arts and design

Royal Academy of Arts apologises to Jess de Wahls in transphobia row

The Royal Academy of Arts has apologised to Jess de Wahls after the textile artist’s work was withdrawn from its gift shop over comments she made about sex and gender in 2019.

De Wahls creates intricate embroideries and, according to her official website, “tackles subjects as wide ranging as feminism, misogyny & fetishism combined with creative textile recycling in her prolific output”.

In a statement the Royal Academy said: “There has been a great deal of debate around the RA’s recent communication about no longer stocking the work of Jess de Wahls in the Royal Academy shop. We have thought long and hard since then about this and the wider issues it raises.

“One thing is clear to us now – we should have handled this better. We have apologised to Jess de Wahls for the way we have treated her and do so again publicly now. We had no right to judge her views on our social media. This betrayed our most important core value – the protection of free speech.

“There was also a failure of communications internally which resulted in Jess de Wahls first hearing via social media that we would no longer stock her product in the RA shop. We will now reopen discussions with her regarding the restocking of her work.

“Plurality of voices, tolerance and free thinking are at the core of what we stand for and seek to protect. These events raise some fundamental issues. Freedom of expression can open up debate, create empathy or respect for difference, it can also at times cause hurt and outrage. This has confirmed to us our commitment to freedom of expression and to addressing complex issues through engagement and debate.

“We will continue to reflect on this and to look at our internal processes to ensure we learn from it. We want to make sure we navigate this better in future.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said it was a “welcome apology from the Royal Academy”. He said: “Freedom of expression is central to great art and culture and should always be protected.”

De Wahls’s comments led to accusations of transphobia, which the artist denied.

Her embroidery work was removed from the Royal Academy gift shop, with the artist saying she was contacted by officials at organisation who told her they were investigating.

The Royal Academy had posted a message on Instagram saying: “Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention.”

Earlier this week, De Wahls told BBC Radio 4: “They contacted me the day after they posted it on social media. There was no point to that conversation … I don’t know what they were looking for.”

In the blogpost on her website, written in 2019 and headlined: “Somewhere over the rainbow, something went terribly wrong …”, the artist wrote she wanted to “articulate my personal beliefs, so that I can defend and advocate for them.

“I feel no animosity towards people who hold different beliefs to me, be they religious, gender identity ideology or any other kind of faith, and I hope you can extend the same courtesy to me.”

In the lengthy post, she explained: “I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex (or in whatever way they please for that matter).

“However, I cannot accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to when they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such.”

In response to De Wahls’s comments the LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the Guardian this week: “Trans women are different from other women, but being a different kind of woman is perfectly valid and no justification for the denial of their identity.

“If an artist denied Jewish, black or gay people’s identity, most people would say that the Royal Academy would be right to remove their works from the gift shop. But when Jess denies trans people’s identity, she and other trans critics say that it’s her right to free speech and she should not be penalised. This smacks of double standards.”


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