© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Miami arts nonprofit accused of ‘censoring’ pro-Palestinian art installation in Miami Beach

Miami artist Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên’s artwork on display at a Miami Beach Walgreens
Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên
Miami artist Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên’s artwork on display at a Miami Beach Walgreens was removed by arts nonprofit Oolite Art after recieving complaints about a portion of the work referencing the pro-Palestinian phrase “from the river to the sea.” The work was removed after it had been on view sinch March 27. An image of the work was shared on a written statement Vũ posted online about the incident.

A growing group of South Florida artists are raising the alarm after local nonprofit Oolite Arts removed a public artwork over complaints of alleged “hate speech” and “political” content.

Miami visual artist Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên, who goes by Vũ and uses they/them pronouns, posted a statement online this week about the removal, which they said amounts to censorship. In response, South Florida artists and arts professionals are calling for accountability and have postponed an art exhibition at Oolite’s Lincoln Road location that was supposed to open this week in solidarity with Vũ.

The artwork in question, called “How we live like water,” had been on display in the window of a Miami Beach Walgreens since March 27. (Walgreens and Oolite Arts have partnered to display artwork in two storefront windows since 1999 for a program called Windows @ Walgreens.)

Part of the artwork subtly references the pro-Palestinian phrase “from the river to the sea,” which pro-Israel supporters refer to as anti-Semitic hate speech that calls for violence against Jews. According to Vũ’s statement, Oolite decided to remove the artwork on May 3 after the Board of Directors received a letter from a group of lawyers that took offense to the art. Oolite did not consult with Vũ about the artwork’s removal until after the fact, the artist said.

“The arbitrary removal of my artwork sets a dangerous precedent for censorship within contemporary arts institutions and sends a chilling message to artists everywhere that we are not free to express ourselves,” Vũ wrote. “We cannot allow censorship to become the norm within artistic communities, nor can we condone actions that stifle creativity and silence marginalized voices.”

Alongside Vũ’s statement is an open letter signed by a list of South Florida artists and others working in the arts who disagree with Oolite’s removal of the artwork and urge the organization to reconsider. As of publication, the letter has over 300 signatures.

The artists — many of whom have their studios at Oolite locations or have worked with the organization before — are demanding transparency from Oolite on its decision, a town hall to discuss the matter and for Board Chair Marie Elena Angulo to step down.

The artists’ letter reads: “Art should be a space for exploration, dialogue, and mutual understanding, not a battleground for censorship and suppression. We believe that as a well-respected and well-funded institution, Oolite Arts has a responsibility to uphold artistic freedom and resist censorship.”

In a statement sent to the Herald, the Oolite Arts Board of Trustees said it is “committed to evaluating our decision-making in this matter and to put in place policies so that artists we work with have clear guidelines and expectations.” The board will work with an independent consultant to review the incident and provide recommendations for the future, the statement said.

“The Oolite Arts Board of Trustees deeply regrets that the removal of Vũ Hoàng Khánh Nguyên’s artwork has offended some in our community, and that its contents offended others in our community. We believe strongly in the right to artistic expression, but the particular phrase highlighted in this piece is perceived by many as a literal call for violence against them,” the board said. “As an organization that exists for artists, we do wish we had taken more time to have deeper conversations with the artist, our staff and other stakeholders about the work and our decision.”

The controversy in Miami’s close knit arts community comes at a time of heightened tensions and criticisms nationally and internationally over the Israel-Hamas war.

After the militant group attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking over 200 hostage, Israel responded with airstrikes and ground military invasions into Gaza, killing an estimated 34,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, as reported by the Associated Press. The head of the United Nations food agency recently said that northern Gaza is experiencing “full-blown famine.”

This isn’t the first time a Miami arts institution has removed an artwork related to Palestinian people. In March, Hyperallergic reported that the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami quietly removed a portrait of the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said and later re-installed the piece.

Behind the art

In their statement, Vũ explained that Oolite approved the art installation Oct. 5 to be on display this year. The artwork was supposed to be on view at the Walgreens on 67th Street and Collins Avenue until June 16. (The Herald reached out to Vũ for comment but did not receive a response.)

A page on Oolite’s website about “How we live like water” likened the artwork to “a visual network that illuminates the elemental power of water, emphasizing its unifying force that transcends borders and cultures.” The description goes on to explain that the artwork explores how water provides life and is a force of change “in the face of profound global shifts, including instances of mass upheaval, genocide and ecocide.”

The full installation includes pottery, fishing net and paintings. Then there is the point of contention: the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea.” Instead of the word “river,” there is an image Vũ took of the Jordan River. Instead of the word “sea,” there is an image of the Atlantic Ocean, which Vũ took in Miami Beach.

Vũ was born in a rural part of Vietnam and immigrated to the United States with their family as a child. According to the artists’ open letter, Vũ is a child of refugees who were displaced due to “American intervention in the region.” The open letter also draws a comparison between the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s to the current protests on college campuses against the war in Gaza.

“Vũ’s artwork references water as a site of struggle for all oppressed peoples,” the open letter reads. “The work invokes the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ as a reminder to viewers that water is a precious, borderless resource that connects us all.”

Vũ said the removed artwork is “an expression of solidarity with oppressed people of the world and a call for peace and justice in the face of ongoing injustices.”

Though Oolite had green lit Vũ’s installation months prior, Vũ wrote the interim co-director said the board decided that the artwork was in violation of the organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion code. Vũ’s statement and the artists’ open letter place blame squarely on the Board of Directors and its chair, Angulo.

“Oolite Arts did not give me the opportunity to engage in dialogue or to further clarify my intention behind my artwork,” Vũ said.

'Somebody picked a side'

The artwork’s removal shocked Chire Regans, the renowned Miami-based artist also known as VantaBlack.

Regans said she’s very familiar with Oolite and has rapport with numerous staff members. She’s currently an artist-in-residence at Oolite, has been featured in Oolite exhibitions and has received several awards from the organization. In 2020, Oolite presented her with the inaugural Ellie’s Social Justice Award.

Regans is one of 17 Oolite artists-in-residence featured in “Everything is a Spiral,” an exhibition curated by Dejha Carrington. The artists and curator collectively decided to postpone the show, which was scheduled to open on May 8.

She learned about the removal in a groupchat with fellow artists last Friday and immediately reached out to an Oolite staff member to ask about it. The staffer said Angulo made the decision, so Regans spoke with her, too. In their conversation, Regans said, Angulo said that Oolite and Walgreens’ partnership cannot platform “political art.”

Regans took issue with that reasoning because artwork centering politically charged issues like book bans and immigration have been displayed in Walgreens windows before, she said. A staff member told Regans that Oolite had received complaints from the public about previous art installations, but “they always fielded those complaints and quashed the concern without removal of the artwork.”

“It shows me that somebody picked a side,” Regans said about the removal. “Somebody decided to stifle collective dialogue. When you stifle dialogue, you stifle freedom, you stifle expression, you stifle voices. That isn’t beneficial to anyone.”

The board’s decision was a “kneejerk reaction,” and the situation was handled improperly, Regans added. She disagrees with the notion that Vũ’s installation was hate speech, describing the work as “absolutely beautiful.”

Regans hopes to see Oolite host an open forum to listen to artists’ concerns and feedback.

“I hope the arts community understands that power is perception. Power lies where you think it resides,” Regans said. “If you think that us, as a community of artists, are powerful, than we absolutely are. These institutions that claim to serve artists do not exist without our active participation.”

This story was produced with financial support from individuals and Berkowitz Contemporary Arts in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

More On This Topic