Italian artist Sara Leghissa is claiming her pro-choice artwork, Unborn Celebration, was censored during the Malta Biennale.

Leghissa claims her artistic choices and wording were repeatedly questioned, and there was a last-minute change of venue.

“I felt pressure like never before,” Leghissa said.

“The pressure came from requests to adapt, which I believe came from higher-ups. I know it’s political but it’s just an artwork.”

Leghissa’s work is a performance art piece where she laboriously glues large, printed verses from the poem I Want An Abortion Everyday by Simon van Saarloos, a trans Dutch/American writer, onto a large piece of wood in a public space.

The last line from the poem was meant to remain visible for the duration of the Biennale. It originally said: ‘I want an abortion every day’ but instead, it now says ‘Unborn Celebration’. 

Leghissa said that this was the only time in her career as an artist that she was ever asked to change the wording of one of her works. 

The performance took place outdoors on the windy night of March 11 outside Fort St Elmo, which was not the originally planned venue. The work was meant to be hosted in the centre of Valletta near the Grandmaster’s Palace. But on February 20, with only three weeks to rethink the logistics of the work, Leghissa was informed it would be moved to the outskirts of Valletta.

“I work in the public space, and I proposed a text relating to abortion. They invited me to the Biennale knowing that and then at the last minute they moved it out of sight,” Leghissa said.  

She continued to feel silenced after a Maltese translation of the poem was rejected and she was furthermore exasperated when she was told there was no local press present at the performance.

However, two of the curators of the Malta Biennale, Emma Mattei and Sofia Baldi Pighi, thoroughly disagreed with Leghissa’s claims of censorship.

“Sara was here because we chose her to be. That is her interpretation, but I would describe it as a heated discussion… She was not censored,” Mattei said. Baldi Pighi continued: “Also in the end, it happened, and it was held in a public space.”

The curators confirmed that Leghissa’s work was moved but only to create another gathering point near Fort St Elmo where another pavilion is present.

Mattei and Baldi Pighi stressed that artistic choices, including wording, were decided through conversations between artists and curators and that Leghissa was fully aware of this process.

Concerning the translation, the curators noted that they encouraged artists to use Maltese but felt that the translation was not strong enough, even though they helped her connect with Maltese pro-choice activists who are native Maltese speakers.

The curators insisted the biennale does not shy away from controversial and political subjects and, in fact, featured other works tackling themes like migration, racism and the case of Jean Paul Sofia.

Both defended the artists’ right to express themselves with Mattei adding, “Sometimes the artists have to be sensitive and more understanding of the implications of a work and how it will resonate or not. [...] And understanding how easily something can be misunderstood within a context. It is not easy, but we are trying to have the courage to ask the right questions.”

Unborn Celebration can be viewed in front of Fort St Elmo until May 31. 

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