clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

MoMA’s subtle act of protest against Trump is a quiet but powerful show of resistance

The museum’s adjustments to a popular exhibit make it impossible to ignore the people behind the pieces.

“The Peak Project, Hong Kong, China,” Zaha Hadid (1991)
Caroline Framke / Vox

Resistance to the Trump administration has taken the form of rallies, speeches, fundraisers, boycotts, fervent Facebook posts, a sea of knitted pink hats. It’s been loud, determinedly visible, and often furious.

So if you walk through the stark halls of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, you might not immediately peg it as a site of fiery protest. But thanks to some pointed tweaks to the museum’s most iconic exhibit — the 1880s–1950s collection — that’s exactly what the museum has become.

As the New York Times reported last week, MoMA has quietly taken down several Western works by artists like Matisse and Picasso in favor of pieces from those like British-Iraqi painter Zaha Hadid and Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi — in other words, artists from the countries included under President Trump’s recent attempts to crack down on immigration via executive order.

And as the order continues to be debated and restrained in court, MoMA confirmed to Vox that “there is no scheduled end date” for this display. In fact, said MoMA director Margaret Doyle, they “expect more works from the banned countries to be installed.”

So far, there are seven such pieces on display throughout MoMA’s third floor; the country most represented as of now is Iran. Each work is accompanied by the usual description of the piece itself, as well as a statement explaining why MoMA is now highlighting it:

This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan. 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.

When I went to go see the exhibit, I wasn’t sure what to expect, or if these pieces would be displayed prominently enough for me to find without badgering some over-it security guard into pointing them out. But my question was answered the minute I walked into the first room, slid past the group crowding Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and immediately came face to face with Hadid’s “The Peak Project.”

“Starry Night” is one of the museum’s most famous pieces; going to MoMA without seeing it would be like going to Wendy’s and not ordering the #6 spicy chicken sandwich. Putting Hadid’s piece right across from this landmark acquisition is a pointed way of making sure more people see it, that tourists strolling through will be forced to think about the people Trump’s ban affects in between the crowd-pleasing Impressionists.

And so I did. I wandered from room to room, taking longer pauses in front of el-Salahi’s painting “The Mosque” and Parviz Tanavoli’s sculpture The Prophet. I stood in front of Tala Madani’s animated video project “Chit Chat,” so transfixed by the men stop-motion vomiting yellow ribbons of paint at each other that I didn’t realize I’d watched it loop four times until some kid on a sugar rush almost mowed me down.

As I was getting ready to head out, I got a text from my parents, asking me to track down the contribution from Iranian-Armenian artist Marcos Grigorian. I didn’t question it, but I did a quick Google search for his name to make sure I knew what to look for — and realized with a rush that I knew him.

“Untitled” (1963), Marcos Grigorian.
Caroline Framke / Vox

I’d read his name in the New York Times article and not even registered it, because to my family and me, Grigorian was always just Marco, my grandmother’s wildly talented friend.

I grew up with Marco’s paintings on our walls. Stories of his friendship with my grandmother were emblematic of the life she lived in Iran as Janet Lazarian: Culture Critic, whose passion became fostering artists’ careers through her own gallery. I finally met Marco in Armenia my senior year of high school, a year before he died.

I found his piece, 1963’s “Untitled,” a mixed work of mud and sand, around the corner from the main exhibition’s entrance. I read the description and the statement. I took a moment for the person behind the piece — just as MoMA intended.

Marcos Grigorian and Janet Lazarian in Armenia, 2006
Caroline Framke

Corrected to reflect that “Starry Night” is by Van Gogh, not Monet.