In Whitney Biennial Artwork, a Message Reveals Itself: ‘Free Palestine’

Throughout its history, the Whitney Biennial has often reflected the heated discourse of the art world, welcoming provocative work that might ruffle feathers. But museum officials and curators said they were taken by surprise by a message that revealed itself in the flickering lights of a neon installation.

On Wednesday evening the Whitney Museum of American Art confirmed that an artwork by the Indigenous artist and activist Demian DinéYazhi’ had blinking lights that slowly spelled out the phrase: “Free Palestine.”

The artwork originated with poetry written before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and bears the title, “we must stop imaging apocalypse/genocide + we must imagine liberation.” It was inspired by Indigenous resistance movements and the Diné activist Klee Benally, who died in December and was a friend of the artist.

“It is about Indigenous resistance and opposition to forms of settler colonialism,” DinéYazhi’ said in an interview, referring to a concept rooted in academia and studies of societies where one population displaces and dominates another.

Officials at the museum, including the exhibition’s curators, said that they had not been aware of the message, which most viewers missed at first. The artwork arrived shortly before the exhibition’s installation; curators noticed the flickering lights but thought they were supposed to draw a viewer’s attention to words like “genocide” and “liberation.”

Officials at the museum, when asked earlier this week about the title of the work and whether it referred to Gaza, initially said that the piece had been conceived before the current conflict and was a reflection on Indigenous resistance movements. They later said that they had not known about the message, which was added when the work was fabricated in the fall, but that the message would not have affected their decision to display the art.

Annie Armstrong, a writer for the publication Artnet News, noted the “Free Palestine” message in an article about the exhibition yesterday.

“The museum did not know of this subtle detail when the work was installed,” said Angela Montefinise, chief communications and content officer, who added that there were no plans to remove or change the artwork. “The Biennial has long been a place where contemporary artists address timely matters, and the Whitney is committed to being a space for artists’ conversations.”

Museums around the country have struggled to respond to the Israel-Hamas war as artists, employees, trustees and the public scrutinize their statements on the conflict. And within the culture industry, there has been a wave of

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