Two Palestinian artists had their work reinstalled at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) after the institution attempted to remove their references to the ongoing violence inflicted on Palestinian people by Israel in a new exhibition. The museum apologized for its actions and agreed to reinstate the works after artist Jenin Yaseen and death doula Sameerah Ahmad staged a surreptitious protest inside the museum this weekend, refusing to leave for 18 hours overnight.
Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery reopened to the public today, November 3, in its original form and with the addition of contextualizing and warning texts. The traveling exhibition, which originated earlier this year at Chicago’s Field Museum, includes art historical objects, scientific installations, and contemporary explorations of death rituals across cultures. Three days before the show was slated to open on October 28, ROM emailed four Palestinian contributors — Yaseen, Ahmad, community organizer Malak Kanan, and scholar Dina Omar — to inform them that it wanted to change elements of their installation about Muslim mourning traditions.
A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the changes were necessary “given the current heightened sensitivities around the Israel-Hamas conflict.” The notice came amid Israel’s ongoing bombardments of Gaza that have killed more than 9,000 Palestinians since the October 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,300 Israelis. The United Nations has called for an immediate ceasefire and warned that Palestinians are “at grave risk of genocide.”
Yaseen told Hyperallergic that the museum wanted to crop its reproduction of her painting depicting a traditional Islamic burial ritual in order to remove an image of a deceased Palestinian person being pulled from a grave by soldiers.
Yasmeen explained the traditional Muslim practice of wrapping bodies instead of placing them in coffins, called “green burials.”
“We believe that we are one with the earth, and so in the painting, if you look closely, you’ll see hands of the earth holding on to the body,” she said. One section of the painting discussed the Israeli government’s ongoing practice of refusing to return the bodies of Palestinians killed in attacks.
The ROM spokesperson said that the “unsettling escalation of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment” led it to propose a change that “avoided imagery of conflict in an effort to place full focus on the central image and story of Muslim green burials.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the museum wanted to modify Ahmad’s installation, an altar that includes familiar items like cooking utensils used to prepare for events after death. A text panel read “Turmus Ayya, Palestine,” the ancestral hometown of her father, but the museum wanted this name removed, according to Yaseen. The artist said the museum also asked for the word “exile” to be removed from another plaque.
On Friday morning, a day before the exhibition opened to the public, staff met with the artists to show them the proposed changes. In an email sent that later day, reviewed by Hyperallergic, the museum informed the artists that if they did not agree to the modifications, their work would not be shown at ROM and would be returned to the Field Museum.
The artists did not agree, and the show opened on Saturday, October 28, without Yaseen’s painting and Ahmad’s text panel. The show was also missing text about a historic Jewish water pitcher, which has since been put back on display.
That afternoon, around 50 supporters rallied outside the museum to call for the works to be reinstated. Yaseen and Ahmad entered the exhibition, where Yaseen recreated her original work on a canvas cloth that she placed on the floor at her feet. The two women refused to leave when the museum closed, remaining inside the show overnight for 18 hours. The next morning, ROM agreed to display the artists’ work as originally shown at the Field Museum, with the addition of contextualizing panels.
The museum closed per its normal schedule on Sunday and Monday. It reopened on Tuesday, October 31, but Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery was shuttered. A museum spokesperson said this closure was necessary to prepare the finalized installations.
The museum said in a November 1 statement that it apologized “for the pain and frustration caused during this process.”
Now, warnings and context panels are included in the newly opened show. A plaque near Yaseen’s painting reads, “The nearby panel includes an image dealing with death during conflict that some might find disturbing. If you prefer not to see this content, go past this area.” Two others note that the text reflects the experiences of the creators.
The string of actions culminated in an event yesterday afternoon on the museum’s front steps. Around 20 artists and activists gathered at the entrance to ROM, which is flanked by banners advertising the Death exhibition. They brought offerings to a large-scale ofrenda, a traditional Mexican display to commemorate deceased loved ones and draw their souls back into the world with gifts and offerings, created for the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces over the past month.
Another artist in the exhibition, Norma Rios-Sierra, had created an ofrenda for the show that celebrated her late father, who died from COVID-19. Since the museum had closed abruptly, her work could not be exhibited on November 1, Día de los Muertos, the day when ofrendas are traditionally installed inside Mexican homes.
Outside ROM, artists and activists left offerings ranging from oranges to incense at a large-scale version of Rios-Sierra’s work, the original still inside the shuttered exhibition galleries.
“These moments where we are able to gather and show our solidarity are precious to me, and this gesture felt like a way to be together with spirit in a time of extreme grief,” said Alize Zorlutuna, a Toronto-based artist. He contributed an offering from a 2021 artwork — a jar of Palestinian olive oil infused with za’atar he grew in his garden. “Just to gather with others who stand against censorship, stand against occupation on the Palestinian side — it’s important to my spirit to keep going with the struggle.”