Testimonies of Refusal

Towards the end of my MFA I was approached by the Zabludowicz Collection requesting a studio visit. I knew about Boycott Zabludowicz but agreed to the studio visit. As I remember the talk was insightful, supportive, critical and a generous discussion. A few months passed and I was contacted by email with an invitation to exhibit as part of their Invites series. This was a major proposition for me at the time. I had no exhibitions coming up and, unlike several of my peers, I had just started 50+ hours a week in work to pay back the seemingly insurmountable debts I had accrued during my studies. While the show at Zabludowicz would not have changed my financial situation, it seemed it would have made a sea-change in both feeling like a valid artist and creating a space for me in the art world at the time when I was most vulnerable. I found the resources on the Boycott page invaluable but found I did not want to speak to many others about the dilemma I was facing: I wanted to know that the decision I made was on my own terms. It also seemed like a very privileged problem to possess at the time and I didn’t want to humble-brag at all.

After deciding to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ a member of the team at Zabludowicz wanted to meet with me to talk it over. The conversation was open and fairly frank but I found a lot of the defences fairly semantic, arguing that BICOM was not a lobbying agency, that donations were made to the Labour Party as well as the Conservative Party (being pre-Corbyn, this didn’t change my opinions at all) and that Poju Zabludowicz has so much money he genuinely doesn’t know when his money is used to build property in the Occupied Territories. I left that meeting feeling vindicated, if sleepy – I had night shift the night beforehand – and looking back it was the best art-world decision I have made so far. I was forced, very quickly, to begin to decide the kind of relationships I wanted to forge in the art world and where I would want to show.

Since then I have watched peers exhibit there and seen how it poisons their practice, their intentions, exposes their careerism and often generates little benefit, either financial, artistic or in terms of pushing their career further. We should respect ourselves and each other enough to not have to show at the Zabludowicz Collection.

After my MFA degree show I was approached by the Zabludowicz Collection requesting a studio visit from their head curator. Having been a signatory of Boycott Zabludowicz for a number of years, I declined this offer and explained why I felt uncomfortable working with anyone associated with the Collection. We had a polite and surprisingly understanding email exchange regarding this personal conflict, I have wondered since if they get many refusals akin to my own. This was by far the most high profile offer I had received from an individual or an arts institution, aside from this there seemed to be little interest in my degree show. I felt incredibly conflicted turning down what could have been a potential prospect for an exhibition, funding or a residency in the future. Any of which would have undoubtedly helped with my arts career. I have thought repeatedly whether there was some way to transform this lost opportunity into something positive, such as going public with my said refusal or organising an exhibition or publication of artists who have also declined to work with the Zabludowicz’s, but I realised all of these ideas would come across as little more than attempts at virtue signalling. I was pleased to hear that Boycott Zabludowicz group were reaching out for anonymous accounts of refusals, I hope that my sharing this experience will help others who have found or will find themselves in a similar position.

As a signatory of the boycott, granting a studio visit or selling work to the Zabs would amount to crossing a picket line, which I’ll never do. I do find it objectionable and disappointing when I see peers who are comfortable being scabs, comfortable working for an organisation which actively supports the subjugation of the Palestinian people and donates huge amounts of money to the Tories, and also comfortable walking over us all who see the importance of standing our ground against these kinds of institutions and the violence they uphold. I think it’s impossible to make any critical claims for your work if you decide to show there. But it’s also great to see the signatory list growing and beginning to include reputable institutions too, and to see a growing understanding of the strength of these types of movements in the art world. 

I was asked in a round about fashion to chair a discussion. It was very odd. A staff member at Zabludowicz asked a common friend to prime me in advance to find out if I would consider it. I said no. The Zabludowicz staff apparently were unwilling to send me an invite directly because they did not want to suffer the indignity of my refusing and potentially going public. I went public anyway (I think on Facebook) because I felt it was very underhand as a tactic and the common friend got really upset with me and said I had broken the unsaid terms of friendship confidentiality and the Zabludowicz staff member is desperately unhappy and wants out of the job because of this nightmare of everyone refusing. This person no longer works at Zabludowicz and we have never discussed it. They have a better more secure job than me. They have used Zabludowicz as a stepping stone to something else and don’t have to account for their involvement any more.

I have refused to have my works collected by the Zabludowicz Collection. They seemed surprised when I blocked the sales, citing that this could have been an ongoing supportive relationship and asked to speak to me on the phone. I agreed and was told on the phone that the media reports and articles condemning them were inaccurate and proliferating lies and personal attacks against Poju and Anita. When asked if what was being written was untrue, why they didn’t release a statement I was told that they had been advised not to comment publicly. 

