From: Lorenzo Legarda Leviste <––––––––––>
Date: Tue, Feb 20, 2024 at 12:49 AM
Subject: Censorship and repression at the Barbican
To: –––––––––––––––, ––––––––––, –––––––––––––
Cc: –––––––, –––––, ––––––––––––, Fahad Mayet <––––––––>

Dear –––––, ––––– and –––––– 
I hope you're doing well. I’m Lorenzo – my husband Fahad and I are lenders to Unravel. The two quilts by Loretta Pettway included in the exhibition are some of my most meaningful works in our collection, and I’m thrilled that this important historical material is being shared with the public. Congratulations on opening this landmark show, and for putting together such a rich and ambitious catalogue.

I am moved by the project’s deep commitment to the political and conceptual capacities of textile as a medium, which in itself is a political gesture, as well as a curatorial position. It’s an assertion that’s intellectually provocative and exciting on paper, but in person I found emotional, raw, sumptuous, painful, of course beautiful. It’s an overwhelming show in the best way.

With this context in mind, I am writing to you deeply disturbed about the recent case of censorship and repression by the Barbican. On February 6th, it was reported by the Guardian that an annual London Review of Books lecture series due to take place at the Barbican was cancelled by “senior leadership” after one of the talks, by Pankaj Mishra, was advertised to be about Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. The Barbican claims that the event was advertised “prematurely,” that “no official agreement to host the talk was in place” and that “careful preparation [was] needed for this sensitive content.” The LRB denies this and says it was cancelled “at a late stage.”

I cannot understate how disturbing and alarming this blatant act of repression (and lack of transparency) by the Barbican is: one of the country’s most important arts institutions censoring one of the country’s most respected public intellectuals and literary publications from speaking openly about crimes committed by Israel that we are all watching with our own eyes, on our phones, daily; crimes that are currently being investigated by the International Court of Justice. The message it sends to arts institutions across the UK, and the precedent it sets for further suppression of speech, is chilling. It should horrify us all that this is the liberal democracy we are told we live in.

–––––, in your conversation with ––––– and –––––––– in the catalogue, you speak about artists’ use of textiles and fiber “to grapple with systems of power and hierarchies, and therefore histories and lived experiences of oppression and extraction... Knowledge systems that have been extracted, co-opted and appropriated through colonialism” (pp. 11–12). Your focus on the rootedness of fiber and fabric in indigenous knowledge (and thus, art making) is powerful, and your accounting of the suppression of indigenous practices by Western colonialism as “a history of violence” (p. 17) is necessary, as is Julia Bryan-Wilson’s insistence that “textiles manifest both ‘radical politics and radical forms of making’” (p. 13). Her proposition that textiles “‘indicate a procedure of making politics material’” (p. 13) is a current that palpably, and admirably, runs through the exhibition. I take very seriously all your labor that went into this project (including the urgent essays by Julia, Miguel López and Denise Ferreira da Silva), and appreciate particularly its insistence to confront, to challenge, to redress how textile as a medium has been framed in society and the history of art.

It is with grim irony, then, that the idea for the project emerged “with the backdrop of the insidious rise of the far right and fascist politics across the world” (p. 16), as the institution for which it was developed exerts its own forms of fascist Zionist repression. The Barbican’s late-stage cancellation of the LRB lecture series cannot be viewed in any other way than censorship. It is the violent functioning of the very same “systems of power” (p. 11) that ––––– writes about in the catalogue, happening in the same building as an exhibition that seeks to uphold “stories of dissent, disobedience and resistance,” as ––––– contends (p. 12). The LRB, as establishment and innocuous as it gets, hardly even classifies as “dissent” - with what logic can the Barbican defend this dissonance in its programming and decision-making? Just last year, after public backlash, the Barbican publicly apologized after an event in which ––––––––––––, co-founder of the Bethlehem-based Radio Alhara, was told to “avoid talking about free Palestine… to safeguard the audience,” as reported in the Guardian. Anti-Palestinian racism looks to be deep-seated at the Barbican, part of a long history of documented racist violence enacted by the institution that it has sought to rectify internally, seemingly to little avail.

It is in this light that we are seriously considering withdrawing the quilts by Loretta Pettway from the exhibition. We vehemently reject the normalization of the Barbican’s climate of censorship and repression, and ask for accountability from this publicly funded institution. I am writing to you as curators who have developed an exhibition that explicitly aligns itself with values of openness, solidarity, resistance and liberation. What the Barbican has done in cancelling the LRB lectures cannot be accepted and go unchecked, because it is from this repression that fascism emerges and our freedoms eroded. It is from this repression that many artists in the exhibition were compelled to weave and sew and stitch and make.

