A Whitney Biennial artist’s hidden message, ‘Free Palestine,’ asks viewers to take a long look

A Whitney Biennial artist’s hidden message, ‘Free Palestine,’ asks viewers to take a long look - World - News

Indigenous Artist Demian DinéYazhi´ Hides “Free Palestine” Message in Whitney Biennial Installation

The contemporary artwork of Indigenous artist Demian DinéYazhi´, showcased at the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York City, holds a hidden message that was unknown to the exhibit’s curators. This subtle yet poignant detail, revealed through flickering neon letters across the artwork’s three stanzas, spells out “Free Palestine.”

Titled “we must stop imagining apocalypse / genocide + we must imagine liberation,” the installation is a significant addition to the 81st edition of this influential exhibition, which features over 70 artists and collectives. The Biennial, known for spotlighting emerging American talent and often a focal point for political discourse and protests, now includes this powerful piece.

In an exclusive conversation with Art Mag, DinéYazhi´ shared their inspiration behind the installation: “It became an opportunity to have a commentary on current world events and do so in a way that was respectful to people’s humanity and dignity.”

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has claimed the lives of over 31,000 people in Gaza and displaced at least 1.7 million since October. Calls for a ceasefire and an independent Palestinian state have intensified, as recent violence has left a deep scar on both sides of the conflict.

For DinéYazhi´, “Free Palestine” symbolizes more than just an end to the ongoing violence; it represents a permanent ceasefire and the right to self-determination for Palestinian peoples. It also invites us to ponder what building future societies could look like if we were all liberated from divisive and oppressive political systems.

The artist’s poem, a call to action against destruction, extraction, genocide, and deforestation, forms the basis for the neon sign. The use of neon, collaboratively created with the New York-based studio Lite Bright Neon, carries a multilayered meaning for DinéYazhi´.

The neon sign’s ubiquity along Route 66 in New Mexico, where the artist grew up, is a reference to the commercial exploitation of Indigenous culture. The red neon at the Whitney is just one part of DinéYazhi´’s color palette; they have also used vivid yellow neon to highlight the exploitative history of uranium extraction in countries like Hawaii.

The artist’s decision to showcase their work at the Whitney was a delicate one. While they found the curatorial team supportive, DinéYazhi´ remains critical of the museum as a settler colonial institution in New York City, which was once the land of the Lenape people.

Despite concerns about potential backlash, DinéYazhi´ expresses hope that their installation will inspire visitors to engage with the complexities of the issues presented and to reflect on the larger implications for Indigenous communities.

As a parting thought, DinéYazhi´ shares their hope that people will walk away from the Biennial with renewed hope and a call to action: “We are still beautiful, powerful beings that can build loving communities and care for one another, beyond our differences.”