More than 1,000 artists across the cultural field—including Ben Rivers, Brian Eno, Adham Faramawy, and Tai Shani—have signed a new open letter that accuses Bristol’s Arnolfini International Centre for Contemporary Arts of “censorship of Palestinian culture,” after the institution canceled two events that were part of the city’s Palestine Film Festival. The signatories vow to no longer work with the Arnolfini or engage with its events and urge their peers in the field to join the boycott.
In November, the Arnolfini cancelled a screening of Farha (2021), a coming-of-age story set during the Nakba, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during and after the 1948 Palestine war, by Jordanian-Palestinian director Darin J. Sallam. The screening was set to be followed by a Q&A with the Palestinian writer and doctor Ghada Karmi. The center was also scheduled to host a poetry reading headlined by the rapper and activist Lowkey. The screening of Farha will now be hosted at the arts charity Watershed, while the poetry event will take place at the department store and arts hub Sparks Bristol.
On November 20, an open letter criticizing the Arnolfini’s decision was signed by more than 2,300 cultural figures. The institution responded a day later, saying in a statement that, as an arts charity, it was barred from promoting what could be “construed as political activity.” However, the statement was swiftly scorned after it appeared online, with critics pointing to numerous political events organized by the Arnolfini in recent years, including a fundraiser for Ukraine disaster relief.
“This had not been a serious concern in all the previous years that Arnolfini hosted the film festival,” the open letter states. “Nor had it been a problem with the many other exhibitions and public programs that the center hosted since its opening in 1961. Important events on decolonization and Black Lives Matter, feminism and gender liberation, refugee and asylum seekers’ rights have all taken place without being seen to fall outside the venue’s ‘charitable purpose’.”
The signatories called this part of “an alarming pattern of censorship and repression within the arts sector,” and cited a slew of recent cancellations of exhibitions and events linked to pro-ceasefire sentiment or criticism of the Israeli government. This includes the cancellation in October of a conference about antisemitism and racism that was co-organized by Jewish South African artist Candice Breitz after the organizer, a German government-run agency, said it was no longer possible to “lead and moderate this debate constructively”. That same month, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir reported that a talk she’d planned to give in Berlin was shuttered.
The letter continues: “Until the Arnolfini leadership publicly commits to consistently uphold freedom of expression, with no exception for Palestine, and genuinely engages with Bristol’s arts community to rectify the harm it has caused, we must, reluctantly, refuse cooperation with the arts center and will not participate in any of its events.”