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Transphobia row artist: I might sue Royal Academy over ban

·3 min read
Jess de Wahls poses at her studio in south London (AFP via Getty Images)
Jess de Wahls poses at her studio in south London (AFP via Getty Images)

An artist who had her work withdrawn from the Royal Academy of Arts in a transphobia row on Monday said she would consider legal action if she does not receive an apology.

The academy has been accused of breaching the Equality Act by removing from sale embroidered flowers by Jess de Wahls over what it described as her “transphobic views”.

Ms de Wahls said she found out her designs would no longer be stocked in the art institution’s gift shop via a post on the RA’s Instagram account last week.

It received eight complaints about the textile artist after a blog post she wrote in 2019 was circulated on Twitter. In it she had stated that she had “no animosity” to transgender people, or those who held other views, but she believed there are only two genders.

The textile artist said she was told that the RA was investigating the complaints before learning on social media that her work would be removed from the shop.

Ms de Wahls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme : “I am looking for an apology to start with. I have spoken to [the Royal Academy]. They contacted me the day after they posted on social media and there was no point to that conversation.”

Asked if she would consider legal action, she added: “I might do. Right now I have the feeling there is a hope within that institution, and it is mind-boggling to me, that this will just go away and people won’t talk about it. This isn’t going to go away.

“This is a conversation that needs to happen and it needs to happen in public. And they will have to talk eventually.”

In the Instagram story, which was posted to more than half a million followers, the RA stated that it would no longer sell Ms de Wahls’s flower patch designs.

The academy said it had “previously stocked work by this artist when we were unaware of their stated views [and] their work will not be stocked in future”.

It thanked those who had brought “an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention”, adding that it was “committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and does not knowingly support artists who act in conflict with these values”.

The RA, an independent charity with around 100,000 members, has not commented since.

But the institution has been criticised on social media by people asking whether it would continue to support the work of artists such as Eric Gill, who sexually abused his children, and Picasso, who often expressed misogynistic views. Nicola Williams, the founder of Fair Play for Women, has written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), urging it to investigate “a possible breach of the Equality Act” over the RA’s decision.

Ms Williams said: “Removing Jess de Wahls’s work from the market based on her protected beliefs is a clear infringement of her rights under the Equality Act. I would like the EHRC to consider taking this case as part of its strategic litigation work if the RA do not reverse their decision.”

De Wahls, who is originally from Berlin, was among several artists, including Sir Tom Stoppard and Frances Barber, who signed a letter last year in support of JK Rowling after the author was accused of transphobia. The accusation followed a tweet in which Rowling mocked the phrase “people who menstruate” being used in place of the word “women”, and an essay in which she criticised gender self-identity.

The RA has been contacted for comment.

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Evening Standard Comment: Jess de Wahls – The Royal Academy must rethink

If the Royal Academy won’t defend free expression, who will?

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