I am asking that the Barbican directly addresses our following concerns:

1. Transparency regarding internal processes
  • How are risk assessments done?
  • Who has the authority to censor public conversations - the director, the board, the ethics committee, heads of departments, etc?
  • Who made the decision to cancel the LRB lecture series?
  • Who oversees internal investigations, and how are these investigations held?

2. The Barbican’s anti-racism policy
  • How has it been put together? Who has been consulted both internally and externally?
  • Has it been updated since last year’s case of anti-Palestinian censorship, for which the institution apologized? If not, why not?
  • Given the recurrence of anti-Palestinian racism at the Barbican, can its policy name anti-Palestinian racism alongside antisemitism and Islamophobia? If not, why not?

3. Dissonance between artistic programming and internal policies
  • Do you acknowledge this incongruity?
  • If so, can the Barbican commit, through action plans, to rectifying the dissonance between the values its programming aspires to, and the violence of its internal policies?

I very much look forward to your responses to these serious concerns, and to engage in a dialogue about how they can be addressed. We will wait to hear from you to decide how we would like to proceed.

In her brilliant essay for the catalogue, Denise writes forcefully about the “rebellious” (p. 36) nature of Unravel’s curatorial position: the “refusal” (p. 38) of the art-craft dichotomy, refusal as “an indistinction between concept and statement, between the curatorial and the political” (p. 38). One of the many reasons I love these quilts by Loretta is because they, for me, embody that very refusal. They were not made for an art market, or within our “art world,” yet are, I believe, some of the greatest and most important examples of 20th century American abstraction, made in rural Alabama concurrently with, and even prior to, the white men of AbEx working in New York. They were made with sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities, yet bear the physical and emotional marks of daily life and use.

It is a privilege to serve as a custodian to these works, and a responsibility to embody that same mode of refusal when the situation calls for that position. Fahad and I reject the Barbican’s censorship, repression, institutional violence and anti-Palestinian racism. The LRB case “expose[s] the operations of the colonial, racial and cisheteropatriarchal matrix that sustains the post-Enlightenment political architecture,” (p. 35), as Denise writes. She continues: “If Unravel, as an artistic intervention, becomes a call, a word for mobilisation, a mandate, Stitch! becomes the response, that is, the ask, and a task” (p. 37). I take Unravel up on its call, with this response: an ask for accountability from the institution. Without this accountability, the “emancipatory possibilities” (p. 18) that ––––– writes about are simply untenable.

My best

PS I do not have an email address for Denise, but would really like this letter to reach her, as a contributor to this project. Would it be possible for one of you to pass it on to her?


From: ––––––––––––– <––––––––––––>
Date: Thu, Feb 22, 2024 at 12:10 PM
Subject: RE: Censorship and repression at the Barbican
To: Lorenzo Legarda Leviste <––––––––––>, ––––––––––––– <–––––––––––––>, ––––––––––––– <–––––––––––––>
Cc: ––––––––––––– <––––––>, ––––––, –––––––––––––, Fahad Mayet <––––––––>

Dear Lorenzo, 

Thank you so much for your email and for your warm words about your experience of the exhibition Unravel. Our sincerest gratitude to you for your generous loan of the two quilts by Loretta Pettway which, as you astutely describe, are beautiful works of abstraction that also speak powerfully to the artist’s lived experience. 

Thank you for taking the time to write raising these important questions. We appreciate you writing to us as the individual curators who have developed this exhibition, as well as asking for a response from the Barbican as an institution. ––––– and I appreciate and fully hear your concerns. Personally, we both stand against anti-Palestinian racism, and all kinds of racism, and we are deeply horrified at the brutal genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. Our CEO has told us that she feels the same way. 

In your email you raised the recent situation regarding the London Review of Books Winter Lectures, and also the situation last year involving Radio Alhara. We have spoken to colleagues in the departments that were leading on these events, and would like to pass on some additional information that may help to clarify the issues tackled on each occasion, which we have included below this email. Like you, ––––– and I were also disappointed that the LRB talks did not happen at the Barbican in the end. 

We want to assure you that, as curators at the Barbican, we are committed to delivering a varied and daring artistic programme, which inspires, connects and provokes debate. We set out to make exhibitions that challenge, confront and reframe histories of art, creating platforms for artists who may have been excluded and marginalised within these narratives.  

We hope the information shared below begins to address some of your questions. Should you like further information, our colleagues in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team and the Creative Collaboration department – who were in conversation with the LRB – would be happy to be in touch with you. 

As you requested, we will also pass along your message to Denise Ferriera da Silva, and we have offered to speak in further detail with Julia Bryan-Wilson and Miguel López as well.  

Thank you again for reaching out to us.

