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Artists Alter Their Own Work at YBCA in Pro-Palestinian Protest

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a man in jeans hangs a sign reading Ceasefire over two paintings against a white wall
Artist Jeffrey Cheung alters his own work with a cloth that says 'Ceasefire Now!' during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and criticizing YBCA leadership for their support of Israel at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eight artists painted and draped pro-Palestinian messages over their own work during an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) on Thursday evening as part of a surprise protest to demand the museum show support, publicly and institutionally, for the people of Gaza.

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At the event, titled A Love Letter to SOMA, protesters unfurled a sign reading “Stop Funding Genocide” as several artists currently featured in the museum’s Bay Area Now 9 group show began to alter their pieces on display.

Ceramic artist Paz G spray painted their sculpture You Have a Broken Heart in bright pink letters reading “Viva Palestina — Free Palestine.” Jeffrey Cheung, whose colorful, large-scale paintings of abstracted nude forms hang in the main gallery, hung a sign reading “Ceasefire Now!” over his works.

A black ceramic sculpture in a shallow pool is covered with pink spray paint reading "Viva Palestina - Free Palestine"
Artist Paz G altered their work with spray paint that says ‘Viva Palestina – Free Palestine,’ calling for a ceasefire in Gaza during a protest at the show ‘Bay Area Now’ at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The protest at YBCA comes during a week in which pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupted programming at other high-profile arts institutions. A reported 800 people flooded New York’s Museum of Modern Art with pro-Palestinian chants and flyers, causing security to shut down the galleries within 15 minutes. Other protests have occurred at the Brooklyn Museum and Jewish Museum in New York, the British Museum in London, and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin.

At YBCA, the artist champoy, along with several people wearing masks and keffiyehs, turned champoy’s boat sculpture into an altar for Gazan people killed in Israeli airstrikes, with their names and ages written on notecards. Tracy Ren laid a banner on their wool rug installation that read “No more blood money — ceasefire now.”

A scultupre of a boat is covered in a drape of white and red, with notecards surrounding on the wooden floor below
Art by champoy is altered during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show ‘Bay Area Now’ at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Other artists who modified their works included Sholeh Asgary, Courtney Desiree Morris and Leila Weefur.

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Meanwhile, protestors from several Bay Area activist groups — including Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestinian Feminist Collective, U.S. Palestinian Communities Network and Palestinian Youth Movement — addressed the crowd through a megaphone.

“Art is a universal language meant to speak out against injustice. The institution of art, just like every U.S. corporation, is aligned with the state of Israel,” said Palestinian American muralist Chris Gazaleh. “As an artist, I use my art to educate about my people. Artists in general — we need to speak out against what is happening. It is our duty.”

an overhead view of a museum gallery full of artworks, with a Palestinian flag hanging to the right
Demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza alter art during protest at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We’ve come to tell San Francisco and the people of Yerba Buena that we’re not gonna stop,” said Maisa Morrar of Palestinian Feminist Collective. “We’re gonna show up in your art exhibits, at the Academy of Sciences, at the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Bay Bridge, at the Federal Building — we’re gonna be there. This genocide is one too many lives lost.”

The protest took place as the death toll in Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, climbs to upwards of 28,000, including 12,300 children and 8,400 women.

When approached at the museum for comment, YBCA’s head of art and public programs Amy Kisch directed inquiries to Lauren Macmadu, head of external relations, in attendance nearby.

“We really want to be a space where we can support the community and bring people together to have open conversations,” Macmadu said, adding that she was not prepared to discuss the specifics of the protesters’ demands.

Artist Chris Gazaleh speaks during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show ‘Bay Area Now’ at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During the protest, activists passed out flyers with the heading “Love Letter to Gaza” that contained a list of demands for YBCA leadership — firstly, that the museum join the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which calls for international cultural institutions and universities to refrain from working with Israeli institutions. Without naming examples, the flyer also demands that YBCA “stop censoring artists’ language, work and programming that involves and centers Palestinian liberation.”

When reached by phone, exhibiting artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo — who helped coordinate the protest, but was not in attendance — told KQED that in 2023, YBCA had prevented them from including the words “Free Palestine” on the building’s orange marquee as part of their outdoor installation commissioned by the museum. YBCA has previously displayed messages on the marquee supporting Iran’s Woman Life Freedom movement and Black Lives Matter.

Demonstrators chant during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In a Dec. 20 email reviewed by KQED, Kisch told Branfman-Verissimo that YBCA “will not be able to include mention of Palestine on the marquee,” citing YBCA’s 501(c)(3) status, as well as its position in the SOMA neighborhood, directly across from the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Asked for comment over email, YBCA CEO Sara Fenske Bahat replied that throughout the process with Branfman-Verissimo, “YBCA remained committed to exploring options to highlight their advocacy work through programming and/or on other platforms. Lukaza did not respond to our offer, but continued to collaborate on the installation of their mural.” (Branfman-Verissimo disputed this characterization in a follow-up interview.)

A sign over a wool rug reads "No More Blood Money - Ceasefire Now!"
A sign covers art by Tracy Ren during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fenske Bahat also noted that YBCA did not interrupt or attempt to stop Thursday night’s protest, and reiterated the museum’s commitment to serving as a safe gathering space for people of different identities and viewpoints. She did not address a KQED inquiry about YBCA’s decision to display marquee messages for Black Lives Matter and Iran’s Woman Life Freedom Movement while refusing a message in support of Palestinians.

“As you might imagine, in our own curatorial and programming decisions we need to carefully weigh whether we are in fact contributing to deeper division, something we actively seek not to do, while striving to ensure different perspectives are heard,” she wrote. “To date, we are not aware of any accusations that any BAN9 artists have been mistreated by our team.”

For their part, the artists who altered their own exhibition work are primarily asking YBCA to make a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

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“We invite YBCA to join us in this fight for Palestinian liberation,” Branfman-Verissimo said. “And make sure that they know that the artists that they’re working with are keeping an eye on them.”

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