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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

campus administration

‘Art not bombs’: Protestors demonstrate against IU cancelling Palestinian artist exhibit

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A silent demonstration in protest of IU’s cancellation of Palestinian painter Samia Halaby’s exhibition at the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art ended with chants outside of the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President on Friday afternoon. 

Members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee also protested the suspension of professor Abdulkader Sinno, the administration’s lack of acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering and their investments in the U.S. defense department. 

On Dec. 20, Halaby received a two-sentence letter from museum director David Brenneman notifying her the university was cancelling her exhibit, which had been planned for three years. 

Halaby’s grandniece, Madison Gordon, said Brenneman mentioned security concerns and Halaby’s Instagram posts as reasons for the cancellation in a phone call to Halaby on Dec. 20. In many of her posts, she advocates for Palestinian freedom and a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.  

Following unsuccessful appeals to IU administration, Gordon started a petition to reinstate the exhibition. It has over 14,800 signatures as of Friday afternoon. Halaby’s exhibition was originally set to run from Feb. 10 until June. 

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Protestors demonstrate inside the Eskenazi Museum of Art Jan. 26, 2024. A silent demonstration in protest of IU's cancellation of Palestinian painter Samia Halaby's planned exhibition ended with chants outside the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President.

Silent protests in the museum 

Over 40 protesters gathered around noon Friday in the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art foyer holding signs and photos of Halaby’s art. Messages on the signs included “Shame on IU for censoring Halaby,” “Hey Pam Whitten your Islamophobia is showing” and “Stricken by BY Whitten stop the silencing of Palestinian voices.” Demonstrators circled the entrance to the museum but moved out of the way as visitors, including IU students and elementary-aged classes, visited the museum’s exhibits. 

“It’s really disheartening and cruel, especially because it [the exhibit cancellation] really seems like it is politically motivated and not safety motivated,” Matt Rushton, an IU senior and a protestor at the demonstration said. “I’m an art history minor, and I love art history, and art censorship has never been good, ever. And it’s not even censoring the art, it’s censoring the artist for speaking out on her private social media about crimes occurring in Gaza.” 

At the same time, members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee stood around Showalter Fountain and in front of the museum with signs of their own, including “IU: a leader in suppressing free speech.” 

A member of PSC, who wished to remain anonymous, said they hoped to reach prospective students on tours around campus. They said they did not want to be named because they are employed by IU and feared repercussion for their involvement in the PSC. 

The student said the PSC has a list of demands for IU, including reinstating Halaby’s exhibition and reinstating Sinno, who was suspended after the PSC, for which he was an advisor, held an event despite being denied a room reservation. They also asked for IU President Pamela Whitten to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and for IU to cease their investments in the U.S. defense department. 

They also said IU has not done enough to address safety of Muslim and Arab students on campus, referencing a TikTok by IU student Hailey Toch threatening a Palestinian student in September 2023. 

“If you’re brown or a person of color coming to IU you won’t have as many resources of support in comparison to other students on campus,” the PSC member said. 

Around 12:30 p.m., the PSC members joined the silent demonstrators inside the museum. IU Assistant Director for International Admissions Reed Hepburn, who organized the silent protest, said he got in contact with friends and local community groups, including the PSC, who suggested combining the demonstrations. 

Hepburn and demonstrators also distributed a flyer with QR codes to sign Gordon’s petition to reinstate Halaby’s exhibition and read a faculty letter in support of Sinno.  

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Protestors hold signs opposing IU's cancelation of Palestinian artist Samia Halaby's exhibit during a demonstration Jan. 26, 2024, outside Bryan Hall. A silent demonstration in protest of IU's cancellation of the planned exhibition ended with chants outside the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President.

Walk through campus and demonstration at Bryan Hall

Around 12:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the demonstration was originally supposed to end, demonstrators left the museum and began walking toward Sample Gates and Bryan Hall. They walked west down East Seventh Street and through the Indiana Memorial Union, chanting phrases like “art not bombs,” “free, free Palestine” and “shame on Whitten.” 

Hepburn said the walk to Bryan Hall was not originally planned. 

Eventually, the demonstrators stopped on the north side of Bryan Hall, where the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President is located, by Sample Gates. There, they did multiple laps around Bryan Hall and continued to chant phrases like “IU has been complicit” and “say no to censorship.” 

McKenzie Phelps, a master’s student in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design said she was concerned about the university’s censorship and hoped the exhibition could be reinstated. She held a sign which read, “stop the censorship stop the institutional policing of Palestinian voices reinstate Samia Halaby’s exhibition.” 

 “I’m just deeply upset that we as students and as a community lost the opportunity to see the retrospective of Samia Halaby and her prolific artwork,” Phelps said. “I think it was a great disservice to cancel the show, and it’s concerning.” 

 At about 1:40 p.m. when around 10 people were still protesting and Hepburn had left, demonstrators attempted to enter Bryan Hall, but all the doors were locked. The demonstration ended at about 1:50 p.m. 

Hepburn said he hopes the demonstration encourages the IU administration to take action related to freedom of speech and acknowledging Palestinian suffering. 

When asked for comment over the controversy surrounding the artist exhibit cancellation and Sinno’s suspension, IU Executive Director of Media Relations Mark Bode referred to Provost Rahul Shrivastav’s Jan. 16 address at a Bloomington Faculty Council meeting. 

At the meeting, Shrivastav affirmed IU’s commitment to Palestinian, Arab and Muslim community members. He said that Halaby’s exhibition could be a “potential lightning rod” that could become a controversial event and threaten the safety of the IU community. Shrivastav said he could not comment on specific personnel matters, but decisions are made independent from outside pressure. The transcript and minutes from the meeting can be accessed online. 

Bode said the university has no comment on the protest as of publication. 

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