(NEW YORK) – PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) urgently calls on the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University (IU) to reinstate the planned inaugural U.S. retrospective exhibition of Palestinian artist, Samia Halaby, calling its cancellation “an alarming affront to free expression.”

Halaby, 87, is a leading abstract painter and scholar of Palestinian art. The meticulously planned retrospective, Centers of Energy, was three years in the making, and was poised to open in just one month, on February 10. The show was abruptly canceled by museum officials who cited “concerns about guaranteeing the integrity of the exhibit for its duration.”  

The decision came after US Representative Jim Banks of Indiana sent a letter to Indiana University President Pamela Whitten in November, asking for information about how IU has handled allegations of antisemitism on campus, which stated: “If IU administrators condone or tolerate campus antisemitism, the university could lose access to federal funding.” In a separate action that has also been tied to Banks’ letter, a political science professor, Dr. Abdulkader Sinno, was also suspended from teaching at IU for the 2024 spring and summer terms over his involvement in an unauthorized student club’s event.

In informing Halaby of the cancellation, museum director David Brenneman also cited concerns raised by museum staff over Halaby’s social media posts on the Israel-Hamas war, in which she invoked the Holocaust to criticize Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in Gaza, with posts including the statements “Gaza Equalls Auschwitz” [sic] and “Liberate the Gaza Concentration Camp.”   

In response, Julie Trébault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection issued the following statement:

“Canceling art exhibitions for vaguely worded reasons and under the shadow of political pressure is an alarming affront to free expression. While some may take offense or disapprove of her public commentary, such criticisms should not be the basis to cancel the planned exhibition. Halaby has been a longstanding champion of Palestinian rights and freedoms, making this 11th-hour decision impossible to justify. Indiana University is depriving the university community and the wider Bloomington region of the opportunity to experience and appreciate what has been widely acknowledged as her vibrant and pioneering art.”

Halaby was born in Jerusalem and survived the 1948 war when she was 11 years old. She gained prominence with her unique style, which The New York Times described as combining “Abstract Expressionism and Russian Constructivism with the social activism of Mexican muralists in the early 20th century.” Throughout her career, Halaby has passionately advocated for the dignity, freedom, and self-determination of the Palestinian people. A few months before the cancellation, Brenneman had championed Halaby’s “dynamic and innovative approach to art-making,” adding that the exhibition would demonstrate how universities “value artistic experimentation.” As of January 12, over 8,300 people have signed a petition urging IU to reinstate the exhibition. Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum is slated to host Halaby’s retrospective next and has stated it is still planning to do so. 

“Art is a vital vehicle for public engagement, even if the artist’s personal views cause offense. The exhibition at IU would have been an invaluable, non-confrontational opportunity to offer a space to stimulate dialogue and foster reflection and connection. We urge Indiana University to rectify this situation and reinstate Halaby’s exhibition,” said Trébault.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began last October, artists have faced cancellations and postponements due to their political opinions. PEN America and Artists at Risk Connection stand for artists’ right to freedom of expression and have long encouraged institutions to ensure openness to the widest variety of expression. 


About the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC)

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. Since its inception in 2017, ARC’s mission has been to safeguard the fundamental right to artistic freedom of expression worldwide to ensure that artists and cultural workers can live and create without fear, regardless of their country or discipline. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.


About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more, visit PEN.org.


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