With very best wishes, 

––––– and –––––  


Radio Alhara:
  • The message that was sent to participant –––––––––––– was completely unacceptable and a serious error of judgement. The Barbican issued a detailed statement at the time acknowledging this and apologizing to –––– and others involved – this is available on the Barbican website.  
  • Immediately following the incident, the Barbican’s CEO commissioned an independent review from a renowned anti-racism expert – Dr Maggie Semple. Dr Semple interviewed staff and analysed data from across the Barbican to understand exactly what had happened, and make recommendations. 
  • One of the key learnings was that the Barbican needs to ensure that its ambitions – in terms of the kinds of events it programmes – match its ability to consistently deliver an inclusive experience for all artists, audiences and staff. It is acknowledged that this has heightened importance when events address especially challenging or sensitive topics given the Barbican’s own history.

London Review of Books: 
  • The relevant Barbican department had been in conversations with the LRB about these events, but had not yet reached a final agreement to host them when the LRB announced the Barbican as the venue. The teams involved felt they had lost the opportunity to properly consider how to hold the lecture with care, or to do the preparation they would need – bearing in mind the key lesson from Dr Semple’s report. There was no intention to censor the speaker involved, and agreement was reached with the LRB that they would use an alternative venue. This decision was carefully considered and discussed, including at senior levels within the Barbican. 
  • There is more information on our website about exactly what happened.

Barbican’s Wider Policies: 
  • Our Equity Diversity & Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan was published on our website in 2023. It acknowledges that the Barbican has its own history of systemic discrimination, and that as a large, complex organization going through deep transformational change, it is still at an early stage of its journey towards becoming an anti-racist organisation. It sets out a comprehensive range of actions to be delivered over a period of several years. It sets out a comprehensive range of actions to be delivered over a period of several years. 
  • More recently we developed a specific anti-racism action plan, to take this work a step further. This was created in consultation with the Barbican’s own Global Majority staff, and was finalised earlier this month. The plan builds in many of the recommendations Dr Semple made in her report.
  • Across all of its different activities, the Barbican aims to host the broadest and most diverse range of artists and thinkers, representing the widest possible range of world views and human experiences and ensuring the exchange of ideas via debate and free expression. For example, the Barbican has hosted the London Palestine Film Festival for over 20 years, most recently in November 2023 when the films had a particular focus on the experience of Palestinians living in Gaza. This is one example of where careful planning and collaboration with artistic partners has enabled the Barbican to host complex and sensitive subject matter in a way that ensures the wellbeing of our audiences and our own team. Colleagues in other departments are working on plans for further events that explore the experiences of Palestinian people, which will be announced soon. 

From: Lorenzo Legarda Leviste <––––––––––>
Date: Sun, Feb 25, 2024 at 6:02 PM
Subject: RE: Censorship and repression at the Barbican
To: ––––––––––– <–––––––––––>
Cc: –––––––––––––– <––––––––––––––>, –––––––––––– <––––––––––––>, ––––––––––––– <––––––>, ––––––––, ––––––––––, Fahad Mayet <–––––––––>

Dear ––––– and –––––

Thank you for your reply, and for communicating the Barbican’s response to the concerns we’ve raised.

As it is for many Londoners, the Barbican is a space that is central to my cultural life. As you note, it hosts the London Palestine Film Festival, which I’ve attended there for more than a decade. That does not give it the right to censor public conversations with impunity, without transparency.

It is disappointing to ask for transparency and accountability that the public is owed regarding the Barbican’s cancellation of the LRB lecture, and receive, in return, purposefully vague language that does not provide any clarity about the Barbican’s internal decision-making processes, and only facilitates the recurrence of these acts of censorship and repression.

In spite of my attempt to engage the institution in a dialogue, it is clear from your reply that the Barbican has no interest in holding itself accountable for its censorship of the LRB lecture, nor reflecting on how these acts of repression can be prevented from happening again. You have not been able to answer directly, with clarity and transparency, my questions about the Barbican’s internal processes that led to the decision to cancel the lecture, and instead have provided language meant to obfuscate. Vagueness is the point when the institution wants to be able to get away with anything, anytime. It all but guarantees that any public conversation, any artwork, any performance at the Barbican can be arbitrarily shut down for its “sensitive” subject matter, or because not enough “care” can be provided. The implications for artistic freedom at the Barbican, and the precedent it sets for cultural spaces across the country, are dangerous, frightening, bleak. I know you know this, which makes it all the more troubling for me.

The Barbican’s excuse for cancelling the LRB lecture (that it was not capable of providing the “dedicated and thoughtful care” needed for “complex subject matter like this”) is unoriginal and unacceptable – that line just won’t work anymore. Respectfully, no one buys it. Anyone paying attention to the widespread silencing of voices in support of the liberation of Palestine in our public spaces is familiar with the institutional deployment of this sort of cryptic, amorphous language, used to render decisions like this cancellation incontestable. I know you know this.

