Politics

France’s Ministry of Culture Is Pushing Forward a Trio of Groundbreaking Laws That May Have Sweeping Effects on Restitution


French politicians are planning to introduce three framework laws intended to facilitate the restitution of contentious artworks as well as human remains currently held within the country’s public collections. 

The trio of bills was announced by France’s ministry of culture this week. In what would be a first, one of the bills also offers an opportunity to legally acknowledge crimes committed against Jews during World War 2 by the French state, according to a French senator involved in drafting the bills.

Ever since French president Emmanuel Macron made the sweeping 2017 pledge to return African artifacts to the continent, in an attempt to ease relations with former French colonies, a waiting game has ensued; so far, 26 objects stolen from the ancient Palace of Abomey in Benin were restituted to the African country; one object was returned to Senegal; another is on long-term loan to Madagascar. Compared to other European countries, France is considered to be lagging behind on the issue of restitution, despite Macron’s groundbreaking promise. According to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report on restitution, France has an estimated 90,000 African artifacts in its public museums.

A visitor goes through the exhibition "Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation" at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

A visitor goes through the exhibition “Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation” at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Though parliament voted in favor of returning individual works, progress has been marred by disagreement over procedures for larger-scale returns, and by the fact that objects entering France’s national collection are deemed inalienable by law, meaning that they can only be removed in case-by-case parliamentary votes.

“I hope 2023 will be a year of decisive progress for restitutions,” said French culture minister Rima Abdul Malak in her annual, New Year speech on Monday, January 16. The country’s approach to its own history is “neither one of denial nor of repentance, but one of recognition,” she added. Earlier, Abdul Malak announced the laws would be up for vote this year, making it possible to return an artwork as well as human remains currently in the national collection, without having to revert to parliament for approval, accelerating the process.

The laws will target human remains in museums, an amended version of an earlier bill proposed last year by French senators; another will address works belonging to Jewish families persecuted during the Nazi era; the third considers restitution of art objects, including those from the colonial era. The latter bill is spearheaded by former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez and notably addresses the return of art objects to Africa, among others. Martinez’s duties as France’s cultural heritage ambassador were reduced after being charged with “complicity” in organized fraud and money laundering in connection to a global art trafficking scandal. 

Growing public awareness around the issue of restitution has spurred this week’s announcement. The minister of culture “is very mobilized on the issue, which is a major change,” according to senator and vice president of a senatorial commission on culture, education and communication Pierre Ouzoulias, who has helped push restitution efforts.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

With senators Catherine Morin-Desailly and Max Brisson, Ouzoulias proposed a bill in 2021 that was unanimously approved by the senate, to return human remains, but it was blocked by members of Macron’s administration at the time. The amended bill is likely to be put to vote before June. Morin-Desailly, who will present it, said that with continued, increasing demands from foreign nations asking for restitutions, “we’re at a critical point of no-return.” 

In separate interviews, Morin-Desailly and Ouzoulias both noted that the new laws would entail special committees of scientific and legal experts that would include counterparts from the countries requesting restitution. Together, they would determine if an object meets criteria needed to remove it from France’s national collections. Once that conclusion is made, the sitting administration would decide whether or not to return an object, without having to revert to parliament as it does now.

The government will also need to streamline a plan to catalog objects of questionable provenance in French museums, particularly human remains, the total number of which are not known.

The framework law concerning cultural goods seized during France’s Vichy government is also an opportunity to state within law the crimes the French state committed against Jews during World War 2, as justification for the return of an object, said Ouzoulias. Currently, he added that no such wording exists in French law, and he is advocating for such an inclusion in the bill. Both Ouzoulias’ grandparents were in the French Resistance. 

“Without Germany asking them to do so, the Vichy government voted very early for laws which stripped Jews of certain rights … including material goods and artworks,” he noted. Though restitutions have been made to Jewish victims by the French state, and former French president Jacques Chirac officially recognized the state’s anti-Semitic laws of the time, Ouzoulias said France’s parliament has not examined the damage Vichy legislation inflicted upon Jews, while  French courts have. “What’s missing is recognizing it in the law,” he said. “We can offer legal measures to repair those damages … and we can start with artwork.”

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French Weekly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Has Again Angered the Iranian Regime for Publishing Caricatures of Its Supreme Leader


The Iranian regime is fuming over the publication of cartoon drawings mocking its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

On January 4, Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the French ambassador, and the next day, announced the closing of the French Institute for Research in Iran “as a first step,” with more retaliations to come if the French government doesn’t sanction those responsible for the illustrations.

