In the Whitney Biennial artwork, a message is revealed: “Free Palestine”

Throughout its history, the Whitney Biennial has often mirrored the art world’s heated discourse, welcoming provocative works that might ruffle feathers. But museum officials and curators said they were caught off guard by a message that revealed itself in the flickering lights of a neon installation.

The Whitney Museum of American Art confirmed Wednesday evening that an artwork by the indigenous artist and activist Demian Diné Yazhi’ they had flashing lights that slowly spelled out the phrase “Free Palestine.”

The artwork originates from a poem written before the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas and bears the title: “we must stop imagining the apocalypse/genocide + we must imagine liberation”. He was inspired by indigenous resistance movements and Diné activist Klee Benally, who died in December and was a friend of the artist.

“It’s about indigenous resistance and opposition to forms of settler colonialism,” DinéYazhi’ said in an interview, referring to a concept rooted in academia and studies of societies in which one population displaces and dominates another.

Museum officials, including the exhibit’s curators, said they had not been aware of the message, which most visitors initially missed. The work arrived shortly before the exhibition was installed; The curators noticed the flickering lights, but thought they should draw the viewer’s attention to words like “genocide” and “liberation.”

Museum officials, when asked earlier this week what the work’s title was and whether it referred to Gaza, initially said the work was conceived before the current conflict and represented a reflection on indigenous resistance movements. They later said they were unaware of the message, which was added when the work was produced in the fall, but that the message would not influence their decision to display the art.

Annie Armstrong, a writer for the publication Artnet News, noticed the “Free Palestine” message. an article about yesterday’s exhibition.

“The museum was not aware of this subtle detail when the work was installed,” said Angela Montefinise, head of communications and content, who added that there were no plans to remove or modify the work. art. “The Biennial has long been a place where contemporary artists address timely issues, and the Whitney is committed to being a space for artist conversations.”

Museums across the country have struggled to respond to the war between Israel and Hamas as artists, employees, administrators and the public scrutinize their statements about the conflict. And within the cultural industry, there has been a wave of resignations, boycotts and layoffs resulting from dealing with the war.

DinéYazhi’ said the flickering message was in line with the deeper meaning of their artwork. “The work in its final form and as it exists today is a response to being placed within settler colonial institutions,” the artist said.