and tell the stories of those who fight for their rights when it matters most, not only after the dust has settled and popular opinion has changed. Too often, the establishment and wider society are only willing to side against injustices once they are resolved, like how the same people who labelled Nelson Mandela as a terrorist later declared him to be a hero.

Many cultural institutions want to celebrate a sanitised version of Manchester’s radical history while they distance themselves from present-day politics. Our history was born out of the struggle, suffering and sacrifice of the people on the ground; Mancunians from across the political spectrum will boast about Manchester as the place of unions, abolition, Marx and Engels, Suffragettes, and Peterloo. It’s safe to do so when the consensus has been established, and the struggle is deemed no longer relevant and is just another page in history that we can boast about.

But right now, Palestinians cannot wait for the world to sit around pontificating about Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ versus the people of Gaza’s right not to be slaughtered in their thousands.

Thanks to the protests of artists and public pressure, HOME has pledged to restore the cancelled event, claiming in a statement: ‘We support Palestinian and all community voices, and acknowledge that we can learn from how this was handled. We regret that this has had such wide-reaching impacts.’

This success is to be celebrated, but we are under no illusions that it makes no material difference for Palestinians pulling the remains of their entire families out of the rubble of Gaza and huddling in Rafah, wondering if they are about to be massacred any minute.

If Voices of Resilience is, as promised, restored and is a sell-out event where people throw roses at the stage, that’s nice. But it won’t bring down the occupation and stop the genocide in Gaza. The most it will do is show the creatives behind Voices of Resilience that there are those who will leverage their platform (in our case, the few inches to a few metres of gallery wall each of us could call our ‘platform’) to fight for Palestinian voices.

It may even show those who attempt to get any and every Palestinian event cancelled with quite often bizarrely spurious accusations of antisemitism and terrorism that they can’t behave like this. Perhaps it will help people realise that no one owns the word ‘genocide’. It may even encourage more events focused on Palestinian stories.

But whatever the outcome, this is our own corner. Small and insignificant as it might be in the grand scheme of things, I hope our act of removing our humble art from the gallery walls does at least demonstrate that we are willing to walk away from Omelas.