Canadian Arts Funder Faces Pressure to Divest From Israeli Weapons Supplier

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Canadian Arts Funder Faces Pressure to Divest From Israeli Weapons Supplier

Filmmakers, artists, and writers in Toronto are campaigning for arts funder Scotiabank to divest from Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems. Today, March 26, a coalition of activists announced the launch of “No Arms in the Arts” — a multi-pronged effort targeting programs sponsored by the Canadian financial institution including the Hot Docs Film Festival, the Contact Photography Festival, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Toronto Biennial of Art.

Members of art activist groups Film Workers for Palestine, Writers Against the War on Gaza, Artists Against Artwashing, and CanLit Responds kicked off the campaign today around the corner from the Hot Docs Cinema. As Hot Docs festival organizers announced the film lineup for this year’s iteration, slated to run from April 25 to May 5, dozens of demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and carried banners that read “Scotia Banks on Genocide” at a counter press conference, criticizing Hot Docs’s Scotiabank funding and the festival’s alleged silence on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

Scotiabank is currently the largest individual foreign shareholder of Elbit Systems stock, Israel’s biggest arms company, which has been frequently targeted by pro-Palestine demonstrators. “No Arms in the Arts” follows numerous protests at Scotiabank and Elbit Systems office locations, as well as a demonstration disrupting the Giller Prize ceremony in November.

Over the past several months, Israeli military attacks have killed over 31,819 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as well as 382 Palestinians in the West Bank, according to the United Nations

“Our institutions have high value to Scotiabank. We are asking them to use their position as partners to tell Scotiabank they cannot invest in a genocide and then expect artists accept their arts funding, as if that does not tarnish both them and us,” Canadian writer Thea Lim, who spoke at today’s counter-press conference, told Hyperallergic, adding that “there are many meaningful ways for artists to use their platforms to push for Gaza and Palestine.”

The largest documentary festival in North America, Hot Docs has recently been embroiled in turmoil ranging from financial constraints that threaten the long-running film program to a slew of staff withdrawals. This week, the festival announced the sudden departure of Artistic Director Hussain Currimbhoy, whose exit was preceded by the mass resignation of an unspecified number of staffers on Hot Docs’s programming team. Whereas Currimbhoy’s resignation was reportedly due to “personal reasons,” the group of resignees accused the festival of an “ever-changing, chaotic, unprofessional and discriminatory” work environment on social media.

Hyperallergic has reached out to Scotiabank, Elbit Systems, Hot Docs Film Festival, Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Toronto Biennial of Art for comment. 

While some artists say they will use their platforms to call attention to institutions that benefit from Scotiabank funding, others have already dropped out of programs sponsored by the bank, such as photographer Sophie Sabet, a 2019 recipient of Contact’s Gattuso Prize. Sabet told Hyperallergic that she withdrew from the photography organization’s new mentorship residency in December to protest its Scotiabank sponsorship.

“When I learned about [Contact’s] affiliation with Elbit Systems, there was no other option,” Sabet said, adding that the “dissonance” between her work and the art non-profit’s links to Israeli weapons manufacturing “just wouldn’t make sense.” 

In response to Hyperallergic’s inquiry, Contact clarified that its Scotiabank sponsorship ends on May 31, based on a decision made by the bank last May, and that the photography festival is currently “exploring new funding structures for the future in order to continue to support artists.”

Sabet noted that there are many ways artists can call out Scotiabank-sponsored cultural events aside from boycotts, such as using their platforms in these spaces to speak out against Israeli violence in Palestine.

“These are not the conditions in which I want to make art. These are not the conditions that support me as an artist or my community. This is a direct link to the genocide of so many other artists and people that are living in Gaza,” Sabet said.

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