Artists, tutors and co-activists at Piet Zwart Institute (PZI), a masters in fine art institution in Rotterdam, lately turned to the freedoms of artistic expression to fight on-campus censorship of Israeli actions.
Not knowing the extent of the fight yet to be had on their campus, a group of artist-activists at PZI mobilised after the May Israeli court rulings in favor of forced expulsions of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.
They wished to exercise their right to free speech and protest on the grounds of an institution that has activated those rights when certain political winds could not be ignored: but not all.
In 2015, PZI were vocal and visual in their criticism of the Hebdo attacks; they dressed their pillars with the slogans “Je Suis Charlie” and issued a solidarity statement.
In 2020, they participated in the digital phenomenon, Blackout Tuesday, and captioned their post, “We stand against racism and support the black lives matter movement.
Between March and May 2021, PZI permitted the hanging of a banner on the institutions’ building in response to the curfew riots that flared across Rotterdam and the Dutch capital of Amsterdam.
The banner and its text was the creation of PZI students Diana Al-Halabi and Afrang Nordlof Malekian: “If a curfew violates freedom of speech, so does the visa regime”.
All these causes were appropriately supported by PZI, which is managed by the Willem de Kooning Academy under the umbrella of Hogeschool Rotterdam, and rightly so, but as will be evidenced throughout: Palestine remains the litmus test for double standards in solidarity.
The group set about creating a banner that read: “Stop ethnic cleansing, Free Palestine, Save Sheikh Jarrah” which they hung from their schools’ building, beginning on May 12, in the middle of the next Gaza onslaught.
That evening they were told by PZI’s Dean, Jeroen Chabot, that the banner must be removed because “the building of the academy needs to signal to anyone that this is a safe pluriform educational space for everyone to learn in.
That is why the building cannot be used for political, religious or commercial statements.
The students responded that actual ethnic cleansing was a very violent action, and the term aptly describes the forced removal of one racial group in favor of another, in a colonial context.
In the days that followed, students attempted to rehang the banner, post statements and attach flags to their studio windows, all of which were thwarted by on-campus security.
The institution upped their policing “by multiplying the number of guards sent to our school on an hourly basis”, claiming that this was done in the interest of their safety!
Diana Al-Halabi’s reassurance was satirically literal: “We harbor no weapons here nor are we against Israeli students. We are just demanding a stop to this colonial brutality.”
In 1980 an Israeli law criminalized the use of four colors in artwork: red, green, black, white. Artwork that depicted the outlawed colors were confiscated, and in some cases their respective artists were arrested and imprisoned.
The double standard is clear: when it suits, the right to art-making without fear of violence or silencing overrides religious incitement, and when it suits, Palestinian nationalism revokes the right to art-making without fear of violence or silencing.
Mondoweiss / ABC Flash Point News 2021.