‘They threatened to burn my work’

Apolonia Sokol found that voicing an opinion on the conflict in Gaza affected her career.

Apolonia Sokol, Palestine, 2021. Oil on linen, 78,5 x 65 cm.

Cancelled exhibitions, lectures, and film screenings. Art deals that suddenly fall through and threats of financial reprisals. As the conflict between Israel and Hamas enters its second month, several visual artists have reported how putting their signature on a call for a ceasefire in Gaza or posting political messages on social media have impacted their careers.

One of them is Franco-Polish artist Apolonia Sokol, whose first-ever institutional solo exhibition is currently on view at Arken Museum of Contemporary Art. Sokol is among the 83 cultural figures who signed an open letter published in the Danish daily Dagbladet Politiken on 19 October calling for the enforcement of the Palestinians’ human rights. In addition, she has signed a similar letter on the French news site Mediapart and shared posts about the conflict – including images of the Palestinian flag and a picture of her painting Palestine from 2021 – on her Instagram account. This activity has attracted the ire of a group of her collectors.

“I didn’t see these as controversial statements,” Sokol said in a phone call with Kunstkritikk. “I showed sympathy with a civilian population that is being killed and displaced, and I expressed a desire for a ceasefire.”

Sokol added: “I generally take an intersectional approach in my work and do not believe that you can speak about, for example, feminism without speaking about other types of oppression too. However, the fact that I have an opinion on this conflict is more about my personal history than about my work. I myself am of Jewish descent and have lost family in the Holocaust, and so I feel that my voice is relevant.”

Sokol first discovered that not everyone saw these signatures as uncontroversial when she received a message on Instagram from one of her regular collectors. “This person demanded that I distance myself from the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October, ‘or else …’ I felt this to be a threat. That’s why I posted a message stating that of course I condemn both the terrorist attacks by Hamas and Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza,” she said.

At the same time, Sokol’s gallery, whose name she does not want mentioned for fear of further reprisals, also began to receive messages from a group of collectors who own works by Sokol. They wanted to get rid of the works, they said, and if the gallery did not buy them back, they would put them up for auction. One threatened to burn the work unless the gallery bought it back, while others stated that they would donate the money from the auction to support Israel.

“I can’t know for sure, but my assumption is that the collectors conferred on this,” Sokol told Kunstkritikk. “They are part of the same network, and their messages followed in very quick succession. Their decision to threaten to put my works up for auction at the same time was obviously made because they know this would hurt me financially. If several works arrive on the auction scene at once, the price drops, which might, in turn, prompt others to consider selling. This could have started a domino effect.”

Sokol’s gallerist worked quickly and soon raised the amount required to buy back the works.

“I feel very lucky to work with people who care about me as an artist and as a person,” Sokol said. “But it was still a hard blow for my gallery. Partly because it involved quite a lot of money and partly because these were important collectors with whom she had worked really hard to establish a relationship. As a gallerist, it is your job to ensure that the artists you represent are included in important collections, and both I and my gallerist are young women who do not come from privileged backgrounds. It’s taken me ten years of hard work to get my career to a point where I can make a decent living from it, and it would be hard to restore my works to their former price levels if we’d once shown the world that they weren’t worth what they had been sold for.”

Although Sokol’s gallerist managed to prevent the works from ending up at auction – or on a bonfire – Sokol believes that the recent threats have impacted the way she views her work:

“I spent part of my childhood and youth in Denmark, where you expect to have freedom of expression. I thought that was one of the privileges we have in our part of the world, being able to express ourselves freely. It’s fundamental to artists. When that collector wrote that they wanted to burn my work, I realised this was a naïve idea. Destroying a work of art that you own is one thing, but burning it has such a violent symbolism to it. Then it’s no longer about the work, but about me not being allowed to express myself. It’s been really scary.”

Apolonia Sokol, Arken Museum of Contemporary Art, 2023.