If the artists responsible for the Mercy Pictures exhibition “People of Colour” were setting out to shock and provoke, they certainly succeeded. The show, which recently closed in Auckland, was the work of artists Jerome Ngan-Kee, Jonny Prasad and Teghan Burt, who are also the co-directors of Mercy Pictures. “People of Colour” consisted of a display of miniature flags – the national flags of countries, flags of liberation movements including several Maori flags, imaginary flags, and an assortment of flags of fascist organisations past and present.
The provocative juxtaposition of the flags was the point of the show, raising questions about the symbolism and emotions human beings invest in flags, and the sensitivities, misunderstandings and offence caused when other people have different attitudes to a flag. It posed some of the same questions raised by US artist Dread Scott’s famous 1988 installation “What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” which was publicly condemned by the US President at the time, George Bush Sr, as well as by votes in both houses of Congress.
Criticisms of the Mercy Pictures show for being tasteless and insensitive could possibly be justified – I say possibly because I didn’t see it myself and so am not in a position to judge the overall effect. But the wave of condemnation that rained down on its creators had nothing to do with judging the show’s artistic merits and debating the issues it posed. No-platforming was the order of the day.
On the first night the gallery was vandalised. Mercy Pictures’ Instagram account was flooded with critical comments. Artist Anna McAllister urged people “to go to their social media pages and report them for hate speech and symbols. And boycott anyone involved in this space.” A group called Tāmaki Anti-Fascist Action took up the call, saying “We were profoundly troubled by its extensive and uncritical use of neo-Nazi symbols, which is a form of platforming their ideology [my emphasis- JR]… In addition, we were deeply concerned that the exhibition’s introduction was written by British transphobe Nina Power who has also collaborated with the alt-right, as a form of platforming her transphobic and alt-right ideology.”
The gallery denied any links to far-right groups or support for fascist ideology. “It has been heartbreaking to see some of the responses to the exhibition. We find it very upsetting that some people have felt unsafe as a result of this artwork and we take these responses very seriously,” it said.
“Mercy Pictures believes extremist movements of any kind are malevolent and evil. We oppose these kinds of groups vigorously, not least because they put the lives of the people we love at risk. Mercy Pictures and the wider Mercy Pictures family is predominantly made up of queer people and people of colour. As such, any suggestion that we are alt-right, neo-Nazi, queerphobes, homophobes, xenophobes, and white-supremacists is offensive and untrue.”
However, one of the artists, Jerome Ngan-Kee, issued a separate apology, in which he “deeply regret the way Mercy Pictures has responded to criticism.” “I regret in the strongest way possible the display of images and symbols related to terrible violence inflicted upon marginalised communities in the name of art. I recognise now this was a form of platforming fascist symbols. I apologise whole-heartedly for any detraction from the strength, mana and resilience of those people and for any pain that the exhibition caused them.”
Sensing that the pressure on the gallery was opening up cracks, three individuals, Quishile Charan, Jasmin Singh and Anevili began circulating an Open Letter which raised the stakes further, and widened the field of attack, calling out the entire art world for being complicit.
“The recent exhibition at Mercy Pictures, which displayed Neo-Nazi flags, symbolism and other far right imagery, placed next to symbols of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga, is inherently colonial and perpetrates violence,” the Open Letter stated.
“This exhibition has also been put on during a time of high anti-black sentiment worldwide. This exhibition was put together by the gallery itself and had an accompanying text written by Nina Power (a writer affiliated with the alt-right who has made transphobic statements). Mercy Pictures has described Nina Power as a ‘philosopher’, in our opinion, condoning and normalising her transphobic, misogynistic and racist opinions…
“The fact that this wasn’t a discussion brought forward to the wider public until the exhibition was nearing the end and was kept within art circles, shows how complicit the art world is in perpetrating and upholding harm and violence [My emphasis – JR]. Art is not apolitical. Art has a currency and a weight in the world. By remaining silent and allowing these things to happen the art world has normalised this colonial and white supremacist rhetoric. By refusing to comment on this, people within the art world are remaining complicit within white supremacy. We believe that by having the privilege of running a gallery you are in a position of power and have actively chosen to inflict this harm. This exhibition, in our opinion, is the perpetuation of centuries of violence and should not be mistaken as a meaningless act of exhibition-making and curating…
“This is how white supremacy festers and results in overt physical violence. The colonial settler state of New Zealand has a growing issue with far-right and white supremacist rhetoric and we have seen the consequences during the Christchurch attacks…
“We believe that hiding fascist and white supremacist intent behind the guise of an exhibition or ‘provocative’ art does not stop the violent consequences of this that are beyond the control of the gallery. While the gallery is continuing to hide behind its ‘art’, others do not and will not have these same privileges. People that do not have these privileges are literally going to face the physical violence that an exhibition like this can cause…”
The Open Letter concluded with a series of demands on the accused individuals to repent – to shut down the exhibition, apologise to various parties, to de-platform themselves from social media, to “refuse to work with Nina Power in the future,” and to “actively engage in accountability with the communities they have harmed. This accountability process must and should be done through a third-party mediation process so as to not continue perpetuating this harm.”
