El Museo del Barrio, a Manhattan museum dedicated to Puerto Rican and Latin American art, decided not to display an artwork it had commissioned for its annual Día de los Muertos celebrations this month after the artists included a Palestinian flag in it.
The museum then canceled a fund-raiser planned for Tuesday night where the new artwork, “Recorder y Unificar” (“Remember and Unite”), was to have been prominently displayed, saying that “at this moment when so many are suffering” it was encouraging donors to contribute to relief efforts.
The artists who created “Recorder y Unificar,” Roy Baizan and Odalys Burgoa, said that museum officials raised objections to the inclusion of the Palestinian flag last week but that they had refused to remove it, seeing it as integral to a work that is in part about political resistance and commemorating the dead. The piece paid homage to traditional altars for Day of the Dead celebrations, with milk crates and tall candles alongside sections dedicated to groups like the Young Lords and thinkers like Frantz Fanon.
“We were commemorating lots of activists,” said Baizan, 27. “It was about saying that all our struggles are interconnected.”
At one point the artists suggested that the museum could include a disclaimer, noting that the work represented the views of the artists but not the museum. After several days of negotiations, Baizan said, the museum decided not to display the work, which was installed in its cafe, and blacked out the windows to the cafe. The decision not to display the artwork was reported earlier by Hyperallergic.
Burgoa, 29, said that “the Palestinian flag is the reason the altar is censored and to me that’s wrong.”
Patrick Charpenel, the executive director of museum, which is on Fifth Avenue near 104th Street, did not respond to requests for comment.
The museum said in a statement that Baizan had “made a last-minute modification to the altar without further consultation or approval from El Museo as required by our contract with them.”
“They converted the altar from a religious and cultural symbol into a political statement,” the museum said.
The museum said that its decision to cancel the fund-raiser Tuesday night was separate from its issues with the artists and the work they created. It said that public Día de los Muertos events for the community would move forward.
The decision not to display the newly commissioned work was another example of how differences over the Israel-Hamas war are straining artists and cultural institutions. After 92NY canceled an event last week with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen because of statements Nguyen had made criticizing Israel, other authors canceled speaking engagements there, some members of its staff resigned and its marquee literary program was put on hold.
Burgoa and Baizan disputed the idea that they had injected politics into the altar at the last minute. They said that a September version of their proposal had highlighted plans to include revolutionary figures including Hiram Maristany, a photographer and member of the Young Lords who led El Museo in the 1970s.
Burgoa pointed to text that the museum had approved on a painting behind the altar that said, “The police, immigration police, is the same garbage.” She said that the phrase came from a banner she saw during the 2020 George Floyd protests.
“They knew it was political,” she said.
The museum said the artwork is still in its cafe, which is currently closed, and that it plans to pay the artists for the commission.