In Ottawa at the end of May, a politically charged art installation by Rehab Nazzal caused a significant amount of controversy. Entitled Invisible and exhibited in a gallery space connected to Ottawa’s city hall, Nazzal’s installation focused on images of Palestinian political prisoners and martyrs—“traces,” in the words of the artist, of the Palestinian experience of oppression under the settler-state of Israel. Due to the installation’s presence in a site of local state power, the Israeli ambassador immediately demanded that the city of Ottawa censor the exhibit on the grounds that it celebrated terrorism. All of the typical reactionary lobby groups supported this demand that, as usual, produced the predictable liberal response: free speech for all, censorship is evil, allow Nazzal her right to self-expression.

What is interesting for us, however, is not the familiar debate of an artist’s right (or lack of right) to freedom of expression—nor even the bland nationalist horror at the interference of another state in Canadian culture—but the content of the exhibit that so offended the Israeli ambassador. Particularly, the ambassador was horrified by two images in the installation: the PLO militant Dalal Mughrabi who died in 1978 in a shoot-out with Israeli security forces after hijacking a bus; a leading militant of the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist organization), Khaled Nazzal—the artist’s own brother—assassinated by Israel in 1986 for his revolutionary activities. Both of these people are, in the eyes of Apartheid Israel, terrorists responsible for “massacres.”

In this context, it makes complete sense that Israel’s ambassador would be offended. We would expect a similar reaction from a Canadian ambassador if a gallery connected to the Tel Aviv city hall held an exhibition targeting the Canadian settler-state. The ambassador probably assumed this was “bad form” on the part of his friends in the imperialist camp who should at least have the decency to keep this politically charged art in obscure galleries rather than in government buildings! Here was a moment where art temporarily broke the rules of “good taste;” if it was anywhere else it could be ignored and marginalized.

The fact that an exhibit with such politically charged content—immediately recognizable by its target, the Israeli state, despite its “experimental” and conceptual nature—was displayed in a government building seems more like a fluke than an intention on the part of the bureaucrats who rubber-stamped Nazzal’s installation. Doubtless they will not make a similar mistake in the future, and will be able to informally censor other anti-imperialist artists without raising a stink from the liberal free speech community. For the moment, however, we should celebrate the fact that such an exhibit ended up in a space where it could force attention, where it could produce a debate, and where the artist refused to apologize for celebrating revolutionaries who gave their lives struggling against colonialism and capitalism.

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