Two artists say East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio is removing their art installation from scheduled public programming over its inclusion of a Palestinian flag. Odalys Burgoa and Roy Baizan were asked to create a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar for the institution, but were notified by the museum last week that the work would not be shown out of concern that certain elements would make people feel “alienated” and “uncomfortable,” the artists said.
Hyperallergic contacted El Museo del Barrio for comment. The museum, which is closed to the public on Mondays, confirmed that it had received Hyperallergic‘s inquiry.
Titled “Recordar y Unificar,” the altar was created as a dual-purpose display for the museum’s café and for its Afterlife Fiesta fundraiser slated for tomorrow, October 24, Burgoa and Baizan told Hyperallergic in an email. The installation “pays homage not only to loved ones lost in the community, but also to those who were dedicated to creating change in East Harlem,” the artists explained, adding that they had always intended “to celebrate revolutionaries who create change in the community” through the altar.
“We were clear that it was always political,” Burgoa said.
Drawing inspiration from outdoor memorial altars, Burgoa and Baizan spent October 10 through October 16 constructing “Recordar y Unificar” out of recycled milk crates, colorful fabrics, vibrant marigolds, and tall candles. The display highlights revolutionary theory and historical figures such as Party of the Poor leader Lucio Cabañas Barrientos, Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, and Black Panther Party leader George Jackson through digital collages and QR codes linked to literature, films, and biographies.
With protest banners and signage, the altar also connects these past movements to ongoing grassroots struggles against institutional oppression and state violence, such as the current effort to hold Mexican authorities accountable for their complicity in the September 2014 mass abduction of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College.
“In remembering these people we are also calling for unification,” Burgoa explained. “We wanted people to learn about these figures while paying respects to their loved ones.”
On Tuesday, when the artists were fixing the final details on the display, they decided to include a Palestinian flag to reference the ongoing Palestinian struggle for liberation. Two days later, they said, museum staff contacted them with concerns about the work, noting that the inclusion of a Palestinian flag was not mentioned in their initial proposal for the altar.
“I told them that I had included the Palestinian flag because there are so many Palestinian families that have been displaced and murdered and Israel has support from the US and other imperialist powers,” Baizan told Hyperallergic. Baizan pointed out that the museum staff did not appear to take issue with the altar’s reference to the Ayotzinapa kidnapping — another element that was not included in their proposal.
“We knew [the call] was about the flag,” Baizan said.
The artists said that they offered to put up a sign noting that the altar’s political views belonged to them and not the institution. However, the following day, the artists were notified that the altar would not be included in upcoming programming. The installation is currently in the museum, but not viewable to the public.
The same day, Friday, October 20, El Museo’s Executive Director Patrick Charpenel released a statement expressing the museum’s support of human rights and a “peaceful resolution in the Middle East.”
“Recently, we have witnessed horrific violence and loss of life in Israel and Gaza, impacting communities in the Middle East, the United States, Latin America, and throughout the world,” Charpenel said in the public statement, posted to Instagram. Urging world leaders to “present a resolution to this conflict,” Charpenel explained that El Museo will continue to welcome visitors of all backgrounds, beliefs, and viewpoints, especially during these “fraught times.”
Below El Museo’s post, users on social media expressed disappointment with the museum’s statement, which they observed failed to mention Israel’s occupation of Palestine as well as the current airstrikes and collective siege that the Israeli state has been inflicting on Palestinians since October 7.
“The Palestinian flag was once banned by Israel to the point where artists began using the colors in different forms like artwork of watermelons,” Baizan said, pointing out the historical parallels between the Palestinian flag and Puerto Rican flag, which was censored from 1948 to 1957 under a gag law to repress the island’s independence movement.
“This isn’t neutrality and it’s clear where they stand,” the artists said.