The Finnish artist behind a controversial “McJesus” sculpture that has drawn violent protests by Arab Christians has responded to the outrage, demanding that his artwork be removed from the Haifa Museum of Art since he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police in the northern Israeli city on Friday over the museum’s display of the sculpture, which depicts Ronald McDonald, the mascot of fast food giant McDonald’s, on a cross.
Police said protesters tried to force their way into the museum and that three officers were injured by rocks hurled at them. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at the museum on Thursday.
Demonstrators have erected a protest tent outside the museum building.
One of the protesters complained that the government was slow to react to their concerns because they were members of the Christian minority. “If they put up [a sculpture of] Hitler with a Torah scroll they would immediately respond,” he told the Walla news site.
The Israel Police introduced increased security around the museum on Monday, as efforts were underway by Deputy Mayor Dov Hayun to negotiate with Christian leaders — who have sought a court order to remove the sculpture — and calm down the situation.
גבר בן 32 נעצר ועוד ארבעה גברים עוכבו לחקירה בהפגנה מול מוזיאון חיפה, במחאה על תערוכה פוגענית ברגשות הציבור הנוצרי. המשטרה פיזרה את ההפגנה בכוח, תוך כדי שימוש ברימוני הלם. כמו כן, שלושה שוטרים נפצעו בראשם במהלך ההפגנה ופונו לקבלת טיפול רפואי @10elilevi @samiaah10 pic.twitter.com/1iO1BRjFfL
— חדשות עשר (@news10) January 11, 2019
The “McJesus,” which was sculpted by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, went on display in August as part of the museum’s “Sacred Goods” exhibit. It is meant to be a critique of what he views as modern society’s enslavement to consumerism.
But on Sunday, the 40-year-old Leinonen issued a surprise response to a request for comment by the Israeli broadcaster Keshet, joining the protesters in their demand that his artwork not be displayed, though for a different reason.
“I heard about the exhibit and the demonstrations yesterday morning, when I checked my email inbox, which was full of messages on the subject,” Leinonen said on Sunday, according to a Hebrew-language translation of his statement.
“That annoyed me very much since the exhibit is displayed in the exhibition against my will,” he continued. “I asked to remove the display because I joined the BDS movement that boycotts Israel. Based on the curator’s answers, I had assumed it was removed from the exhibition.
“When I heard the work was still at the exhibition and causing violent protests, I immediately sent another request to the curator to remove the work, as should have been done from the beginning. I still haven’t heard anything from the museum,” Leinonen added.
“And that’s why, like the protesters, I am demanding that my work be immediately removed from the exhibition.”
The Haifa Museum of Art said it hadn’t received a demand to remove the exhibit.
“The sculpture was borrowed from a gallery in Finland as part of an agreement,” the museum told Keshet. “The museum has never received any demand to remove the exhibit.
“The frequency of incidents in which BDS activists are involved in activity aimed at preventing artists from being displayed in Israel is steadily growing in recent years, and the museum has dealt with many such incidents.”
On Thursday, Culture Minister Miri Regev sent Haifa Museum director Nissim Tal a letter calling for the sculpture’s removal because, she said, a state-funded gallery could not disrespect religious symbols.
“Disrespect of religious symbols sacred to many worshipers in the world as an act of artistic protest is illegitimate and cannot serve as art at a cultural institution supported by state funds,” she wrote.
In response to Friday’s protest, the Haifa Museum said Tal agreed during a meeting with church leaders and officials from the Haifa Municipality to put up a sign at the entrance to the exhibit explaining it contains potentially offensive content.
The museum also condemned the throwing of the Molotov cocktail and said any objection to the piece must not be expressed violently.
“A discourse about art, however complex it may be, must not spill over into violent territory and must be respected — even in charged situations,” it said.
Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.