In an Open Letter, Members of Belgium’s Art Community Denounce the BelgianArtPrize’s ‘Flagrant Exclusivity’

We speak to signatories about why they signed the letter criticizing the all-male shortlist.

The façade of the Bozar art center in Brussels where the BelgianArtPrize nominees will have exhibitions next spring. Photo © Yannick Sas.

More than 235 members (and counting) of the contemporary art community in Belgium have signed an open letter published online at change.org in response to the announcement of the nominees for the 2019 BelgianArtPrize. The uproar has centered on the demographic makeup of the shortlisted artists—Sven Augustijnen, Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Gabriel Kuri, and the duo of Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys—with critics arguing that the “flagrant exclusivity” of the list denies “not only social but aesthetic reality.”

Announced by an international prize jury in April, the four (male) artists are slated to receive shows at the Bozar art center next spring ahead of the awarding of the prize in April 2019.

In the letter, the signatories explain that they wish to publicly distance themselves from the values guiding the selection, to “affirm to each other that [they] stand for an inclusive artistic community that finds its strength in diversity,” and to demand that “Belgian public arts forums and institutions make the concerted effort to root out overt discrimination, not through nominal representation, but by acting to assimilate the celebration of our diversity.”

We reached out to the organizers of the BelgianArtPrize for comment but did not hear back by the time of publishing. However, several people who signed the letter were eager to talk.

One of them, Mai Abu ElDahab, the director of the nonprofit arts organization Mophradat, clarified her opposition to artnet News. “This shortlist is such a blatant example of the everyday aggressive acts of exclusion taking place in the art world,” she said, explaining that gestures like it “deprive everyone who does not fit the bill of the most privileged (white, straight, middle-aged, cosmopolitan male) of opportunities which directly translate into income, visibility, and access.” She added, “This is about equality, not representation.”

Another of the letter’s signatories, Pieternel Vermoortel, who is the general and artistic director with Els Silvrants-Barclay of the contemporary art center Netwerk Aalsttold artnet News that she signed because “a prize calling itself the Belgian Art Prize should be representative of the current society in Belgium.” She noted that the process of “rethinking the role and function of our institutions in the light of a varied and complex art scene” is a difficult but necessary issue that many are working hard to solve, and that the jury’s selection neglects that work.

“The structural inequality that is shown here is one that needs to be tackled if we want to break an elitist thinking about art and the power that holds it in order to bring a complex debate—hopefully as complex as the diverse society it represents,” Vermoortel added.

Organized by the nonprofit La Jeune Peinture Belge (Young Belgian Painting) and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the biennial contemporary art prize has been running since 1950 and supports artists living or working in Belgium in the development of their careers and international visibility. King Philippe of Belgium is among the patrons; previous winners include Belgian artists Pierre Alechinsky, Orla Barry, and Hans Op de Beeck. The 2017 winner of the €25,000 ($30,000) prize was Nigerian multidisciplinary artist Otobong Nkanga. Belgian artist Maarten Vanden Eynde won the €10,000 ($12,000) ING Public Prize.

One artist who signed the open letter, Niels Poiz, told artnet News said that he didn’t agree with the selection being all male, but that “maybe the saddest of all is the fact that within this selection all artists are from the same generation.” 

While Poiz stressed that it was an institutional problem and none of the nominees are to blame for being selected, he maintained that artists who are given such a platform should speak out about the need for diversity. Because “none of the selected artists have done so,” he said, he felt the need to sign the letter.

We reached out to the 2019 BelgianArtPrize nominees through their galleries for a response, but has not heard back by time of publishing.

Another signatory, Ilse Ghekiere, is part of an artist-led group founded in the wake of the #metoo movement called Engagement, which is devoted to addressing and fighting sexism and sexual harassment in the arts, particularly the performing arts. Asked why she signed, Ghekiere referenced the feminist political activist Angela Davis, who once opined that “diversity is a corporate strategy.”

“To be clear,” Ghekiere said, “this is not the diversity-work ‘we’ (the signatories) are talking about. I think the art world has made its efforts to keep its marketing appeal of diversity in check, but the question remains: does anything change on a structural level?”

Last week, on the French side of the country, 700 women put their name to another open letter published in La Libre in protest of the male-dominated directorship of arts institutions in Belgium.