Index Magazine, which had reproduced Power’s introductory essay, pulled it from their web page. Mercy Pictures’ Instagram account was deleted. Marginally involved individuals, who had done little more than attend the exhibition, were also “held to account” and convinced to publish apologies. Green Party Member of Parliament Golriz Gharahman chimed in, circulating a statement in condemnation of 19-year-old model Ch’lita Collins and 23-year-old food writer Albert Cho, for attending the exhibition.
Let me quote one of these apologies, from a fellow gallery-owner named Michael Lett, who attended the exhibition. Lett was a director of Auckland Pride, a position from which he has now resigned. His apology can be read in full on the Auckland Pride website.
“Last night I attended a community meeting at the invitation of Bronte Perry and Finn Teiniker (via zoom) to discuss the exhibition People of Colour that has recently closed at Auckland gallery Mercy Pictures and the harm that my visiting this exhibition has had on the communities I hope to serve. During this open conversation many questions were raised about my apparent support of Mercy Pictures and this exhibition.
“To be clear: I do not nor have I ever supported Mercy Pictures in any extraordinary way. I have in the past purchased a small number of works from early exhibitions, with the most recent acquisition being made approximately 36 months ago. I have not purchased work from the show People of Colour. I have not promoted the show People of Colour on any social media platform.
“I regret not immediately understanding the exhibition as one that would cause harm to my many friends in the Jewish, queer, trans, Māori, pride, and arts communities. And in saying this, let me be very clear: I do not support the display of neo-nazi, fascist, anti-semitic, queerphobic, or transphobic images, nor the inappropriate use of Māori flags and symbols in this context. In short, I do not support this show.
“As a cis white queer man, I have tried in my working life to represent LGBTIQ+ people with dignity and professionalism. Clearly I have made many mistakes along the way, and I try to learn from these. I am committed to anti-fascist and anti-colonial education, and to understanding my obligations to Mana Whenua and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. In attending this exhibition I have brought Michael Lett gallery, my co-director and staff, as well as the board and staff of Auckland Pride and three and a half years of volunteer work on the board into disrepute. I have formally asked to stand down from the board of Auckland Pride. I apologise to my partner in life, my business colleagues and artists, as well as my pride / queer / arts community for the trauma and harm I have caused.”
I can’t think of any comparable act of public self-abasement in New Zealand in my lifetime. It is necessary to go back to the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s, the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the late 1940s and early 1950s United States, or the Stalinist frame-up trials of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, to find similar statements of self-incrimination and abjection. Let us just remind ourselves once more: the act which supposedly caused all this “trauma and harm” was visiting an art exhibition.
Let that be a lesson to any young person thinking of attending an art exhibition in future: this kind of public humiliation could be your fate too, unless you immediately recognise its harmful character from the doorway of the gallery. If you dare to step inside to see for yourself, there’s always the danger someone might take a photo of you drinking wine in front of the exhibit. You might even wake up to find your local Member of Parliament circulating a message condemning you.
Each capitulation to the accusers has the effect of intensifying the pressure on the remaining heretics – that is how a witch-hunt feeds on itself and grows – and makes it more difficult for anyone caught up in the nightmare to separate fact from fiction. One of the prime targets of this witch-hunt has been Nina Power, the UK-based cultural critic who wrote a short essay to accompany the exhibition. A sentence pointing the finger at Nina Power, and undertaking never to work with her again in future, was a required element of the apology demanded.