For the Barbican to cloak its violent suppression of speech with the gloopy language of “care” is sickening; as much as I recognize your obligation to your employer, to read you relay such blatantly specious claims, frankly, terrifies me, because I know you know better. I wonder: what happens, then, when the “systems of power” (as you write in the catalogue) that you protect come after you, too?

It is disturbing that even with the support of an EDI action plan and a dedicated team that you assure us have been developed as a result of the institution’s past errors, the Barbican has chosen to refer to the process of more than 75 years of Zionist colonization, occupation, apartheid, and the most recent, ongoing genocide of Palestine as a “sensitive,” “complex” “conflict.” We recognize the long history of these words being weaponized by institutions to shut down discussion of Palestinian freedom, and reject the Barbican’s participation in that violence. We reject the normalization and acceptance of genocide, through the use of this language, in our public life that facilitates the maintenance of genocide in Palestine, and identify the Barbican’s role in that ongoing process. The Barbican's statement attempting to explain its cancellation of the LRB lecture confirms that it has not understood or learnt from its failures, and continues to perpetuate institutional racism.

This leaves Fahad and I no choice but to withdraw the two quilts by Loretta Pettway from the exhibition, in protest of what can only be classified as the Barbican’s censorship of the LRB and Pankaj Mishra. The Barbican’s hypocrisy in staging an exhibition that performs a commitment to “resistance” (a word used 14 different times in wall texts, by my count), “solidarity” (4 times), “protest” (8 times), “liberation” (6 times), while suppressing speech within its same walls, is unacceptable and must be challenged. We reject this repression, reject the normalized lack of transparency and accountability from our public arts institutions, and withdraw these works in the spirit of refusal shared by your curatorial position. 

We would like to understand how you, as curators, in the context of the exhibition, the politics of your curatorial position, and your own declared personal stances, intend to address this gesture of the works’ withdrawal:

  • within the exhibition itself;
  • in the existing merchandising of one of the quilts' images;
  • and in any subsequent press related to the show.

I look forward to hearing from you about this. Please let us know once the works have been promptly removed from display.

This is what solidarity and moral clarity actually look like. Anything else is just wall text.

My best


From: –––––––––––– <––––––––––––>
Date: Mon, Feb 26, 2024 at 5:11 PM
Subject: RE: Censorship and repression at the Barbican
To: Lorenzo Legarda Leviste <–––––––––>
Cc: –––––––––––– <––––––––––––>, –––––––––––– <––––––––––––>, ––––––––––––– <––––––––>, ––––––––, ––––––––––, Fahad Mayet <––––––––>

Dear Lorenzo, 

Thank you for your email. ––––– and I understand your concerns and respect your decision to withdraw the two works from the exhibition. We are making arrangements for this to take place and we will let you know as soon as the works have been taken off view and are safely in storage. Then we can coordinate the return of the works to you.  

We are in touch with Alison Jacques Gallery who represent Loretta Pettway to inform her of this decision, and to crucially seek her input as the artist of the works. 

We will also be back in touch as soon as possible this week with further details about how we plan to address the withdrawal of the work in the exhibition and associated communications, as well as the removal of associated merchandise (a postcard depicting one of the quilts) from the shop. 

Thank you for your patience and we will be back in touch with further updates. 

With very best wishes, 

––––– and ––––– 


From: ––––––––––– <–––––––––––>
Date: Tue, Feb 27, 2024 at 6:24 PM
Subject: RE: Censorship and repression at the Barbican
To: Lorenzo Legarda Leviste <–––––––––>
Cc: ––––––––––––– <–––––––––––––>, –––––––––––– <––––––––––––>, ––––––––––––– <––––––––>, ––––––, –––––––––––, Fahad Mayet <–––––––––>

Dear Lorenzo,

Further to our previous email, we are writing to let you know that we are planning to de-install the two works by Loretta Pettway on Thursday morning. The works will be safely stored at the Barbican until they are collected by our transport agent on Monday. Please do confirm if you would like the works returned to the storage facility from which they were originally picked up. 

We plan to communicate the withdrawal of your loans in the following ways: 

  • We will place a sign with the following text in the space where Pettway’s works were located: 

These two works have been withdrawn at the request of the lenders, as an act of solidarity with Palestine in response to the Barbican’s decision not to host the London Review of Books (LRB) Winter Lecture Series.  

More information about the circumstances around the LRB Lectures is available on our website. We respect the lenders’ decision and are in touch with the artist.  

  • We plan to write to all the artists, lenders and collaborators of the exhibition tomorrow to inform them. 

  • As mentioned previously, we will remove the postcard depicting one of the quilts from the shop. 

With very best wishes, 

––––– and –––––