Exhibiting Resistance: Queer Legacies Spark Protest at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe): Untitled [Portrait lying on leopard skin], 1939, gelatin silver print. © Jersey Heritage.

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In a 1916 photograph, Claude Cahun, twenty-two years old, her hair cropped close, comes off as tender yet guarded. She leans against a wall of asymmetrical, rectangular slabs of granite outlined in white concrete and looks at the camera, which is held by her collaborator, Marcel Moore. Unlike the home-studio portraits exploring dreamscapes and gender flux that characterize the better part of Cahun and Moore’s forty-year artistic and romantic partnership, Untitled (Portrait of Claude near a Granite Wall) passes as a snapshot. Across the chasm of a century, I saw in this image a chilling reflection of myself: gender nonconforming, white, and Jewish, taking up dissent with the modest artistic tools available to me.

“Show Me as I Want to Be Seen,” an exhibition on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco through July 7, is a rare opportunity to see Cahun and Moore’s original prints from the Jersey Heritage Collection. On average, the pictures are three by five inches; the display of these small objects, however sturdily presented in frames, recalls a pocket album or a desk drawer scattered with treasured souvenirs. These images destabilize gender through cumulative contrast. In one, Cahun lies nude on a beach, revealing her backside through tangles of seaweed that evoke rope bondage. In another portrait she appears as a solarized tough guy, popping a blazer collar and looking at the camera.

At the entrance to the exhibition, the couple’s photomontages are reproduced as wall-mounted vinyl prints that include the edges of the pages from which they were scanned. They reveal the surrealism that inflected the artists’ work: mannequin hands and tilting chess boards hover amid kaleidoscopic repetitions of Cahun’s bald head. These photomontages and accompanying prose were originally published in Cahun’s 1925 anti-memoir Aveux non avenues by Editions de Carrefour. It was their most widely distributed work—at a modest five hundred copies. The book was first published in English as Disavowals: or Cancelled Confessions in 2008; Cahun and Moore only entered the canon of Western photography in the late 1990s.

“Show Me” is a selectively nostalgic celebration of nonnormative sexuality and vibrant creative lives, which Cahun and Moore could afford thanks to family wealth. In 1937, the two moved from the avant-garde milieu of Paris to Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. Three years later, the island was occupied by Nazis, and when Cahun and Moore were not making art, they intercepted and scrambled radio transmissions from German U-boats. They were captured, and narrowly escaped a death sentence when the war ended. In Untitled (Portrait of Claude with Nazi insignia between her teeth), 1945, Cahun wears a scarf over her hair, grown out from the shaven head of her youth. She stands with a butch authority: one hand in the pocket of her trench coat, the other in the pocket of her baggy trousers. As if commemorating her release from prison, Cahun smiles subversively with a Nazi badge—possibly torn from a uniform—in her mouth.

Cahun and Moore inspired Natasha Matteson, assistant curator at the CJM, to explore how race, gender, and sexuality are visualized through various mediums and methods by ten contemporary artists. Their works are interspersed with Cahun and Moore’s, and the connections among them are at times literal. The petulant pose Cahun strikes as a heavily made-up bodybuilder in Untitled (I am in training don’t kiss me), 1927, matches that of Tschabalala Self’s multilayered figure in Perched (2016): both sit cross-legged and twist to face the viewer. Others are more thematic. Davina Semo’s sculpture SHE SHOUTS BECAUSE IT MAKES HER BRAVE, OR SHE WANTS TO ANNOUNCE HER RECKLESSNESS (2018) is a concrete slab coated with shattered auto glass. It sparkles but does not reflect, suggestive of Cahun’s poetic refusal to define herself.

Matteson activates a dialogue among Cahun, Moore, and the ten other artists by asking how art can respond to forces that marginalize targeted identities. Meanwhile, another framework for “Show Me” was offered by artists Micah Bazant and Jordan Reznick, lead organizers of a protest against the exhibition, who arrived on opening night with a crew chanting slogans and holding signs; one read UNMASK ISRAELI APARTHEID, perhaps referring to an iconic image in which Cahun wears a cape decorated with party masks. The protest’s main accusation was that “Show Me” engages in pinkwashing, a term describing Israel’s use of a media and cultural campaign of accepting LGBTQ people in its society, while falsely framing Palestinian Muslims as transphobic and homophobic, in part to distract from the horrors of Israel’s ongoing militarized occupation of Palestine. Reznick told me in an email that Cahun and Moore function as “role models . . . not only because they were queer and trans but because of their radical politics.” Their example moved the protestors to “come forward more publicly about the museum’s complicity with Israel’s abuses of human rights.”