“The insulting and indecent act of a French [media] in publishing cartoons against the religious and political authority will not go without an effective and decisive response,” tweeted Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Wednesday. Iranian officials “will not allow the French government to step over the line. They have definitely chosen the wrong path,” added Amir-Abdollahian in Farsi. In a statement on January 5, the Iranian foreign ministry alleged the “offensive” action was also “another sign of Zionism’s attempts at exercising influence on media in order to promote Islamophobia.”

By Thursday night, Charlie Hebdo’s website was also hacked, according to French reports.

 

Indeed, angering the Iranian dictatorship was a big reason for publishing the cartoons in the first place.

“Make the funniest and meanest caricature of Ali Khamenei,” instructed the notoriously irreverent and controversial Charlie Hebdo in an international call for submissions to a drawing contest, called #MullahsGetOut, in December. The initiative aimed “to support the Iranians who are fighting for their freedom, by ridiculing this religious leader from another age and consigning him to historical oblivion.”

The contest came in response to Iran’s violent crackdown on protests since the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after Iranian morality police took her into custody for allegedly disobeying the nation’s hijab dress code.

Out of hundreds of submissions, 30 were chosen for Charlie Hebdo’s January 7, 2023 special edition, headlined “Mullahs, go back to where you came from!” (Moullahs, retournez d’ou vous venez). The winning entries include a sex and violence-obsessed Khamenei, taunted and humiliated by women. Long hair, headscarves, and high-heeled pumps become symbolic weapons in these drawings, which crush and hang by the neck a desperate Khameni.

The issue was sold out at most print-media kiosks in Paris by Wednesday evening, according to salespeople that Midnight Publishing Group News questioned. It is available online, and its cover illustration features a line of disgruntled, mini mullahs filing into a nude woman’s open cervix, her dark hair flowing as she grins at the viewer.

A person holds a placard reading "Je suis Charlie" during a remembrance rally at Place de la Republique on the one year anniversary of the attacks. Photo: YOAN VALAT/AFP/Getty Images

A person holds a placard reading “Je suis Charlie” during a remembrance rally at Place de la Republique on the one year anniversary of the attacks.
Photo: YOAN VALAT/AFP/Getty Images

The issue further marked the anniversary of the 2015 terror attack that killed 12 people in and outside the publication’s Paris headquarters. Its director and illustrator known as Charb, plus other iconic cartoonists Cabu, Wolinksi, and Honoré, were among those murdered in the coordinated operation that also killed four at a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris. The attackers said they were taking revenge on behalf of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, whose depiction, along with other religious and political leaders, had graced the pages of Charlie Hebdo as sexually explicit and vulgar caricatures.

The magazine was also targeted with firebombs and threatened prior to the 2015 attacks for illustrations of Muhammad deemed blasphemous by certain interpretations of Islamic law, and had its own security detail. In 2006, Muslim groups sued the publication for attacking the religion, but French judges ruled Charlie Hebdo was not taking aim at a single group, but rather poked fun at individual leaders.

The #MullahsGetOut contest “was also a reminder of why Charlie’s cartoonists and writers were assassinated eight years ago, and how [those reasons] are sadly still topical,” wrote the publication’s director Laurent Sourisseau, known as Riss, in an editorial. The drawings submitted all “say ‘no’ to religious tyrants,” and show “people’s attachment to freedom,” he added.

Speaking on Les Matins LCI, France’s foreign minister Catherine Colonna has clapped back at Iranian demands that the French government sanction Charlie Hebdo. “Freedom of expression exists in France, as opposed to what is happening in Iran, and it is exercised under the control of a judge, and within the framework of an independent justice system—something Iran undoubtedly knows little about,” she said. “Moreover, in French law, the notion of blasphemy does not exist.”

In a Thursday statement, France’s foreign ministry said its Iranian counterparts had not yet officially confirmed the closing of the 1983-founded IFRI cultural institute. Its shuttering “would evidently be regrettable,” said a government spokesperson.

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Crowds Gather to Protest Warsaw’s Leading Contemporary Art Museum, Which Just Mounted an Anti-‘Cancel Culture’ Art Show


Police vans were lined up early Friday evening outside Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art, as protestors gathered to demonstrate against the cultural institution’s decision to proceed with an exhibition that critics say platforms antisemitic, racist, and Islamophobic messages under the guise of freedom of expression.

