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With Graphic Works on Sex and Inequality, a New Show Addresses Artistic Censorship

Artists who have faced censorship are taking center stage at Unit London. “Sensitive Content,” curated by artist Helen Beard and art historians Alayo Akinkugbe and Maria Elena Buszek, presents artworks that have challenged the status quo by raising questions on artistic freedom and foregrounding issues linked to the circulation and suppression of art.

On view through October 16th, the group exhibition examines censorship and artistic freedom from multiple standpoints. The interrogative nature of “Sensitive Content” expands on social, cultural, and political issues touching upon gender, sexuality, religion, race, and eroticism, among other topics. Featuring 19 artists whose works have fought against the culture of censorship, the show addresses agency, access, and power to encourage viewers to engage in an expanded public discourse.

The personal is political in “Sensitive Content.” The works of Polly Borland, Micol Hebron, and Emma Shapiro draw attention to sexism’s role in the policing and censoring of specific body types, deeming them as inherently sexual when unclothed. Feminist themes also emerge in Leah Schrager’s “Infinity Selfie” series (2016) and Caroline Coon’s performance piece I AM WHORE (2019). Schrager’s digitally manipulated photographs blur the line between model and photographer to question how one is represented and by whom. Meanwhile, in Coon’s compelling historical examination of misogynistic tropes, the artist forces the viewer to encounter the uneasy truths about the violence women still face in today’s patriarchal societies.

With artworks depicting erotic and sexual themes that have often been deemed obscene, controversial, or inappropriate, “Sensitive Content” features pioneers in feminist art—such as Carol Rama, Betty Tompkins, Penny Slinger, and Linder—who prominently incorporate explicit imagery in their practices. In the 1970s, French customs confiscated photorealistic works from Tompkins’s “Fuck Paintings” series, declaring the pieces obscene. Whereas thousands of copies of Slinger’s 1978 book Mountain Ecstasy were seized and destroyed by British customs, Linder’s collages had to be published covertly due to the ongoing restrictions. Many of the show’s artists still frequently battle with the limitations placed on exhibiting and disseminating their work.

One such artist is co-curator Beard, whose radiant paintings depicting female pleasure seduce through vivid and bold graphic shapes. Beard’s social media posts of her paintings are frequently removed due to alleged violations of community guidelines. Like Beard, Beverley Onyangunga has often been shadow-banned on social media. Onyangunga’s archival photomontages depicting the history of colonial violence remind viewers of the excruciating atrocities that took place from 1885 to 1908 in Congo Free State, present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Under the gruesome, 23-year-long colonial rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, Congolese children and adults were brutalized and denied access to food if they failed to meet their daily rubber quotas.

Onyangunga recalls this period of history in her installation Parts of a Rubber Tree (2022), in which the leaves of a tree are replaced by red rubber gloves. In Onyangunga’s photo collage Archive I (2022), a red rubber glove appears again; this time, it occupies the space where a Congolese child’s hand was severed. A missionary grips the child’s arm, while Black children pay witness to the scene and Leopold II’s head and torso peek up from behind them.

Other artists have faced repercussions outside of the digital sphere for the content in their work. Russian activist and performance art group Pussy Riot and Chinese artist Xiao Lu have previously been detained by their respective government authorities for political dissent. Pussy Riot’s three artworks in “Sensitive Content,” all titled Push This Button (2022), feature a call to action followed by a kaomoji: “This button makes you squirt =´^.^´=,” “This button eliminates sexism =^_^=,” and “This button neutralizes Vladimir Putin =^.^=.” Despite their cutified appearance, the politically charged works are met by viewers with caution.

In Xiao’s performance Polar (2016), the artist climbs into a semi-transparent cubicle made of ice. With only a kitchen knife, Xiao repeatedly hacks at her icy confinement, even as she begins to draw blood and stain her surrounding environment. The violent and aggressive subtexts found in Polar are recurring themes in Xiao’s transgressive work critiquing the CCP’s political and social policies. Perhaps Polar can also be understood as a symbolic pursuit of breaking free from the constraints of a patriarchal society.

Meanwhile, Renee Cox’s photograph Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996)—which features Cox as Jesus in the center of the composition, surrounded by 11 Black men and a white man, Judas—was deemed sacrilegious and offensive by both the Catholic Church and then–New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. The latter called for a commission to set “decency standards” for all publicly funded art. It’s worth asking whether the artwork sparked such opposition due to its reinterpretation of a biblical scene or because such artistic license was taken by a Black woman.

Operating as a site for thought-provoking public discourse that welcomes both contemporary and historical artistic acts of resistance, “Sensitive Content” responds to the complex sociopolitical and cultural mechanisms involved in silencing and suppressing narratives deemed threatening, disruptive, obscene, divergent, or offensive. As the curators stated in the exhibition catalogue, “Ultimately, despite their many differences, the artists in ‘Sensitive Content’ have a shared commitment to the real over the fake—whether in our politics, interactions or expressions—that binds them more deeply than their works’ censorship. This exhibition hopes to honor that courageous common bond.” And indeed it does.