Canadian Museum Decision, Reversal Angers Both Arabs, Jews

By Dirlik, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Canadian Museum Decision, Reversal Angers Both Arabs, Jews


Dirlik, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Canadian Museum Decision, Reversal Angers Both Arabs, Jews

John Dirlik is a free-lance journalist based in Montreal.

The question of whether life imitates art or vice versa was given added meaning shortly after Sept. 11, when one of Canada's largest federally funded museums abruptly announced it was putting on hold its scheduled exhibition of Arab art. Titled "The Lands Within Me: Expressions of Canadian Artists of Arab Origin," the exhibit was five years in the planning and set to open Oct. 19 at the prestigious Museum of Civilization in Quebec, when museum president Victor Rabinovitch declared that "more context" on the Arab world was needed in light of the attacks on America.

The museum's decision provoked a stern rebuke from the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, which in a statement said that the cancellation was sending the hateful message "that you do not recognize us as part of the house within." The museum's action also predictably infuriated the artists whose work was featured in the exhibit. "It is unfortunate that in this time of backlashes and a rise of racist attack on our community, a federal government institution is assuming such an unproductive and unsupportive position," they wrote in a letter of protest.

The highly publicized controversy also deeply embarrassed politicians who were in the process of appealing for tolerance following a spate of hate crimes against Canadian Arabs. When the resulting public outcry prompted the museum to "explain" it was not cancelling the exhibit but only "postponing" it until March of the following year, even Prime Minister Jean Chretien got in the fray. "If it [the exhibit] is good for March 2002, it is good for October 2001" said Chretien to loud applause and a rare show of support from members of all parties in the House of Commons. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps was more blunt: "It certainly makes no sense when we are trying to build bridges, to send a message that seems to burn them."

Not long after, the museum reversed its decision and announced that the exhibit would proceed as scheduled. "Personally, I regret any hurt that may have been caused by our original decision to delay the opening," said Rabinovitch. "Given the reaction of so many people, our decision is simply: `Fine, we'll go ahead as intended,'" he added.

The museum head had little choice, having been publicly chastised not only by the entire political establishment but taken to task by much of the media. Globe and Mail columnist Hugh Winsor expressed particular dismay that the embarrassing "faux pas was initiated by one of the most senior cultural bureaucrats [Rabinovitch] in the federal government."

One of the exhibit's featured artists, Jayce Salloum, said he was happy not only with the reversal of the decision but by the "unexpected and heartwarming" public support the artists received from places as far away as Nepal, Israel, Palestine and Australia. …

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