The artists Nicholas Galanin (Lingít/Unangax) and Merritt Johnson have withdrawn a work from an exhibition of contemporary Native American art at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, in protest of the US government’s military aid to Israel. The museum is now in the process of deinstalling the work, a spokesperson for the NGA told The Art Newspaper.
The artists’ announcement was published on 3 November, a day after the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide $14.3bn in military aid to Israel (the bill is not expected to pass the US Senate). The US aid package comes after Israel launched a bombing campaign and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip—in which more than 9,700 people have reportedly been killed, according to Gaza Ministry of Health figures cited by BBC News—in retaliation for Hamas’s terrorist attack in Israel on 7 October, in which around 1,400 people were killed and at least 240 were taken hostage.
“It is with deep regret that we must ask for our work be removed from the [NGA] due to US government funding of Israel’s military assault and genocide against the Palestinian people,” Galanin and Johnson write in their statement, published on social media. “We’re calling on the federal government to demand an immediate ceasefire, cut military aid to Israel, and lift the siege on Gaza.”
The sculpture, Creation with her Children (2017), shows a figure wearing a 17th century-style dress stitched from an amalgamation of mass produced textiles, symbolising “colonisation, corporisation, commodification, and subjugation”, according to Johnson’s artist statement. It was included in The Land Carries Our Ancestors (until 15 January 2024), an exhibition curated by the artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (a member of the Confederated Salish/Kootenai Nation) that brought together nearly 50 intergenerational Native American artists. (Galanin is Tlingit and Unangax; Johnson does not have a tribal affiliation.)
The artists also wrote: “We’re grateful to Smith [...] and to the NGA for supporting the [exhibition] and publication. The work we contributed [...] is a reflection on survival, resistance against colonisation, [and] the importance of continuum and connection to land. The work we do as artists does not end in the studio or with our artist statements, it extends into the world.”
In 2019, Galanin was one of eight artists who requested the removal of their work from that year’s Whitney Biennial amid calls to remove the Whitney Museum’s former vice chairman, Warren Kanders, from the board of trustees, amid protests against his involvement in the sale of weapons. After Kanders’s resignation the following week, the artists rescinded their requests.
Galanin often explores themes related to social issues in his practice. His work Never Forget for the 2021 edition of the Desert X biennial reinterpreted the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles to spell the words “Indian Land”. His work is held in several major collections, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Johnson’s past works have also centred on themes related to Native communities. She previously withdrew work from an exhibition at the Fruitlands Museum in Massachusetts, where she was listed as an artist of Mohawk and Blackfoot descent, after questions around her affiliation with the tribes surfaced. Her works are held in the collections of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.