Kunsthalle Basel Backs Its Newly Appointed Director After Backlash

Hundreds of arts professionals have signed a petition in support of Mohamed Almusibli.

Mohamed Almusibli. Photo courtesy of Kunsthalle Basel.

The announcement this week that Mohamed Almusibli will be the next director of the prestigious Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland became mired in controversy when a local paper criticized the choice, pointing out that Almusibli recently signed two open letters in support of Palestine. A petition in solidarity with the incoming director is circulating online and had over 2,000 signatories at the time of publishing.

Born and raised in Geneva, Almusibli is set to replace current director Elena Filipovic in March next year, when she leaves to steer the Kunstmuseum Basel. Aged 33, the Swiss curator was previously a consultant for Amsterdam’s Hartwig Art Foundation, co-directed by Beatrix Ruf. He is a co-founding director of the independent project space Cherish. The museum stated its support for its new director.

“In the last few years, Cherish has put together an outstanding exhibition program that introduces new, crucial voices to Swiss institutions,” said a German museum director who has known Almusibli for years. “He has great integrity and is very knowledgable in both the Swiss and international context.” They also found it refreshing to see a young person of color fill the position at Kunsthalle Basel, adding that “we are witnessing a change in what people in power look like, and how they get there.”

Immediately after his appointment this week, the Basler Zeitung (BaZ) addressed the decision in a comment piece. It laid out questions directed at the Kunsthalle, inquiring whether the Basler Kunstverein (Basel Art Association), which sponsors the Kunsthalle, was aware that Almusibli had signed the letters and whether they considered this to be a problem. “Does the association now fear the withdrawal of foundation funds, specifically from Jewish foundations?” the authors asked. “As a signatory to these letters, can Mr. Almusibli reconcile with his conscience the idea of ​​showing artists of Jewish faith or Israeli origin at the Kunsthalle Basel in the future?”

Geumhyung Jeong, "Homemade RC Toy," installation view, Kunsthalle Basel, 2019. Photo: Philipp Hänger.

View of the interior of Kunsthalle Basel, including the work of Geumhyung Jeong. Kunsthalle Basel, 2019. Photo: Philipp Hänger.

One question posed in the article seemed not to refer to Almusibli’s political views, but questioned the curator’s background. “Does Mr. Almusibli speak German or understand German?” the paper asked. It had previously emphasized the new director’s origins with the headline: “This Genevan won against 90 competitors.”

“That had undertones of Islamophobia,” commented a German museum director who has known Almusibi for years (Almusibi is Swiss, with some Yemeni heritage). “I’ve often seen this questioning of language skills as a masked way to speak about race. There’s this idea of creating a globally relevant institutional program, but are you actually creating spaces that feel safe and productive for that to emerge?”

The article calls attention to an open letter signed by the new director, which was published by Artists for Palestine U.K. on October 17. “Our governments are not only tolerating war crimes but aiding and abetting them,” the signatories pledged, adding “our obligation is to do all we can to bring an end to the unprecedented cruelty being inflicted on Gaza.” It was signed by actor Tilda Swinton and thousands of academics, curators, architects, musicians, and filmmakers.

Almusibli also signed a letter published by Artforum on October 19 that stated, “silence at this urgent time of crisis and escalating genocide is not a politically neutral position.” He was joined by artists Nan Goldin and Barbara Kruger, as well as some others, like Katharina Grosse, who later removed their names after a backlash against the letter arose. Penske Media, which owns Artforum, fired the magazine’s editor-in-chief David Velasco. The move sparked condemnation including a string of resignations from its longtime staff and calls for a boycott of the legacy publication.

David Velasco at Fondazione Prada on April 18, 2018 in Milan, Italy. Photo by Pietro D’Aprano/Getty Images for Fondazione Prada.

The principal criticism of the two letters, as stated in the local press, was that neither acknowledged the attacks by Hamas against Israel on October 7. A few days after it was published, the authors of the Artforum letter added an update that condemned these “horrific massacres.”

The association released the following statement in response to the article: “The Basel Art Association is pleased about the election of the Swiss curator Mohamed Almusibli as director and senior curator of the Kunsthalle Basel. Together, the Basel Art Association and Mr. Mohamed Almusibli condemn all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discrimination, sexism, and other group-related inhumanity.”

A member of Switzerland’s right-wing populist party, Joël Thüring, wrote a statement on X calling for the local government to suspend public funding of the Kunsthalle if the museum’s board does not revoke the appointment. “An institution that is supported with state money must never be run by an Israel hater,” he said.

An online petition addressing the Basler Kunstverein was written in response to the BaZ article and signed by more than 2,000 arts professionals. It recognized the present moment as one of “rapidly increasing polarization” and “an alarming rise in antisemitic as well as anti-Arab sentiment.” “This often is incited by inflammatory and short-handed media coverage,” the letter’s authors added, highlighting the need “to be steadfast in our position against censorship” and defend freedom of expression.

“I’m not saying the Artforum letter was not problematic,” said the German museum director, “but it does not justify the intensity of the pressure that not only Mohamed is under, but also the Kunsthalle, political representatives, and funding bodies. Everyone knows withdrawing funding is the ultimate power move. Nothing will make people as nervous.”

Almusibli commented to local press outlet BZ: “I have to acknowledge that I have provoked accusations that are decidedly not my opinion.” The publication said the curator firmly opposes any form of anti-Semitism and regrets his signatures, which do not do justice to the complexity of the situation and his positions.

For its part, the Basler Kunstverein, noted to the press that it was shocked by the sometimes “openly racist and hateful reactions.” “We hope that the Basel public will give Mohamed Almusibli the chance to prove his great talent as a curator,” it added.


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