Two collectors have withdrawn works loaned for a show at the Barbican after the London institution cancelled a talk by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra on Israel and Palestine. The decision has spurred allegations of censorship against the center, and deepened concerns in the art world that spaces for free discussion of Palestine are growing scarce. 

The loaned works, two quilts by Loretta Pettwlay, a member of the Southern American artist collective Gee’s Bend, were pulled from a major group exhibition on textile arts, titled “Unravel: the Power and Politics of Textile in Art”, around February 29, two weeks into its run (the show is on view through May 26). The cancellation of the talk was first reported on February 6 by the Guardian.

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The London-based lenders, Lorenzo Legarda Leviste and his husband, Fahad Mayet, said in a statement that they disapproved of the Barbican’s decision to no longer present a lecture series organized by the London Review of Books (LBR) set to take place over February and March. Mishra’s talk, titled “The Shoah after Gaza,” traced the historical parallels between the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust) and the ongoing bombardment of Gaza. 

The Barbican Centre has since installed a plinth where the two Pettway works were displayed: “These two works have been withdrawn at the request of the lenders, as an act of solidarity with Palestine, in response to the Barbican’s decision to not host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series.” 

A description of Mishra’s talk on LRB‘s website read: “A powerful western narrative holds the Shoah to be the incomparable crime of the modern era. But we find our moral and political consciousness profoundly altered when Israel, a country founded as a haven for the victims of genocidal racism, is itself charged with genocide.”

A statement from the Barbican published February 14 said that no official agreement to host the talk was finalized before the details of the event were publicized “prematurely”. This, the statment continued, did not allow the center’s senior leadership time “to do the careful preparation needed for this sensitive content”.  

Unraveled opened less than a week later. Co-curated by Lotte Johnson and Wells Fray-Smith of the Barbican, and Diego Chocano and Amanda Pinatih of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, the show examines post-colonial narratives through the lens of textile arts. Collectors Leviste and Mayetm, who contributed the quilts by Loretta Pettway, contacted the center on February 20.

Leviste’s email correspondence with the center was later re-published online and first reported by Hyperallergic. “I cannot understate how disturbing and alarming this blatant act of repression (and lack of transparency) by the Barbican is,” Leviste wrote. “[One] of the country’s most important arts institutions censoring one of the country’s most respected public intellectuals and literary publications from speaking openly about crimes committed by Israel that we are all watching with our own eyes, on our phones, daily; crimes that are currently being investigated by the International Court of Justice.”

The LRB said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the Barbican’s decision to back away from the lecture series “at a late stage”, and praised St James Church, in Clerkenwell, for stepping up to host Mishra’s event. 

Mishra also criticized the Barbican’s cancellation, saying a “pervasive sense of fear and panic” is hindering freedom of expression on the topic of Palestine at cultural institutions. 

The Barbican did not respond to a request for comment.