A week after the opening of Dispatches from the Ghost Ship at the Queens Museum in July, artist Jacob Cohen was approached by his employers who relayed a threat levied by the Department of Corrections (DOC). The exhibition included over 650 drawings made by Cohen in his over four years working on Rikers Island. Beyond the implicit threat to his employment, there was the risk that the images (most of them portraits of incarcerated young people, some with gang affiliations) would be documented by the DOC and used against those awaiting sentencing. As a result, we promptly had the exhibition taken down, both from the museum and from the ArtsEverywhere website. The type of pressure we experienced is not uncommon—just one of the many ways the state blacks out their nefarious, illegal activities by threatening the extremely vulnerable.
Niki Singleton’s painting I Never Preferred Blondes touches on a current political trend in the United States, whereby those who are crushed under the weight of white patriarchy are denied legitimacy of any kind—ridiculed, shamed, and discredited by the political apparatus and in the mainstream media. They are made absurd and stripped of their basic humanity, despite the fact that their speaking out forces positive social change for the greater common good. These attacks act as a warning to those who are violated or disenfranchised by those in power, to shut their mouths.
In the most recent edition of IETM’s Fresh Perspectives series—Safeguarding the Daring Voice, we hear from artists and activists who have faced hard consequences for speaking truth to power. Activists like Naila Zahin, a young Bangladeshi blogger, who was forced to flee her country after receiving personal threats for reflecting on gender inequality and corruption. Rather than just shut up, Zahin made the difficult choice to leave her home and continue her articulations freely. It is an unfortunate choice that far too many artists are being forced—for a multitude of reasons—to make today.
But the safety of our communities, of our young people, is paramount. And so when it is in our best interest, we will always choose self-censorship in order to reduce risk of harm. However, we must not allow the pressure of the state to make self-censorship de facto, particularly when the stakes are only getting higher.