Much of the online outrage stirred up against Nina Power by the Charan-Singh-Anevili Open Letter was built around a meme, apparently produced by Tamaki Anti-Fascist Action. The meme included a short quote from her essay that read “a flag, any flag, is nothing, just a scrap of cloth…flags are silly”, along with the comment “I can’t fathom the amount of ignorance required in 2020 to write this shit.” It has circulated widely on Twitter, accumulating expressions of righteous anger wherever it went.
The meme is a falsification by omission. What the essay actually said was “From a scientific standpoint, a flag, any flag, is nothing, just a scrap of cloth. In this sense, then, flags are silly.” [My emphasis on the omissions – JR] The rest of the essay went on to discuss all the symbolism and emotion people invest in flags. In other words, the message of the essay as a whole was just about the exact opposite of what the meme implied. But anyone wanting to read the essay itself or check out the accuracy of the meme would have found it difficult to find, after Index magazine which had published it pulled the article under the pressure of the censorious campaign. The falsified quote on the meme continued to circulate freely, needless to say. (Power later published the essay on her own blog).
At least three major New Zealand news outlets, RNZ, the New Zealand Herald, and Spinoff, have repeated the statement, directly or indirectly, that Power is a “transphobe” who has also “collaborated with the alt-right.” Spinoff went one step further, quoting Power’s former friend Linda Stupart saying that “Nina Power is openly aligning herself with violent ‘edgelord’ alt-right men [and] transphobes, and has definitively divested herself of contemporary feminist thought.” Spinoff alone bothered to include Power’s denial that she has any such links with the ultra-right or that she is anti-transgender.
But ‘collaborating with the alt-right’ is a serious accusation to make against the reputation of an academic and critic, a gross slander if it is not true. Nina Power has published numerous books, articles, blogs, and podcasts over the last ten years, much of which is freely available online. Surely, if her political stance is evolving towards ultra-right positions in the way that these media allege, it would be a simple matter for even the laziest journalist to find evidence of that among these writings. Why then do they quote instead the tittle-tattle from ‘former friends’?
The answer is, because such evidence does not exist. What we find in her writings and podcasts is a fair amount of esoteric discussion of philosophical and religious questions, some penetrating critiques of art and society – and absolutely nothing even remotely fascistic. I came across this prescient article, How Cancel Culture Made Us Forget the Art of Interpretation, written four months ago, decrying the no-platforming practices of the big business media, including social media.
Power writes, “We live in the era of Big Platform, where corporate control and shareholder-panic meets the paranoia of an online, insomniac minority. Art and culture are to be controlled, and expression of all kinds is deemed either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to the ever-changing, anarcho-tyrannous edicts of our Tech overlords, who take their cue from the most hysterical among us.” It could almost have been referring to the events now unfolding, four months later.
One of the main sources of the slanders against Power is an “Open Letter concerning Nina Power” signed by “Anti-Reaction Research Group,” a group which seems to have no existence outside of this document. An anonymous ‘open letter’ is, just like “secret evidence” and a “closed trial,” a contradiction in terms: if the authors are not willing to be ‘open’ about their identity, they should at least have the honesty to call it an “Anonymous Letter concerning Nina Power.” Or even better, the old term “Poison Pen letter.” The document smears Power by association with two other people with whom she recorded a video; these individuals in turn are associated with the alt-right by way of yet another string of oblique and unsubstantiated accusations.
Anonymous statements, falsified documents, gossip, accusations built upon nothing but other accusations, smear by association, dark hints of secret associations, sinister ‘interpretations’ of innocent statements – all of this is the stock-in-trade of a witch-hunt. Crowning it all is the demand to return to the path of righteousness through self-incrimination – and fingering the other heretics.
Any honest fighter would hurl such ‘evidence’ and such methods back into the sewers from which they were drawn, and demand verifiable facts to support any accusations. In the absence of such facts, it is the accusers and witch-hunters themselves who stand condemned in the eyes of the working class.
Likewise, the tittle-tattle from Linda Stupart, despite its pretensions to use more academic language. Here’s a little quote, indicative of the gossipy level of the ‘evidence’ Stupart produces to back her claim of Power’s descent into the alt-right: “She has also uncritically attended ‘Woman’s Place’ meetings, a group dedicated to keeping transgender women out of women-only spaces, with a focus on support services for women who have faced violence.”
