Artists Deface Their Work, Protesting San Francisco Institution’s “Silence” on Gaza

Eight artists defaced their own artwork on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) during a pro-Palestine demonstration yesterday evening, February 15. Two of the artists alleged that the San Francisco arts center had prevented them from advocating for Palestine through their artwork and supporting text in the Bay Area Now 9 triennial exhibition, prompting the group to come together and co-organize the intervention, which they called “Love Letter to GAZA.”

At around 6:40pm local time, midway through the Center’s “Love Letter to SOMA” public event, artists Paz G., Tracy Ren, Jeffrey Cheung, Leila Weefur, Sholeh Asgary, champoy, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, and Courtney Desiree Morris altered their works with fake blood as well as spray-painted slogans, banners, and posters that read “Free Palestine,” “Ceasefire Now,” and an instruction to both the YBCA and the US government to “stop funding genocide.”

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Members of other groups dropped flyers outlining the artists’ demands from the YBCA’s upper balcony. Brooke Anderson

In an email to Hyperallergic, Ren explained that other members from various activism groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Bay Area, Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG), and Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) had participated in the action by dropping flyers outlining the artists’ demands from the Center gallery’s upper balcony.

Among the demands was a call for “an end to YBCA’s censorship of artists.” A public statement from JVP Bay Area’s Instagram account alleged that the Center would not approve Cheung’s design proposal for an outdoor mural commission because it deliberately included the colors of the Palestinian flag, and that Branfman-Verissimo was not allowed to include the line “Free Palestine” in their Marquee Statement sign for the exhibition.

“Our attempts to use our platforms at YBCA to catalyze solidarity with the movement to liberate Palestine have been silenced and disrupted,” artist and co-organizer Paz G., who spray painted their sculptures with the words “Free Palestine” during the intervention, stated in a press release. “There is no excuse for YBCA’s silence in a time when our public dollars are being channeled to support the destruction of life and communities in Gaza.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Sara Fenske Bahat, YBCA’s chief executive officer, said that Cheung had submitted an updated design incorporating the colors of the Palestinian flag after the deadline. Per Fenske Bahat, Cheung was told that the deadline was in place so that the center “could manage all of these considerations, including … the involvement and approval of city entities, neighborhood partners, and funders.” Ultimately, however, Cheung was allowed to add the flag’s colors to his design, Fenske Bahat said.

Fenske Bahat also stated that Branfman-Verissimo had submitted a poetic text that the curators wanted to quote on the marquee outside the center. When the artist asked to add the line “Free Palestine” to the board along with the excerpt, the YBCA declined.
Neither Cheung nor Branfman-Verissimo immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries.

During the action, organizers also called on YBCA to “remove all Zionist board members and funders,” specifically citing the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Koret Foundation, to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, to commit to incorporating Palestinian and Arab artists and programming, and to respect the agency of the artists who exhibit at the Center.

“In recent years, YBCA created robust programming and community engagement in response to social justice issues ranging from Black Lives Matter to the invasion of Ukraine,” co-organizer and artist champoy wrote in the release.

“Why are they silent on the genocide of Palestinians? Cultural workers and artists across the Bay are dreaming of a free Palestine. We hope that YBCA would want to be included in that vision, not working against it,” champoy continued.

Fenske Bahat of YBCA did not directly address the artists’ demands but stated to Hyperallergic that the Center is “committed to providing a safe space for diversity of thought and expression.”

The demonstration reportedly lasted until 7:40pm with relaxed security response, no police presence, and no arrests. The YBCA is closed today, February 16.

Editor’s note 2/16/24 5:50pm EST: This article has been edited with comment from a spokesperson for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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