In the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned immigration and travel from seven majority Muslim countries – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. The move led to outrage from human rights groups and the eruption of protests across the country. Last Thursday, February 2nd, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) began to stage a silent art resistance in response to the ban. In an unprecedented political act, the museum replaced eight pieces of art in its permanent collections with work by artists from some of the seven countries affected by Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Art history mainstays by famed figures such as Picasso and Matisse were replaced by work by Sudanese-born Ibrahim El-Salahi, Iraqi artist Zaha Hadid, and Marcos Grigorian, Tala Madani, Parviz Tanavoli, Siah Armajani, Shirana Shahbazi, and Charles Hossein Zeneroudi who are all from Iran. There will be another rehang this week to incorporate more artists from the remainder of the countries and on February 13th, the museum will begin to screen a series of films by artist from the seven nations.
This recent action by MoMA was significant in several ways. The location of the rehang, on the fifth floor, which usually houses beloved works of Western modernism, was especially meaningful as it literally placed the work of Muslim artists on the same level of importance as famed paintings such as van Gogh’s Starry Night refuting the oft-held idea that Western art is superior to other forms of visual expression.
In the past, the museum, like many other major art institutions, has chosen to remain politically neutral. The rehang not only shows that MoMA is against Trump’s message of xenophobia, it also demonstrates how few areas are exempt from politics. With the onset of the travel ban, foreign artists who very recently moved freely across borders now may face restrictions. “Art for art’s sake” may be a fading form in the next couple of years as presidential policies seep into all aspects of life.
Each freshly displayed piece at the MoMA has an accompanying description that reads: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry to the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum as they are to the United States.” The pieces are on display now.