The protests ask: if Cahun and Moore were alive today, how would they would disentangle their Jewishness from the ethnostate of Israel? The CJM receives money from the Israeli Consulate through the Brand Israel initiative, which promotes a positive image of the country overseas, and the Koret Foundation, which also funds a plethora of organizations and institutions that are attempting to defend Israel amid a growing movement for solidarity with Palestine. I worked toward understanding the funding situation by reading Jasmine Weber’s “Protesters Accuse SF Contemporary Jewish Museum of Pinkwashing” on Hyperallergic and Zoé Samudzi’s article on the exhibition on Medium. Like Weber, Samudzi chose not to illustrate her text with images of the works in “Show Me,” instead using documentation of the opening night protest. Samudzi also reproduces the protesters’ pamphlet, which prominently features the line “There will be no freedom until everyone is Free,” from the 1938 Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art—a statement signed by Cahun. The pamphlet’s text argues that Cahun and Moore’s art cannot be sanitized and extricated from their political activism, which was based on the same principles of freedom and equality that lie at the foundation of the present-day movement for Palestinian self-determination.

Protestors have asked the public not to support the museum by buying tickets—a demand aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. The protests have succeeded in raising awareness about the CJM’s funding. But the accusations of pinkwashing seem tenuous because Brand Israel is not directly involved in this exhibition. “Show Me” does not feature any Israeli artists or pro-Israel content. Was the museum consciously pinkwashing? Or was “Show Me” just intertwined in the daily operation of an institution and its collaboration with nefarious political powers (which, it should be added, are made no less nefarious when the institution shows art that challenges the status quo)?

While I am in support of the protesters’ aims, I also considered how their demands for justice are already embedded in the artworks on view in “Show Me.” Semo’s sculpture “I WON’T BOTHER YOU” SHE SAID (2019) punctures the wall of the gallery, a narrow diamond-shaped incision lined with stainless steel. The work could be read as a literal and metaphorical attack on the institution, breaking it apart from the inside.

I went to see “Show Me” on a quiet weekday afternoon. No protest was orchestrated out front. I was breaking the “picket line” set by the protesters, but I gave the museum no money; I used my business card from a one-year fellowship at the Jewish History Museum (JHM) in Tucson, Arizona, to get in free. A month earlier, my friend had texted me a photo of my book The Estrangement Principle displayed in the CJM gift shop. She teased me that I had been pinkwashed. My being “out” as anti-Zionist—I identified as such on two panels at the Council of American Jewish Museums Conference, and organized a reading group on the recently released anthology The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History at the JHM—refuses and complicates the “use” of my queer and trans identity by institutions to appear progressive. I do not follow the scripts to avoid discussion of the occupation. While they are not as immediately visible as protests, actions taken by workers inside museums can also function as forms of resistance.

The protests were met with silence from the CJM and my request to interview Matteson was politely declined. I imagined a future when an exhibition like “Show Me,” predicts and even responds publicly to the contradictions between themes in the exhibition and museum’s funding through dialogue and discussion. This type of programming cannot happen if an institution’s leaders censor critique of the Israeli occupation to appease funders. Bazant also envisions a paradigm shift: in an email to Hyperallergic, they write, “As trans Jewish artists, we dream of a Jewish museum that embodies the Jewish values of justice and solidarity . . . a space that actively supports liberation struggles.” Jewish museums in the United States are particularly well positioned as educational sites for narrating the role of conquest and dispossession in the creation of the state of Israel and its ongoing occupation. In the meantime, museum workers, visitors, educators, writers, artists, and activists—and those who identify as some or all of the above, as I do—are speaking to each other at the edges of institutions about how to subvert and ultimately change support for the Israeli occupation in the United States and, more broadly, how to undo ties between the commerce of war in halls of culture.

Hiwa K’s Pre-image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), is a single-channel video installation tucked in the back corner of “Show Me.” Recreating a journey—by foot—he made when migrating as a child from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe through the Turkey–Greece border, K balances a sculpture of tiered rearview mirrors pointing down and around him like shower faucets. The mirrors capture faint, fragmented reflections of the artist’s environment as he walks. I took it as a subtle reminder that viewers can see beyond the words of the museum, as well as of those who critique the terms on which museums present art.