WARSAW, Poland | An exhibition at a Polish state museum opening Friday features the works of provocative artists in what organizers describe as a celebration of free speech, and a challenge to political correctness and “cancel culture” on the political left.
Some critics, however, accuse organizers of giving a platform to antisemitic, racist and Islamophobic messages under the pretense of defending freedom of expression.
“Political Art,” which features the works of nearly 30 artists, is the second exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art under director Piotr Bernatowicz. He was appointed by Poland’s populist conservative ruling party in 2019.
Since it came to power in 2015, the Law and Justice party has harnessed the country’s cultural institutions in a mission to promote conservative and patriotic values — including the art center housed in a reconstructed castle that has showcased experimental and avant-garde art in Warsaw for 30 years.
The museum says the “Political Art” show provides a space for rebellious artists sometimes shunned elsewhere.
The most controversial is Dan Park, a Swedish provocateur who has been jailed on hate crimes in Sweden. In 2009, Park placed swastikas and boxes labeled “Zyklon B” — the gas used in the mass murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust — in front of a Jewish community center in Malmo.
A spokesman for Malmo’s Jewish community, Fredrik Sieradzki, recalled the artist’s actions 12 years ago as “disgusting and deeply offensive,” telling The Associated Press that they “targeted a community that was already threatened by different groups.”
The Jewish community in Poland has strongly protested the museum’s decision to include Park in the new exhibit. In an open letter to the museum director, rabbis and other Jewish representatives argued that promoting such artists offends all people in a country where 6 million Polish citizens — half of whom were Jews and half Christian Poles — were killed during World War II.
Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, argued that “having such art displayed is evil.”
“Free expression is essential to a democratic society, but free expression still has limits. That limit is when you try to inspire someone to hurt others. This art conspires to hurt others,” Schudrich told the AP on Friday.
Among the works by Park being shown in Warsaw is a poster that presents Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in twin attacks in Norway, as a model for the clothing brand Lacoste.
Another provocateur is Uwe Max Jensen, a Danish artist with right-wing views. His performances have included urinating and defecating on objects and running around naked. He has several vandalism convictions.
Jensen brought to Warsaw a large flag made up of four smaller LGBT pride flags angled to create a swastika. He said it’s his way of protesting the taboo around criticizing the gay rights movement. Jensen told the AP on Wednesday that the flag was apparently so controversial that Facebook removed an image of it and he still didn’t know if his creation would be included in the Castle Center show.
The new exhibit also features the work of Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who lives under police protection for making a drawing of a dog with the head of the Prophet Muhammed. The drawing upset many Muslims in 2007 and brought Vilks death threats from extremists.
Also included in “Political Art” is a wall of photos of Ugandan villagers holding up IDs. It is part of a project by Danish conceptual artist Kristian von Hornsleth, who persuaded 340 Ugandan villagers in 2006 to legally change their names to Hornsleth in exchange for pigs and goats. The Ugandan government at the time condemned the project as demeaning and racist.
An anti-fascist network in Poland has criticized “Political Art,” accusing the curators of using democratic principles like freedom of speech “to convey and justify right-wing hate speech.” In a statement, the Anti-Fascist Year argued that including the more problematic artists would serve “to strengthen the electoral prospects of authoritarian parties everywhere.”
Co-curator Jon Eirik Lundberg, a Norwegian who runs the Laesoe Kunsthal gallery in Denmark, denied the show promotes racism, and said its aim is to fight for freedom of speech in defense of democracy.
“If you don’t have free speech, you don’t have political freedom. If you don’t have political freedom, you don’t have any protection,” he told the AP. “So the best way to protect any minority is to make sure there is freedom of speech.”
Lundberg said he also strongly objects to the featured art being described as “right-wing,” a term he says negates the possibility of dialogue.
Added Hornsleth, the artist who photographed Ugandan villages: “Even if this show was right-wing and crazy, it should be allowed because it’s art. But it’s not — it’s really about creating a space in which anybody can disagree about anything.”
“Political Art” runs through January 16.