UrbanGlass Staff Leave Exhibition After Board Excludes Palestinian Artist’s Work

Over a dozen artists and UrbanGlass workers withdrew their work from a group exhibition at the Brooklyn institution after its board of directors voted to remove a Palestinian staff member’s neon artwork featuring the phrase “from the river to the sea.” The board claimed that some people could interpret the line as “a call for violence.” 

The exhibition, Fundamental Particles, is now on view through March 21 at a different venue, the People’s Forum community center in Manhattan, after the staff withdrawal forced UrbanGlass to cancel it.

Phil Garip, a neon instructor at UrbanGlass since 2020, told Hyperallergic that he submitted the mockup for his piece without a problem. The neon sign also includes the quote “If I must die, you must live,” from Palestinian writer Refaat Alareer’s poem written only a month before he was killed by an Israeli airstrike last December.

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Jess Krichelle, Phil Garip, and El Quesada shared a wall for their neon pieces at the People’s Forum. (image courtesy People’s Forum)

Two weeks before the show opened in March, Garip refused leadership’s request to remove the phrase “from the river to the sea,” a call for the liberation of Palestinian land between the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and on February 28, he was told that the board voted to exclude the piece altogether.

“No one ever made it clear from the start that the board would have any involvement in artwork selection, and I was never directly approached by anyone about the work itself,” Garip told Hyperallergic.

Garip posted about the situation on Instagram the following day, asking his fellow coworkers to withdraw from the show in solidarity. Sixteen of them agreed, leaving UrbanGlass to issue a now-deleted statement about the exhibition’s cancellation that described the phrase “from the river to the sea” as “meaningfully understood by some as a call for Palestinian freedom and others as a call for Jewish genocide.”

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Wall pieces: Jessi Moore, Hana Kimura; table pieces: Malcolm Kriegel, Aullar Mateo, and Kate Dowd (photo Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic)

In an email to Hyperallergic, UrbanGlass’s board of directors echoed this initial response, writing that the institution does not object to “works addressing the staggering and tragic loss of life in Gaza” but that this particular expression is “received by many — including members of the UrbanGlass community — as a literal or stochastic call for violence against them.” The board added that the cancellation notice was removed from Instagram after threatening messages were sent to staffers managing the account.

Garip said he was rebuffed each time he tried to communicate with leadership about what he sees as the phrase’s misinterpretation.

“For me, and all the Palestinians I’ve spoken to, this phrase is only imagining a future where we have freedom, equal rights, and homes not being destroyed,” he said.

Jess Krichelle, one of Garip’s co-workers who agreed to withdraw from the show, told Hyperallergic that it “was a very easy decision” as she opposes “staying silent during a genocide.” Another colleague, Han Duong, said she was frustrated that while the staff members who keep UrbanGlass running are silenced, “the board can swoop in and make a unilateral decision.”

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Han Duong, “it’s ok to dream” (2024), soft/borosilicate glass and metal (photo Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic)

In less than a week, the show opened in Manhattan at the People’s Forum on March 6. Hannah Craig, the center’s art space coordinator, told Hyperallergic that the organization considers itself a “home for artists who are deemed too dangerous in the current context of institutional censorship.”

Craig spoke to the way the group of 17 artists worked together to get the show up in a matter of five days after their decision to support Garip.

“It goes to show that regardless of the content of the artwork, there are ways to show solidarity based on the way that you show your work and the way that you connect with the other artists that are making more obvious statements,” Craig said. 

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