Ex-V&A Director Martin Roth Shocks With Statement About Azerbaijan’s ‘Tolerance’

His curatorial statement for the Azeri pavilion in Venice paints a rosy picture of life in the authoritarian state.

Martin Roth, Photo: Alexander Gronsky. Courtesy of Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen

Martin Roth, the former director of London’s Victoria & Albert museum who quit his post last year in protest of the Brexit vote, has come under fire in the German press for his involvement with the Azeri pavilion in Venice.

Roth relocated last year to his native Germany and is currently the president-elect of the IFA (institute for foreign cultural relations), which is operated by the federal foreign office. He was quoted in the German paper Der Tagesspiegel as having given a very unfortunate statement about his position as the curator of the pavilion of Azerbaijan at the 57th Venice Biennale.

“Azerbaijan is a blueprint for the tolerant coexistence of people of different cultures,” he said. “That is why we asked young artists to take a bold and open approach to this issue.”

The German press wasn’t having it—the article bluntly asks “Has he left his common sense back in London?”

On the 2017 World Press Freedom Index surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan ranks 162 out of 180 countries. According to Human Rights Watch, the oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea is plagued by corruption and brutality: “Azerbaijan’s government continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices. The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished by the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists.”

Discussing the pavilion’s theme, “Under One Sun. The Art of Living Together,” in his curator’s statement, on the other hand, Roth offers an alternative view of life in the country that has been accused of authoritarianism. The statement claims that “Azerbaijan is a perfect sample of a complex society, which promotes acceptance of different languages and cultural backgrounds, the culture of living together mostly in harmony and equality in a multicultural and multi-religious society, supporting each other in a sometimes rough natural environment.”

The Azeri participation at the Venice Biennale is backed by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in Baku. Its president is Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s first lady. The pavilion is co-curated by Roth and Emin Mammadov, who’s been the artistic advisor of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation since 2011.

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