Art Censorship

Two troubling instances of art censorship, one in Markham and one at the Royal Ontario Museum
Nov. 17, 2023

Queer Public Artwork Cancelled in Markham

A large 120 x 37-foot photo collage, titled Bicycle, was printed and ready to go on the outside of the Pan Am Centre in Markham, ON, just north of Toronto.

But days before the Sept. 10 premiere, Vancouver-based artist Julian Yi-Zhong Hou was notified it would not be going up.

Hou had been invited a year before by the City of Markham’s public art curator, Yan Wu, to contribute one piece to the city’s series of public art installations Façade. The exhibit was supported by the public art curator of the Art Gallery of York University. Hou told The Grind it had received all necessary approvals and was ready to be installed in September, until it was cancelled at the last minute, with no reason provided.

Hou, along with the subject photographed in the piece, James Albers (a.k.a. Lady Boi Bangkok), and a representative of York Region Pride, Grant Peckford, went public about the cancellation a month later.

“While we cannot know the precise motivation for the last-minute cancellation, we are concerned by what can most easily be read as a politically-driven, fearful response to public representation of queer bodies, and specifically, a subject in drag,” they write in a statement.

When pressed, the City said in a statement that the artwork was not “inclusive and sensitive to all.”

The statement goes on to apologize to the artist and say that the City is committed to finding an alternative opportunity to show the piece.

As of Nov 6., Hou tells The Grind the City has not contacted him about unveiling the piece elsewhere.

“They also did not apologize to me directly about the cancellation, but instead only to the CBC [and other media],” Hou says.

About the Artwork

Hou tells The Grind:

“I was interested in the demographics of Markham and how it has radically shifted over the past while. There are a lot of Asian people living there now, and I was interested in this demographic hybridity. James being himself half Asian and half Caucasian, I thought they would be an interesting embodiment of that hybridity.

"I also insert a lot of symbolism. There is the Chinese character from the ‘I Ching’ divination method on the clothing. There are references to mystical practices that are both from China, and Cartomancy, which is more of a European tradition of divination.”

James performs in drag as Lady Boi Bangkok on the left side of the piece, while on the right they appear "as themself, as gender-fluid, how he or they identify," says Hou.

“I was interested in gender performance on the left side of the image, contrasting with gender fluidity [on the right]," they explain.

Hou hired fashion photographers, thinking they could "help the subject matter fit the landscape, because people are so used to seeing fashion images."

"I knew on some level if it’s the mysticism or the objects being queer, that [the piece] would be novel in a way. But I thought with fashion [photography], it could help it blend in more.”

Hou hopes to exhibit Bicycle in Vancouver in the spring.

ROM Censors Palestinian-American Artists

Jenin Yaseen and Sameerah Ahmad, two Palestinian-American artists, were recently censored by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) when staff made changes to Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery.

The exhibition explores death rituals from around the world. But the museum had removed a panel with the word “Palestine” without the artists’ permission, as well as other elements relating to Palestine, and Muslim mourning traditions.

The artists took to Instagram and then staged an 18-hour sit-in starting Oct. 28. From their account, r0mystery, they posted that the ROM’s actions made it “complicit in the dehumanization of Palestinians in both life and death.”  

Feeling the heat, the ROM backtracked and on Nov. 3 agreed to reinstate the work in full, saying it had made the changes “to keep the focus of the exhibition on the cultural practices, rituals, and science surrounding life and death, rather than current events.”

However, on their Instagram account that same day, the artists said the ROM had not restored their work to its original — by redesigning it, incorrectly labeling items, misattributing quotes and misspelling names. They also say there was “a significant discrepancy in the way the English was translated into French, which completely changes the original words and meaning.”

The ROM added labels saying that the views expressed in the artwork did not reflect those of the museum. This includes what the artists describe as a discriminatory content warning on a barrier installed while approaching the green burial display.

The point of the exhibit, said Yaseen, was precisely to help Palestinians be seen as more than just statistics. “They’re human beings with dreams and hopes, and they’re being completely eradicated,” she said.

The traveling exhibit began earlier this year at Chicago’s Field Museum, where it was not censored. It’s on display at the ROM until April 7.

These articles appear in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue.