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Grief in exile: Palestinian artists creating through censorship

Published on
Mar 11, 2024
Written by
Saif Ullah Khan
Published by
Ricardo Felix
Edited by
Sabrina Yussuf

On a quiet afternoon in early November 2023, the entrance steps to the Royal Ontario Museum stand decorated with flowers, candles, watermelons, drums, and flags – coming together to take the form of a traditional Mexican ofrenda, filled with items from various cultures. Writing in chalk surrounds the makeshift altar, with phrases like ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Imperialism Lives Here’ written on the floor. 

With Arabic music playing on a radio, a group of protestors surround the ofrenda. Their goal – pressure the museum into opening the exhibit that has sparked so much controversy around the museum's alteration of work by Palestinian-American artists. 

Photo: Saif Khan

Last October, Chicago-based artist Sameerah Hosam Ahmad traveled to Toronto with her friends to view their work in the traveling exhibit Death, Life’s Greatest Mystery which had made its way to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) from the Field Museum in Chicago. The exhibit explores different cultural responses to death from around the world. As a death doula from a Palestinian background, Ahmad contributed to two sections of the exhibit – one of them exploring traditional green burial practices of the Palestinian-Muslim community. The original display at the Field Museum featured a painting from Dearborn-based painter Jenin Yaseen depicting an Islamic burial practice. 

“The experience working on these displays with the Field Museum in Chicago was quite positive. They were very supportive,” said Ahmad. “My father even brought food and we had an event where we got to see the painting itself. When I walked in and saw these displays, at a museum I used to go to as a child, it was really inspiring and I was happy to tell Muslim stories, to tell Palestinian stories.”

Photo Credit: Evan Mitsui/CBC

“Months ago we learned that Death, Life's Greatest Mystery was going to be a traveling exhibition – from Chicago it was going to travel across the world and the first stop was Toronto.”

However, when Ahmad and her friends arrived in Toronto they discovered that the ROM had plans to make alterations to their sections of the exhibit. Ahmad and her colleagues were brought onto a Zoom call by the museum’s team -  an experience Ahmad describes as “difficult” and "violent.”

“It was terrible – I was with my cousin, Malak, who had just flown here from D.C who was lobbying politicians who were treating her terribly and dehumanizing her. I was with the painter who worked so hard with her hands to create a painting to be in this green burial exhibit,” shared Ahmad. “All four of us learned that they were going to censor our displays in a very disingenuous way.”

“They told us to remove the word Palestine.” 

The women were also told on the call that the portion of the exhibit featuring Jewish traditions would also be altered “in principle” – which further upset the group. The ROM’s alterations of the Palestinian and Jewish displays in the exhibit were met with organized action against the museum. The initial protest – an 18-hour long sit-in by the artists – pushed the ROM to issue a statement promising the reinstatement of the artworks and text. However, the exhibit’s opening remained delayed which prompted further organized action from the artists, including the ofrenda gathering which took place on November 2nd,  organized in solidarity with contributing artist Norma Rios Sierra. Sierra’s ofrenda honouring her late father remained closed to the public on the first day of Día de los Muertos – an act considered disrespectful towards the artist. 

“I wanted to see my friend Norma’s work. She created a beautiful Mexican ofrenda, and this is the first day of Día de los Muertos.”

The ROM’s censorship of essential aspects of the exhibit included multiple changes to its original form, with a particularly significant change made to the green burial painting by Jenin Yaseen. The painting was developed from Ahmad’s experience visiting a Muslim cemetery in Indiana during her death doula studies – and the connection she made between traditional Islamic burials and the green burial movement. 

A side-by-side comparison of the original painting and the ROM's proposed changes, from Ahmad. (Sameerah Hosam Ahmad)

“[Yaseen] also included a section in the painting that refers to the reality, and the truth, and the lived experience that hundreds of Palestinian bodies are withheld by the Israeli occupation in their ‘cemeteries of numbers’ and in their occupation freezers,” Ahmad shared. “At the same time that we are honouring green burial in that display, the artist was also pointing to the fact that for many Palestinians they do not have the right to practice green burial because these bodies are withheld by the occupation.”

This section of the painting – featuring a child’s body being carried away by two soldiers – makes use of significant Palestinian iconography such as the poppy. 

Image: Jenin Yaseen

“The poppy is a powerful symbol in Palestine. It represents our martyrs and the colours of our flag,” Ahmad expressed. “For me as a death doula, when I look at this scene I see pain and I see suffering and I also see hope. I see that the artist painted and sewed a future where, insh’Allah, our deceased Palestinians are returned to us. So we can bury us.”

Ahmad continued “[The ROM has] the audacity to sit there in front of Palestinian women and tell them to remove the word ‘Palestine’, to remove the word ‘exile’, to remove the keffiyeh, to remove the poppy, to remove the dead bodies. This is disgusting.” The symbols included in the painting were important representations of Palestinian culture and mourning – the institution's removal of these symbols meant an erasure of this representation. 

The artist's action led to the reopening of the exhibit a few days following the ofrenda gathering. Most of the original artwork and text was reinstated, with some alterations remaining, including to the text of the Green Burial display and text misquoting artist Jenin Yaseen. 

Photo: Saif Khan

Witnessing the resistance to the censorship of the Palestinian display in Death, Life’s Greatest Mystery allowed me to experience artists and organizers making themselves known. The art world in Canada reflects the overall state of censorship towards Palestine in general – reflecting the interest of funders and cultural institutions who want to protect their political interests by controlling the art that is displayed to the public. While following along with the campaign, two questions stayed with me. 

Who gets to decide what stories are told, and which aren't? Do we have the power to change that?