Exhibition organizers claim the show, which is titled “Political Art” and features many controversial and political artists, is designed to confront “cancel culture” on the political left. It is the second exhibition since Piotr Bernatowicz was controversially appointed as the museum’s director by Poland’s populist conservative ruling Law and Justice party in 2019.

Since the party came to power in 2015, Law and Justice government officials have corralled many of the country’s leading cultural institutions, including museums and theatres, into its conservative ideological orbit.

Kristian von Hornsleth, Head (2019). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Kristian von Hornsleth, Head (2019). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

The exhibition at Ujazdowski Castle is quickly proving to be a major flashpoint in Poland’s highly divisive culture wars. On the night of the opening, the institution braced for large protests by groups including Poland’s anti-fascist league and various LGBTQ+ and Jewish organizers. Photos posted to social media hours before the opening on August 27 showed at least six police vans parked outside the institution.

The newest exhibition under Bernatowicz’s stewardship includes works by nearly 30 artists, one of whom is the controversial Swedish artist Dan Park, who was arrested in 2009 for a stunt that saw him placing swastikas and boxes labeled “Zyklon B”—the gas used in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust—in front of a Jewish community center in Malmo.

Park’s contribution to the show is a poster that depicts the convicted Norwegian criminal Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people, mostly children, in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Norway. Alongside Park’s work is a piece by Danish artist Uwe Max Jensen consisting of a large flag constructed from several smaller LGBT rainbow flags that the artist has fashioned into the shape of a swastika.

One of the most controversial works in the show is by Kristian von Hornsleth from Denmark, who made a work depicting Ugandan villagers who were given pigs and goats in exchange for changing their last names to his own, a move the Ugandan government condemned as racist and disrespectful. The “Political Art” show includes photos of several of the villagers holding up their changed IDs. Midnight Publishing Group News reached out to all three artists, but did not hear back by publishing time.

Von Hornsleth told the Associated Press earlier this week that he believes his work is a celebration of free speech. “Even if this show was right-wing and crazy, it should be allowed because it’s art. But it’s not [right-wing and crazy]—it’s really about creating a space in which anybody can disagree about anything.”

Some of the works appear to straddle left-wing political movements. The work of Hong Kong-Chinese photographer Tam Hoi Ying, for example, included in the exhibition, shows numerous human rights abuses in Hong Kong.

Tam Hoi Ying's <i>Being Disappeared 1. Human rights defender: Liu Xiaobo, Case: Co-authoring. Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China, Crime: Incitement to subvert state power, Punishment: 11-year sentence</i> (2016). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Tam Hoi Ying’s Being Disappeared 1. Human rights defender: Liu Xiaobo, Case: Co-authoring. Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China, Crime: Incitement to subvert state power, Punishment: 11-year sentence (2016). Courtesy Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Co-curator Jon Eirik Lundberg, a Norwegian who oversees the Laesoe Kunsthal gallery in Denmark, agreed with von Hornsleth’s statement. “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 Associated Press. “The best way to protect any minority is to make sure there is freedom of speech.”

Many in Poland claim that the exhibition platforms problematic views that hark back to dangerous ideas emulating during the country’s Nazi occupation. A Ujazdowski Castle employee who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals told Midnight Publishing Group News: “Under the guise of freedom of expression and bizarrely understood pluralism, Bernatowicz is admitting into the institution people associated with the neo-Nazi movement, at the same time canceling and stigmatizing projects inconsistent with his worldview.”

The cancelled programming includes a Miet Warlop show that was originally scheduled for earlier this year, as well as the museum’s participation in an anti-fascist program, both of which were axed by Bernatowicz, allegedly due to budget shortfalls.

One anti-fascist network in Poland, the Anti-Fascist Year, accused the curators of using democratic principles “to convey and justify right-wing hate speech.” In a statement, the group said that the art in the show only “strengthens the electoral prospects of authoritarian parties everywhere.”

Bernatowicz doubled down on his commitment to the exhibition, stating his belief that despite the controversial nature of the works, the call to censor them is worse. In a letter published on the institution’s website in response to concerns raised Warsaw’s Jewish community, Bernatowicz wrote that calls to censor the exhibition are misguided, coming “from the well-educated circles and elites that, rather than engaging in dialogue with artistic attitudes that seem surprising or offensive, prefer to expunge them from the public sphere.”

A statement posted to Instagram by the worker’s union at the cultural institution decried what it sees as hate speech. “We express our opposition to the people who promote hatred in the walls of our institution […] This should not happen, especially in a country as severely experienced by Nazism as Poland.” 

