‘McJesus’ Sculpture Sparks Outrage Among Israel’s Christian Minority
By Julee WJ Chung
On January 11, hundreds of Arab Christians protested outside the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel against Finnish artist Jani Leinonen’s McJesus (2015) sculpture of a crucified Ronald McDonald, featured at the exhibition “Sacred Goods,” which confronts the impact of contemporary consumerism on religion. According to Israeli police, events took a violent turn when demonstrators started throwing stones, injuring three police officers, and shattered the museum’s windows with a firebomb. The protest cleared after authorities used tear gas and stun grenades. One person was arrested at the scene on suspicion of attacking police officers.
Leaders within Jerusalem’s Christian community publicly condemned the exhibition in a statement issued on January 12: “We realize that Israel upholds the right of free expression and speech, however, the character of the Holy Land and the sanctity of the three Abrahamic Religions should be at all times respected and revered.”
Israeli culture minister Miri Regev responded to the furor by demanding the removal of the sculpture in a letter to Haifa Museum director Nissim Tal. The museum has refused to remove the controversial work, stating that doing so would be an infringement on freedom of expression. However, following a meeting with Church leaders and officials from the Haifa Municipality, the museum hung up a curtain at the entrance to "Sacred Goods" along with a sign warning that the exhibition contains potentially offensive content.
“This is the maximum that we can do,” Tal said to the Associated Press (AP). “If we take the art down, the next day we’ll have politicians demanding we take other things down and we’ll end up only with colorful pictures of flowers in the museum. [. . .] We will be defending freedom of speech, freedom of art, and freedom of culture.” The director added that he was shocked at the sudden violent protest against an exhibition that has been up since August 2018. He claimed that the show had previously toured to several other countries without issue.
Without the removal of the work, however, smaller protests have continued outside the Haifa Museum. Amir Ballan, a local artist and devout Christian, told AP: “This is very offensive and I cannot consider this art. We will continue through peaceful rallies and candle vigils [. . .] unti we reach a solution.” The pastor of Saint Elijah Cathedral in Haifa, Reverend Archimandrite Agapious Abu Sa'ada of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archeparchy of Akko, similarly denounced the exhibition in Haaretz: “What is suitable for Europe and the Christian population of Finland is not suitable for our community and cannot be met with understanding.” Christian church leaders brought their grievances to the Haifa district court on January 14, requesting the removal of several pieces from the exhibition, including Leinonen’s McJesus, as well as Argentinian artist duo Pool and Marianela’s Ken Jesus Christ (2018), which portrays Jesus on the cross as a Ken doll.
Leinonen has also requested that his work be taken down, but for different reasons. He told the Art Newspaper: “The news about the demonstrations came to me as an upsetting surprise particularly because my work is in the exhibition against my wishes [. . .] In September 2018, I asked the curator Shaked Shamir to remove my work because I joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement [against Israel]. The curator replied that she was sorry about my decision and that my message had been forwarded to the management and I assumed that the artwork had been taken out. When I heard that it is still in the exhibition, and that there have been violent demonstrations around it, I immediately sent the curator another request to remove it. I have not heard anything back from the museum. I insist my work be taken out of the exhibition instantly.”
Julee WJ Chung is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.
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