A witch-hunt devastates the Auckland art world

Nina Power is a left-wing, Marxist influenced artist. Her work often takes a class-based analysis and explores women’s oppression. She recently became the target of a vicious attack and was slanderously called a Nazi after she wrote an essay that was part of an exhibition of 400 flags. The exhibition was to explore the dangers of political and tribal identities.

Long time communist James Robb looks at the witch-hunt that ensued:

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…

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