Besieged by Controversy, the Istanbul Biennial Drops Its Curator and Postpones Its 2024 Edition

The biennial's organizers will start again from scratch by appointing a new curator.

Iwona Blazwick, director of Whitechaple Gallery, stands at the preview of American artist Paul McCarthy's new exhibition "LaLa Land Parody Paradise" at the Whitechapel Gallery on October 21, 2005 in London, England. (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)

The 18th Istanbul Biennial has been postponed until 2025 and Iwona Blazwick has stepped down as the exhibition’s curator. The news, which was announced by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), follows a wave of intense backlash against Blazwick’s surprise appointment in August. The IKSV promised that, “in response to criticism of its decision-making procedures, [it] reviewed its governance mechanisms” and would implement new regulations moving forward.

The biennial was originally scheduled to take place on September 14, 2024 with 58 artists exploring the role art plays in processing loss and trauma. The IKSV, a private foundation which always oversees the biennial, was fiercely criticized for its appointment of Blawick as curator because this choice went against the guidance of its advisory board. This panel, which at the time included Blazwick, had unanimously favored the German-born, Turkish-Dutch curator Defne Ayas. No explanation was given for why Ayas had been passed over, but some have speculated that the decision could have been linked to her refusal to participate in the denial of the Armenian genocide.

Three members of the biennial’s advisory board immediately resigned in protest of Blazwick’s appointment. The decision sent shockwaves throughout the Turkish art scene, even prompting the gallerist Esra Sarigedik Öktem to step down as curator of Turkey’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. On Instagram, she wrote that the news about Ayas’s rejection “has distressed me deeply.” At the end of last year, the Istanbul Biennial’s director Bige Örer announced that she would also step down on January 15 to focus on other projects, although this decision was allegedly unrelated to the controversy.

An open letter signed by more than 80 artists and curators, many of them past participants, was issued in October. It accused the IKSV of failing “to maintain a transparent, accountable, ethical, and inclusive practice.” It called for the foundation to explain how the curator selection took place, what the criteria was, and who had the authority to make the final decision if not the advisory board. “We invite IKSV to fulfill its obligations by adopting better accountability and responsiveness based on merit, fairness, and honesty,” it concluded.

In its statement today, the IKSV acknowledged “the emergence of undesired divisions in art circles that are adversely affecting artists who had already or might have agreed to participate in the biennial as well as collaborations and partnerships.” It was reported that four artists withdrew from the biennial in October. Ates Alpar, Bengü Karaduman, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, and Yasam Sasmazer issued a statement stating that the controversy did “not provide a favorable ground for art production and sharing.”

Today’s announcement that the 18th edition will be postponed appears to have been well-received. The group that authored the open letter congratulated the foundation in the comments of an Instagram post, calling this decision “the right call.” It also asked for confirmation that Blazwick would not be involved with the 2025 exhibition.

“The decision of not organizing the 18th Istanbul Biennial in 2024 was taken together with Iwona Blazwick,” the IKSV confirmed in response. “A new advisory board will be formed by IKSV as soon as possible under the leadership of Istanbul Biennial director Kevser Güler, who assumed this post in January 2024. Within the framework of the new regulations that we updated last year, a new curator will be selected.”

Blazwick stepped down as director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2022 after 21 years. She is currently chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel in Saudi Arabia.


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