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An Artist’s Memorial on the Site of Last Year’s Devastating Blast in Beirut Has Been Met With Sharp Criticism


A year after the deadly explosion in Beirut that shattered the city, a new sculpture commemorating the victims of the tragedy has gone up. It’s a work meant to heal—but in the charged atmosphere of crisis-wracked Lebanon, the memorial is also being met by a wave of fierce criticism.

The towering sculpture, by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam, was unveiled on August 2 at the site of the explosion. Standing 82 feet tall and weighing in at 35 tons, The Gesture (2021) is made of steel salvaged from Beirut’s port after the blast.

The piece takes the form of a giant holding out a flower. Karam, an accomplished figure in local public art, intended the gesture to symbolize “an act of memory and a gesture towards the immensity of sadness that marks the people of Beirut,” according to a statement.

“It is a giant made of ashes, traces from the explosions, scars of the city, that still exist everywhere in Beirut,” Karam told Arab News. “The work represents the scars of the people that still have not healed. This figure is every single one of us and a reminder that we are the living energy of Beirut.”

The Gesture will ultimately also incorporate a water feature and a light installation in time for Lebanon’s national day of mourning on August 4.

Nadim Karam, <em>The Gesture</eM> (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nadim Karam, The Gesture (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

But the response to the work has been divided. Some argue that the wounds of the attack—which killed more than 200, injured at least 7,000, and destroyed large portions of the city, leaving more than 300,000 without homes—are still too raw for a public memorial, especially on the site itself.

“That’s a shameful gesture,” Mazen Chehab, a local creative director, wrote on Instagram, according to the National. “Nothing should be done with the port until those responsible for the explosion are heavily sanctioned.”

“The killers have complete impunity and we are already pretending something is in the past and we are trying to transcend it through art,” filmmaker Rawan Nassif told Reuters. “I feel this is a crime scene that can’t be touched yet, and it has to be investigated.”

Top officials have thus far not been investigated for the devastating blast, though Lebanese parliament indicated on July 29 that they will no longer have immunity.

`Nadim Karam, <em>The Gesture</eM> (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nadim Karam, The Gesture (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Gesture has also been beset with concerns that it is a government-backed initiative, and thus potentially a piece of propaganda. Karam, however, denies this is the case.

“No governmental institutions [sic] has been involved in any way in this project,” Karam insisted in an Instagram post. “The Gesture is a grassroots project.” (The project did, however, have support from the Lebanese Army as well as permits supplied by Lebanon’s Home Security and the Port Authority, according to Mashable.)

According to a statement put out by the World Bank last month, Lebanon’s current economic crisis “is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.”

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A Gallery Owner Says He Destroyed Six Paintings Over a Controversy Regarding Their Depiction of Native American Symbols


A New York gallery has taken down an exhibition of paintings—which the gallery owner says he will now destroy—after a controversy erupted over an artist’s use of culturally sensitive symbols.

The show, titled “Wolfsbane and the Flower Moon,” featured six paintings by artist Charica Daugherty about the mass murders of Osage peoples that took place in Oklahoma from the 1910s through the 1930s.

The exhibition, which opened July 15 at Black Wall Street Gallery and was closed two days later, featured works that depicted dream catchers and deceased Native Americans in the nude.

In a statement shared on social media on July 17, the gallery’s owner, Ricco Wright, apologized to the Osage Nation for the exhibition, saying that all images and information about the show had been removed from the gallery’s website, social media accounts, and physical space.

“In the name of conciliation, healing, unity, and love, I’ve decided to close the exhibition, effective immediately,” Wright wrote in the statement. “I should have reached out to the Osage nation before even attempting to present art regarding your history. I sincerely apologize.” 

Neither Ricco nor Daugherty responded to Midnight Publishing Group News’s requests for comment.

In the post, Wright said he planned to donate 100 percent of the profits from the show to a resource center for indigenous women, but later claimed that none of the works had been sold. 

The following day, he published another statement saying that all six works would be cut into “hundreds of pieces so that none are recognizable.” 

“We understand that intention is one thing and impact is another,” he wrote. “Just because our intention was to educate the public on the Osage murders… doesn’t mean that the impact of how we did it wasn’t felt.”  

In June, the Black Wall Street gallery, which was originally founded in Tulsa, was repeatedly vandalized in what was widely assumed to be a hate crime. However, earlier this week, police announced that suspect William Robertson claimed that he defaced the storefront because he believed that Wright was having an affair with his wife, an accusation the gallery owner denied to the New York Post.

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