As a curating MFA student at Goldsmiths 2009-11, myself and one other student refused to participate in their student project. We met with the director of our course to discuss this and he told us in the end all money is dirty money so we won’t get far if we refuse opportunities on the basis of ethics and politics. I had been in receipt of ACE money and he asked me if I could defend the UK government’s actions? Why was I willing to take their money but not Zabs? On reflection it was a shame this conversation was confined to the Director’s office and was not shared with the participating students as a whole class. 

It’s always good to hear that an ex-student whose work one has appreciated and supported is starting to receive the recognition they deserve. But I have to admit that my heart sinks when this information comes via an invitation to an exhibition opening at the Zabludowicz Collection.

As a supporter of Palestinian rights and signatory to the boycott of the Zabludowicz Collection, it saddens me that I won’t feel able to see the show and, equally importantly, won’t feel able to congratulate the ex-student on their success without voicing my grave concerns about the organisation that is exhibiting their work. Knowing how encouraging it is to that young artist to be getting what feels like (and often is) a big break, it seems cruel to put a damper on things by alerting them to the problematic issues surrounding the organisation that is promoting them. So in situations like this I generally remain silent, don’t visit the show, and leave my ex-student wondering why they never saw or heard from me. I am no longer involved in regular teaching but I strongly hope that other art school lecturers are letting students know about the ethical issues concerning the Zabludowicz Trust and other problematic sponsors of the arts, so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not to work with them if future opportunities arise. 

Together we are strong and we can make big changes very quickly. In 2017, students at Goldsmiths UoL successfully collectively refused a long-standing partnership between ZT and the Curating and Fine Art MFA courses. Since then the Zabludowicz Trust has ceased to solicit staff to collaborate on the Testing Ground exhibition project at the Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town. It is crucial other art schools now take up the boycott as ZT continues to target HE as a crucial part of their artwashing project. There is no place for racism in education – kick apartheid out of the arts!

I showed one of my films at the ICA in October 2017 as part of the London Film Festival. This raised the question of how to put pressure on the ICA, as a charity, to stop taking money and support from the Zabludowicz Trust for shows, spaces, and events as they had in the past. Like the Whitechapel, where I also showed the film, these secondary beneficiaries of Zabludowicz Trust ‘philanthropy’ are not direct targets of the Zabludowicz Boycott, and according to BDS terms we aren’t in a position to boycott them for taking money or support from Zionist institutions and projects. In addition it wouldn’t help us if we shut down our cultural production everywhere in the attempt to shut down the Zabludowicz weaponising of culture for soft power and the laundering of apartheid. However, what we usefully can do as artworkers, lecturers, students, and art fans whenever we engage with institutions that have accepted support from or partnered with Zabludowicz Trust is to draw their attention to the issues and ask that they stop working with promoters of apartheid RIGHT NOW.

I recommend anyone who works with or for organisations (especially art galleries, art projects, art schools and universities) to talk together about how these institutions can break links with the Zabludowicz Trust, and to get in touch with BDZ for help in organising for this to happen. Goldsmiths students and staff did this with some success a few years ago, de facto ending the informal working relation between Zabludowicz and the MFA Curating Course and the Zabludowicz Collection, for example. When I showed this film at the ICA, and also on a subsequent occasion at the Whitechapel, I made a simple statement asking the audience and ICA workers to join the boycott to circulate information to other staff members, and to pressure the institution to stop working with funders whose objective is to artwash apartheid. An email was circulated to all ICA staff, and awareness was raised in the institution about the issues and how to extricate cultural organisations from supporting apartheid.

I urge you to make the most of any situations where you are working with ‘secondary partners’ of the Zabludowicz Trust or other projects that normalise racist Israeli state policies to bring this to light and encourage others within and outside these institutions to end their partnerships and de-weaponise their practice.

No sooner had we commenced our first year on the MFA Curating (2016) course when we were informed of the opportunity to curate a project with the Zabludowicz Collection, an invitation to take part in their “Testing Ground for Art and Education”. With some students already aware of the boycott Zabludowicz conversation, there was a talk by BDZ which further articulated the importance of withdrawing from the collaboration. A discussion was had between the students about this being a pivotal moment for the course and for Goldsmiths to – for the first time – make a stance and decline the offer.  This was not an easy decision making process for the group, with some members of the cohort being sincerely felt the Zabludowicz Trust would remember this boycott and make sure they would not be successful in further opportunities due to some sort of ‘blacklisting.’ After an agreement was made that we would decline the opportunity, a letter was written and sent to the Head of Department explaining our decision, standing in support and solidarity with BDZ to create sustainable curatorial practice for a future that divested in racist and violent organisations. A reply was never received and we later learnt the opportunity had simply been offered to another Curating course. It was a victory nonetheless as the Zabludowicz Trust have stopped contacting the curating course staff and soliciting students for their artwashing operation. If we break the link to students and emerging curators and artists – precisely the targets the Zabludowicz Collection routinely grooms and uses to suck in their networks – we break the Zabludowicz artwashing machine.