By now, Invisible, the multi-media exhibit by Palestinian-Canadian artist Rehab Nazzal, has come and gone from the City of Ottawa’s Karsh-Masson Gallery at City Hall.
The exhibit was an installation that included a wall of photographs and several film clips, including one without sound and another that was just a soundtrack with no visuals other than subtitles, all meant to convey the artist’s interpretation of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation or of the brutality faced by Palestinian prisoners in a Negev prison during a military raid.
Most controversially, the exhibit also included “Target,” a slide show of quickly changing names and faces, which the exhibit brochure explains “are portraits of lost artists, activists, writers and leaders.”
While the whole exhibit could easily be interpreted as propaganda art meant to paint all Palestinians as innocent victims, it is the slide show that led Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak to speak out, and for such organizations as the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (an alliance that includes a variety of Muslim, Christian, multicultural and other concerned organizations), as well as many individuals, including parliamentarians, to ask the City of Ottawa to remove the exhibit.
Looking at the slide show – I spent a morning at the gallery examining all facets of the exhibit – it seems obvious that Nazzal was portraying these so-called “artists, activists, writers and leaders” as innocent martyrs killed by Israel.
The fact of the matter is that these are portraits of people responsible for some of the most heinous acts of terrorism. Two of them, as Federation Chair Steven Kimmel and President and CEO Andrea Freedman pointed out in a letter published in the Ottawa Citizen on June 19, were Abu Iyad, the leader of Black September, who was responsible for several major terror operations, including the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich in which 11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer were murdered; and Dalal Mughrabi, who led the Coastal Road massacre in 1978 in which 38 people, including 13 children, were murdered.
Another, Khalid Nazzal, the artist’s brother, a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was responsible for multiple acts of terrorism, most notoriously the Ma’alot massacre of 1974 in which 25 people, including 22 children, were killed and another 68 injured.
There are many other examples of terrorists who are memorialized in the slide show, too many to name here.
Mayor Jim Watson, in refusing to remove the exhibit from the City Hall gallery, cited the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and said “the artwork and the artist herself benefit from the Charter protection of freedom of expression,” and removing the exhibit “would constitute an infringement on the artist’s right to freedom of expression.”
However, as Kimmel and Freedman pointed out in their letter, the Charter clearly states that the rights and freedoms it delineates are subject to reasonable limits.
The City’s response to the controversy was to post a sign at the galley entrance explaining that its exhibits are “selected by an independent professional arts jury” and that “points of view or comments conveyed … do not represent those of the City of Ottawa.”
Now, while it is entirely appropriate that selections for public galleries be made by juries at arm’s length from government, I know, having sat on arts juries (specifically music juries, not visual arts), that such juries also operate within clearly defined guidelines. There are boundaries that should not be crossed and juries need to be aware of them and to act responsibly in their decisions.
And such boundaries have nothing to do with Charter freedoms.
Freedom of the press, for example, does not mean that anyone is free to say what they want in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. It means that we have the freedom to set the boundaries of what gets said in our newspaper. Similarly, the City of Ottawa needs to set boundaries as to what may be exhibited in its gallery.