The Curator of Turkey’s Venice Biennale Pavilion Resigns in Protest, as Controversy Over the Istanbul Biennial Continues to Reverberate

The appointment of Iwona Blazwick by the Istanbul Biennial has raised urgent questions about censorship.

Esra Sarigedik Öktem. Photo: Berk Kir.

Turkish curator Esra Sarigedik Öktem has decided to step down as curator of Turkey’s national pavilion at next year’s 60th Venice Biennale, in protest against the selection of Iwona Blazwick over Defne Ayas as curator of the 18th Istanbul Biennial in 2024.

The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts’s (IKSV) choice of Blazwick has been highly controversial, as detailed in The Art Newspaper, because the organization’s advisory board, which at the time included Blazwick, unanimously favored Ayas for the curatorial role. Blazwick’s former position on the advisory board has also raised eyebrows over a possible conflict of interests.

No explanation was given by the IKSV for why Ayas was passed up but, in an op-ed on Hyperallergic, the publication’s editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian asserted that this was likely because she has previously refused to partake in Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian Genocide. The exhibition catalogue for the Turkish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, which Ayas curated, featured an essay by the human rights activist Rakel Dink that refers to the genocide. After this text was censored by the Turkish government, Ayas and the Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis displayed physical copies in a coffin in the pavilion.

Öktem announced her decision on Instagram yesterday, saying that the news about Ayas’s rejection “has distressed me very deeply” and “highlighted the need for a more transparent selection process.” She added that she felt the need to take action “not just on a professional level, but as an individual with a keen awareness of the precedents and legacies we leave behind for future generations.”

Ayas was one of four shortlisted candidates who has considerable experience curating biennials, most recently the 13th Gwangju Biennial in South Korea in 2021. Her co-curator and long time colleague Natasha Ginwala told Artnet News, “Defne is one of the most sincere collaborators and adventurous curatorial minds I know.”

“It was an honor to be considered for the role, and I am thankful that the advisory board recommended my appointment,” Ayas told The Art Newspaper. “I hope for the future that the nomination and selection processes will be fully transparent and more in keeping with the biennial’s legacy as one of the pre-eminent cultural events in the art world.”

Blazwick, who was previously director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London for 21 years, is now also chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel in Saudi Arabia. She immediately resigned from the IKSV’s advisory board after accepting her appointment, as did three other board members who did so in protest. They are the artist Sarkis, Turkish curator Selen Ansen, and the independent Spanish curator Agustín Pérez Rubio.

Blazwick did not respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.

The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts issued a statement that read: “The Istanbul Biennial Advisory Board, which contributes to the biennial in various ways, is tasked with recommending curator candidates. As all members of the Advisory Board know, the final decision is always made by İKSV management. After carefully evaluating the Advisory Board’s list of highly qualified candidates, İKSV management decided to invite Iwona Blazwick, renowned for her knowledge, experience and achievements in the international art world.”

It did not respond to specific questions about Blazwick’s appointment or why Ayas was passed over for the role.

See our round-up of national pavilions at next year’s 60th Venice Biennale.

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