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Indiana University abruptly canceled a Palestinian artist's exhibit. It's now sold out

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After a month of protests, the life and work of an accomplished Palestinian artist will be featured in a theater in Bloomington, Ind. The show is called "Samia Halaby Uncanceled." And the one-day event comes after a battle over academic freedom, censorship and politics. Here's Aubrey Wright of member station WFIU.

AUBREY WRIGHT, BYLINE: The artist, Samia Halaby, is in her late 80s now. Halaby's family fled Palestine in 1948 and settled in the Midwest. She completed a master's in fine arts at Indiana University in the '60s and later served as a faculty member. She's one of the university's most successful artists, and she's recognized as a pioneer of abstract art.

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SAMIA HALABY: I am trying my best to reduce what I have been trying to do all throughout my career - remove perspective, remove shading, remove shape and just arrive at a space of light and depth.

WRIGHT: That's Halaby in a featured artist talk at IU's Eskenazi Museum of Art in 2021. For three years, museum curators and Halaby's team worked on a homecoming exhibit that was supposed to open this February. But the white walls of the museum are bare, and the exhibit room is dark and empty. The university abruptly canceled the exhibit late last year. In the two-sentence email, the museum director said there were security concerns. It was a decision that upset the artist and her grand-niece and collaborator, Madison Gordon. Gordon says they tried to learn more for weeks.

MADISON GORDON: We asked to have a conversation. We asked for them to elaborate more in writing what this was about. We heard nothing.

WRIGHT: And there was no further explanation. The university declined multiple requests for interviews. But in another email, a university spokesperson said campus officials and academic leaders made the decision. A month later, IU Provost Rahul Shrivastav did speak publicly about the controversy. He says the exhibit would have been a lightning rod for protests on campus, and IU's leaders were being cautious.

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RAHUL SHRIVASTAV: Any time where you feel the risks are higher than the reward, we have to rethink that situation.

WRIGHT: But it was that decision which sparked protests on campus - many of them.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

WRIGHT: Many protesters say Halaby's abstract art is not political. Faculty, students and university staff like Reed Hepburn say IU administration is threatening academic freedom and censoring Palestinian voices.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

REED HEPBURN: It's just so very clear that this is, you know, identity-based discrimination, which is completely against the values that IU stands for.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

WRIGHT: American Studies chair Alex Lichtenstein also protested because he says he's worried about this cancellation.

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ALEX LICHTENSTEIN: I've learned that I have been very, very naive about the state of academic freedom on this campus.

WRIGHT: And math professor Elizabeth Housworth says, with all the attention and controversy over the Israel-Hamas war, the university is silencing a Palestinian voice when it's needed most. She was deeply troubled by the university's vague explanation.

ELIZABETH HOUSWORTH: It seemed like we were canceling one side of the issue, and I felt it was wrong.

WRIGHT: So Housworth used her own money, and with support from private donors and Halaby's studio, she organized "Samia Halaby Uncanceled." It's a one-day exhibit that features artwork, videos and documentaries about Halaby's life and career.

HOUSWORTH: This is the event for people who want to understand what we are missing.

WRIGHT: A lot of people, apparently, do want to know what this is. "Samia Halaby Uncanceled" is sold out. And later this summer, the artist's IU exhibit will be shown at Michigan State University, where she earned her bachelor's degree. Halaby says that exhibit was supposed to show her love for the Midwest. For NPR News, I'm Aubrey Wright in Bloomington, Ind.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENE EVARO SONG, "WITH LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aubrey Wright