She uncritically attended meetings at A Woman’s Place, where women discuss problems facing women! The horror! It seems that this is Nina Power’s original sin in the eyes of her accusers: she has questioned the conventional liberal narrative on ‘transgender rights.’ And that is sufficient to brand her a fascist, for Stupart to decree that “Power should not be speaking as a feminist in public” and all the rest.
This witch-hunt has already inflicted severe damage on freedom of artistic expression in Auckland, which is a significant problem in its own right. The willingness of gallery owners to host shows of unconventional, challenging, and especially political art, has been shattered. What gallery owner in their right mind would risk the boycott calls, or the shutting down of their social media presence – let alone being ‘invited’ to face the inquisition like the hapless Michael Lett? Visual art as a medium for questioning and challenging social conventions has been dealt a blow; timidity and conventionality in art will prevail for the foreseeable future in this city.
But the consequences of the witch-hunt reach far beyond the art world. Under the banner of ‘anti-fascist action,’ a setback has also been dealt to the one force that is capable of actually defeating fascism: the working class.
We live in a world of mounting social and political crisis – a crisis that will only intensify as the economic crisis deepens. Long-established bourgeois political parties are already shattering under its pressures, at war with themselves and unable to call up popular and authoritative leadership. (This is most clearly seen in the United States and the United Kingdom; New Zealand is somewhat exceptional in this respect). The ideological institutions, especially the universities, are drawn into the vortex too. Conspiracist ideas and other reactionary fantasies win a wide hearing. There are many similarities to the death agony of feudal society, as the ideological hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe crumbled, and heretical sects grew.
In this situation, it is absolutely inevitable – I would say, even necessary in a sense – that artists and other thinkers, seeking a way out of the crisis and no longer having confidence in the usual parties and institutions, will explore the ideas and iconography of rightists and fascists, who claim to have a way forward. Some will open lines of communication with fascist organisations; a few will be won to fascism. Others will align themselves with the working class, increasingly as that class begins to move.
How should those who hate fascism respond when we see artists dabbling with fascist symbolism and ideas? By boycotting and no-platforming the artists? By calling down the power of the capitalist state upon their heads, in the form of hate-speech laws? This is the course taken by the vast majority of liberal and left political currents today. It is the road of attempting to shore up the liberal orthodoxy – and as Nina Power correctly points out, the boundaries of what is considered acceptable by the liberal orthodoxy are constantly narrowing. This road leads directly to censorship and ever-greater restrictions on freedom of expression, and to witch-hunts such as this one, just as the efforts of the church to shore up its crumbling authority led to witch-hunts and heresy trials in the past.
It is a self-defeating course. No matter how many artists get boycotted and no-platformed, no matter how many grovelling apologies are extracted, capitalist society in its stage of senile decay will keep throwing up new fascist currents and organisations, and charging them with energy and vigour: they arise out of the system of social and political relations itself. A class facing its own imminent extinction is driven to morbid forms of thought.
Hopes of defeating fascism through the restoration of the liberal-democratic capitalist regime, with political stability and a rising standard of living for the vast majority, are vain hopes. But there is an alternative course. The way the fascist threat can be pushed back permanently is by overthrowing the system of capitalist social relations that spawns fascism.
The crumbling of bourgeois political authority also opens space for the working class to enter the political stage – the class with the ability to overthrow capitalism, the class against whom fascism will be unleashed.
But in order to wield its strength, the working class needs class consciousness and political unity; there is no other way to achieve that unity than through the freest possible discussion and debate. The working class needs access to socialist and revolutionary ideas, for sure; it also needs art, science, movies, fiction, and the space to think, discuss and organise. Workers need to meet and confront alternative and opposing ideas of all kinds, to test and evaluate them all, and where necessary reject them.
Workers can and must decide for themselves. The last thing they need is some paternalistic middle-class ‘Anti-Fascist’ committee policing the political and artistic discourse, and shielding them from “this colonial and white supremacist rhetoric.” Censorship of ideas, whether directly by the capitalist state, or by the self-appointed liberal guardians of what is acceptable, is the weapon of our class enemy.
Whatever their intentions, the witch-hunt led by Tamaki Anti-Fascist Action has narrowed the space of working class political discussion, and in so doing it has smoothed the way for fascism.