Read the full version of the open letter below:

An Open Letter in Response to the Announcement of the Exclusionary BelgianArtPrize Shortlist of Candidates 2019

To: La Jeune Peinture Belge/BelgianArtPrize, members of the 2019 jury, BOZAR, and its sponsors:

We are members of the Belgian contemporary art community, and by signing this letter we publicly distance ourselves from the values guiding this year’s shortlist of candidates for the BelgianArtPrize. As active practitioners, we know that a thriving and complex artistic landscape is only possible when artists of different genders, sexualities, ethnic backgrounds, social classes, generations and so forth, are able to access and participate in it, and enrich it with their sensibilities and world views. In contrast to the apathy demonstrated in the selection of 2019 candidates, we wish to affirm to each other that we stand for an inclusive artistic community that finds its strength in diversity.

The flagrant exclusivity of this year’s prize candidates and its denial of not only social but also aesthetic reality (gender being just one of its glaring discriminatory categories) does not represent how we see ourselves, or our community, and raises consequential questions on how privilege might be distributed within it. The Belgian art world is still very far from having the openness we aspire towards, but we believe it is ready to recognise and reject the regressive affront this year’s selection has forced upon it.

In 2018, the art world and society at large are finally acknowledging inherited failures, and we insist on not sustaining them by assenting to the kind of agenda advanced by the BelgianArtPrize. We sign this letter to collectively and visibly inform you that we stand for a different set of values than what you’ve put forward as representing our community. We demand that Belgian public arts forums and institutions make the concerted effort to root out overt discrimination, not through nominal representation, but by acting to assimilate celebration of our diversity.

Signed by:

Niels Van Tomme, Helena Kritis, Els Silvrants-Barclay, Lucy McKenzie, Sirah Foighel Brutmann, Rebecca Jane Arthur, Ella de Burca, Tom Bonte, pepa ivanova, Lissa Kinnaer, Marijke De Roover, Elena Sorokina, Niels Poiz, Iliana Fokianaki, Delphine Hesters, alex Reynolds, Maria Palacios Cruz, Laura Herman, Viktorija Rybakova, Els Roelandt, Katrien Reist, Anouk De Clercq, Isabelle Tollenaere, Eleni Kamma, Inneke Van Waeyenberghe, Chloë Delanghe, Julie Peeters, Marijs Boulogne, Alberto García del Castillo, Liene Aerts, Antonia Alampi, Bojana Mladenovic, françoise hofmann, Gala Moody, pauline debrichy, Mercedes Dassy, Evelyn Simons, Teresa Cos, Jonas Vanderbeke, Canan Marasligil, Ula Sickle, ive stevenheydens, Antony Hudek, Petra Van Brabandt (St Lucas Antwerp), Gia Abrassart, Maria Sigutina, Hans Bryssinck, Anne-Christin Bielig, Hendrik De Smedt, wendy morris, sophie nys, Berthe Kilozo, Joachim Ben Yakoub, Isabel Van Bos, Robrecht Vanderbeeken, Pieternel Vermoortel, Jesse Van bauwel, saddie choua, Robin Vanbesien, Stephanie Stessens, Kimberly Hoskens, Hana Miletic, anna muchin, Sarah Smolders, francesca grilli, Anastasia Starikova, Pieter Vermeulen, Gary Farrelly, Yasmine Jai, Karen Verschooren, Lieven De Boeck, Pol Le vaillant, Axel De Marteau, Bas Hendrikx, Miguel Steel Lebre, MV Vezgishi, Natasa Petresin-Bachelez, Dagmar Dirkx, Rigal Adrien, Anne-Claire Schmitz, Louise Tanoto, Henry Andersen, Mette Ingvartsen, Anne Mpoma, Monique Mbeka, Marlie Mul, Pierre Huyghebaert, Sandrine Colard, Pernille Kapper Williams, marie de gaulejac, Delphine Deguislage, Marnie Slater, elsa maury, Ans Mertens, Kato Six, WILLEM OOREBEEK, Stephane Schraenen, LIlou Vidal, Daan Broos, Cedric Lienart, Mai Abu ElDahab, Dexian Feng, Veerle Devreese, Lola Bezemer, Michiel Vandevelde, Welmer Keesmaat, Alessandra Bordiga, Myfanwy McDonald, Hadewig Kras


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