LONDON — LD50, an art gallery on a quiet street in the shabby-but-hip Dalston section of East London, would seem to be an improbable forum for debates about American politics in the era of President Trump.
But the gallery drew dozens of protesters on Saturday chanting slogans like “Make racists afraid again!” and “No to the Nazis!” The protest was organized in the aftermath of the gallery’s postelection exhibition on the so-called alt-right, the white nationalist movement that has become famous for its online provocations and, critics say, its associations with anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia.
The exhibition opened two days after Mr. Trump was elected, and closed in January. It featured printouts of Tweets from far-right groups; engraved statuettes featuring images of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that has been linked to anti-Semitism; and a diagram tracing the emergence of and connections among online far-right movements.
Public controversy did not boil over, however, until this month, when the London artist Sophie Jung shared on Facebook a message from the gallery’s founder, Lucia Diego, expressing sympathy with what she called President Trump’s “Muslim ban.” The interaction quickly got noticed in London’s large but cliquish art world, and the controversy attracted attention in the tabloids. An expletive along with a hammer-and-sickle symbol and a pink swastika was scrawled outside the gallery, which sits above an architecture firm in a neighborhood dotted with Turkish restaurants and Afro-Caribbean markets.
Saturday’s protest was planned to distribute leaflets informing neighborhood residents about the gallery’s contents. Andrew Osborne, 42, a fine art technician at the Royal College of Art who has lived in East London for 20 years, helped organize the protest. “There was a Facebook argument going on and then the more you looked into the gallery the more unseemly it seemed,” Mr. Osborne said. “I don’t see why we should tolerate fascism.”Continue reading the main story
When Phil Jones, 37, a resident of East London for 10 years, tried to enter his apartment near the gallery, some protesters accused him of not supporting the anti-fascist cause. After an argument, the police, who were on hand throughout the protest, separated him from the crowd.
“I think it is counterproductive to graffiti people’s doors, people who have nothing to do with it,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a little bit extreme. I had seen exhibitions there. It was just a normal gallery. It’s pretty hostile here now and people may need to get their facts straight first.”
One protester, Jenny Graham, 44, who said she’d lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, described the area as “a diverse borough in terms of race, class, ethnicity; everyone here lives happily side by side: Jews, Muslims, everyone.” But the gallery, she said, was out of line. “I wouldn’t set foot in that place unless I had a bomb with me. No platform for the right, for fascism.”
In a phone interview, Ms. Diego, the gallery founder, a Spaniard who has lived in Britain for about 12 years, said she was no conservative firebrand, and was getting slammed simply for not being politically correct.
“If I had an agenda that I just wanted to push this ideology, I would have just done that from the beginning,” Ms. Diego said, adding. “I’m happy to represent artists on the right and on the left.”
Her critics say Ms. Diego is up to something more nefarious. A Facebook page for the exhibition included an emblem of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, a South African neo-Nazi group. Last summer, the gallery hosted web-based talks with speakers like Peter Brimelow, an author who advocates restricting immigration, and Brett Stevens, a right-wing blogger who has spoken admiringly of Anders Behring Breivik, the white supremacist who killed 77 people in a 2011 attack in Norway.
The title of the exhibition, “71822666,” was a reference to a thread predicting Mr. Trump’s victory on the web platform 4chan, an anonymous online message board that is widely used by members of the alt-right. Along with the alt-right, it focused on so-called reactionary philosophy, a critique of Western democracy as it is now practiced.
In the Facebook message that Ms. Jung shared, Ms. Diego expressed disappointment at the decision by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to hang work by Muslim artists in place of pieces by giants including Matisse and Picasso — a striking protest by an art institution against a federal policy.
“It actually diminishes Western culture and tradition,” Ms. Diego wrote, saying that she had been shocked by the art world’s response to Mr. Trump’s election. She added, “The left in my eyes is behaving more like a fascist organization than the real fascists.”
Ms. Diego said she started the gallery in 2015 to examine “the impact of the internet and technology in society and the world.” She described the exhibition on the alt-right as “a study of what is happening online and how these ideologies are emerging.”
Of her own politics, Ms. Diego said: “I would position myself in a center position,” explaining that she was neither liberal nor right-wing. She said that though she did not support anti-Semitism, homophobia or misogyny, she felt that liberals were often doctrinaire in their defense of Jews, gays and women and had taken identity politics too far.
A statement on the gallery’s website explained its position further.
The gallery’s Facebook page seemed to espouse apocalyptic visions. “can’t wait for the whole art market system — as we know it, to collapse,” the page stated on Jan. 19, the day before Mr. Trump took office.
“America has really become a mental asylum (thanks for the spectacle …),” it posted on Jan. 26.
Mr. Osborne said that at first the gallery’s provocations were read as irony, but that anger at the gallery and at Ms. Diego mounted after Ms. Jung shared the Facebook message. He allowed that the art world can also be an insular one where people are afraid of speaking out for fear of recrimination, or of sullying their reputation.
Mr. Osborne said he favored shutting the gallery. Asked if that would amount to censorship, he replied, “Hate speech isn’t free speech, and it in fact undermines free speech.”
Ms. Diego said that she had planned to open her next show in early March, but now is unsure whether she can continue to keep the gallery operating. Her landlord, she said, was disturbed by the developments. She noted that the police had advised her to stay indoors, and she said that she had not left her house in several days, after receiving threats online.
“The whole world seems to be in a kind of turmoil,” she said.Continue reading the main story