Protesters in the lobby of MoMA PS1 on Sunday, March 1. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

#MoMADivest Activists Stage Protest at MoMA PS1 on Behalf of Artist Ali Yass

Dozens of activists filled the lobby of MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, New York, on Sunday afternoon to protest the museum’s affiliation with Leon Black, the board chair of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan, who demonstrators have labeled a war profiteer because of his private equity firm’s ownership of Constellis Holdings—the rebranded defense contractor formerly known as Blackwater, which was responsible for the deadly shooting of unarmed Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007.

Organized by the group #MoMADivest—a coalition of artists and activists impacted by state and corporate violence—on behalf of exiled Iraqi artist Ali Yass, whose work was featured in the exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” the demonstration was supposed to culminate in the tearing of eight of Yass’s sketches, which are part of his ongoing work Now; 1992 to draw attention to MoMA’s inaction in the face of calls for the removal of Black and other controversial trustees from its board.

In a recorded video statement that the protesters played using an iPad, Yass said: “While I value being part of a space and conversation with artists from my homeland and comrades that work in the arts. I absolutely reject the role of the chair of MoMA’s board of trustees in profiting from wars that continue to harm and extend violence on Iraq’s citizens.”

He continued: “The museum’s complete disregard of previous attempts by artists and activists at raising this issue through an open letter signed by thirty-seven artists in the exhibition and another by veterans of the Gulf War and the ‘Global War on Terror,’ exacerbates this matter further. This betrays the central idea of this show, that is to open up dialogue on the Iraq Wars. Instead, it has been silenced.”  

When the activists reached the third-floor gallery where Yass’s works were on display, an employee of the museum would not let the group enter the exhibition space. Citing security reasons, the staffer informed the protesters that the gallery was closed even though museumgoers were already in the room viewing the works on display. After several minutes of the organizers questioning the employee about the sudden closure of the gallery, the activists were allowed in, but they were unable to carry out the performative action because the museum had preemptively taken down the installation.

While the move prevented the activists from tearing Yass’s actual works, which are replacement sketches of lost childhood drawings, the demonstrators had printed out copies of the sketches and ripped the copies instead. “We had been anticipating and were prepared for this type of response from the museum,” Basma Eid, an organizer with Freedom to Thrive, told Artforum

“This institution is complicit in global violence inflicted on our communities through systems of war, mass incarceration, debt ownership, and climate catastrophe,” Eid said. “Today, on the closing of this exhibition, we are here to demand and elevate calls for accountability, transparency, and reinvestment. It’s time for MoMA to divest from destruction and invest in us.”

Eid also criticized MoMA PS1’s upcoming group show “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” opening April 5, which she said feels like a “continuation of MoMA trying to whitewash and artwash the role of their board members and the things that they’ve done through their programming.”

[Update: March 2, 3:30 PM] 

In response to Artforum’s request for comment, MoMA PS1 provided the following statement:

There are no circumstances under which MoMA PS1 would accept the destruction of artworks or aggression towards our staff or visitors. When a few dozen protesters arrived at MoMA PS1 on the last day of “Theater of Operations,” they were offered public space within the museum to be heard. The protesters’ threats to staff, property, and art forced the temporary closure of several exhibition galleries to the public. We are proud of the unwavering respect and professionalism our team showed to all.

The torn copies of artist Ali Yass’s work. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.