NY art museum surprised to find hidden ‘Free Palestine’ message on artwork

Piece at Whitney Biennial, conceived prior to current war, speaks of ‘genocide’ and ‘liberation’

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

A view of The Whitney Museum of American Art, Manhattan, New York City, June 18, 2022. (Brian Logan Photography / Shutterstock.com)
A view of The Whitney Museum of American Art, Manhattan, New York City, June 18, 2022. (Brian Logan Photography / Shutterstock.com)

Officials at a New York contemporary art museum say they did not realize that an artist had used neon lights to spell out “Free Palestine” in their work, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Native American artist and activist Demian DinéYazhi’ created the installation for the Whitney Biennial, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art set to begin March 20, which spells out “We must stop imagining apocalypse/genocide + we must imagine liberation” in flickering neon lights. The work was conceived before the current war in Gaza erupted.

When the lights blink, those that remain lit slowly spell the phrase “Free Palestine” — an addition that was not immediately made known to the public.

“It is about Indigenous resistance and opposition to forms of settler colonialism,” DinéYazhi’ told The Times. “The piece in its final form and as it currently exists today is a response to being situated within settler colonial institutions.”

Initially, the Whitney Museum of Art was unaware of the secret message and believed the flickering lights were meant to highlight the words “genocide” and “liberation.”

Officials told The Times earlier in the week that they believed the work was about Indigenous resistance movements.

“The museum did not know of this subtle detail when the work was installed,” Angela Montefinise of the museum told The Times, adding there were no plans to remove or alter the installation.

“The Biennial has long been a place where contemporary artists address timely matters, and the Whitney is committed to being a space for artists’ conversations,” she said.

The biennial exhibition which began in 1932 is described by the museum as a “gathering of artists who explore the permeability of the relationships between mind and body, the fluidity of identity, and the growing precariousness of the natural and constructed worlds around us.”

File: Workers rest on the steps of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

“Whether through subversive humor, expressive abstraction, or non-Western forms of cosmological thinking, to name but a few of their methods, these artists demonstrate that there are pathways to be found, strategies of coping and healing to be discovered, and ways to come together even in a fractured time.”

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