Istanbul Biennial rejected curator recommended by advisory board in favour of Iwona Blazwick

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The Istanbul Foundation For Culture and the Arts (IKSV), which runs the Istanbul Biennial, has rejected advice to appoint Defne Ayas, the Turkish-born, Berlin-based curator, who was chosen unanimously by a panel of international specialists as the best candidate to organise the next edition of the exhibition.

Instead, the IKSV appointed Iwona Blazwick to organise the show, which opens in September 2024, even though Blazwick was a serving member of the advisory panel tasked with choosing a curator for the biennial at the time of her selection, raising questions about conflicts of interest at the highest levels of the foundation. The incident also highlights the challenges of running cultural institutions in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey and the dangers of self censorship.

Blazwick is the former director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London and now serves as the chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel in Saudi Arabia.

After they were informed of Blazwick’s appointment, three members of the biennial advisory panel resigned. Blazwick has also now resigned from the panel, according to the IKSV. She declined to comment.

Opaque selection process

At the end of January, the Istanbul Biennial advisory board met to review the proposals of four shortlisted curators, including Defne Ayas, who had been asked to outline their ideas for the next biennial. Ayas is an experienced curator who has organised shows in politically sensitive contexts; she previously curated the Gwangju Biennial in South Korea in 2021 with Natasha Ginwala, the Moscow Biennale in Russia in 2015 and the Baltic Triennial in Lithuania in 2012.

Following discussions, the board members—Iwona Blazwick; Yuko Hasegawa, the director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan; Agustín Pérez Rubio, an independent curator based in Spain and a former museum director; Selen Ansen, a curator and art historian based in Istanbul, and the Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis who lives in Paris—unanimously selected Ayas.

Despite this, the IKSV, which also oversees the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, rejected the board’s recommendation.

Critics believe that Ayas was judged too risky by the foundation. They cite her curation of an exhibition by Sarkis for the Turkish Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. A catalogue accompanying the show included an essay written by Rakel Dink, the widow of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007. In her text, Dink made a passing reference to the “Armenian genocide” to describe the pain of her people. Following a complaint from the Turkish government, which denies that the genocide took place, the catalogue was withdrawn. Ayas and Sarkis then placed all remaining copies into a coffin which Sarkis covered in coloured glass and transformed into a sculpture (Respiro, 2015).

Sarkis’s Respiro (2015), seen here at the Turkish pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015, is currently on view at Arter in Istanbul, which is funded by Koç Holding, the main sponsors of the Istanbul Biennial

The IKSV declined to say why it had rejected Ayas and it has declined to publish the list of advisory board members on its website, as it has done for previous editions. Until contacted by The Art Newspaper, the foundation also declined to confirm that Blazwick was still a serving member of the biennial advisory board when she was appointed to lead the next edition, and it has declined to say whether Blazwick, who has served on the board for four consecutive editions of the exhibition, had submitted a curatorial proposal for the biennial as the four shortlisted curators did.

When Bige Örer, the director of the biennial told the advisory board that Blazwick had been selected, Agustín Pérez Rubio, Selen Ansen, and Sarkis resigned. All three were contacted by The Art Newspaper; all three declined to comment.

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Defne Ayas said: “It was an honour to be considered for the role, and I am thankful that the advisory board recommended my appointment. I would have taken great pride in curating the forthcoming edition. At this point, I have no regrets and wish the Biennale success. 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.”

Turkish reaction

President Erdoğan extended his two decades in power after winning the country’s presidential elections in May. His victory was met with fears from members of Turkey’s creative community who have faced intimidation and a clampdown on their freedom of expression under his rule.

The decision to appoint Iwona Blazwick was met with strong criticism by Turkish curators, artists and writers who voiced their dismay on social media. One of them, Duygu Demir, an art historian and independent curator based in Istanbul, describes the IKSV’s rejection of Ayas as “self-censorship”. She tells The Art Newspaper that the biennial’s main sponsor since 2007, Koç Holding, is unlikely to have put pressure on the foundation to make the decision. “If anything, Koç Holding has let people know it is not in agreement with the Erdoğan government and we haven’t witnessed any interference at Arter, the contemporary art museum in Istanbul set up and funded by Koç Holding.”

While Demir acknowledges the difficulties of organising exhibitions in the current climate, she believes that important work can still be done. “We’ve all figured out different ways of using our voice. I recently worked with a Kurdish artist; we discussed certain images and text, rejected a few, and found a way forward. The main thing is that you don’t leave these delicate decisions to the administrators; these are decisions that curators and artists should be making. I am not against Iwona Blazwick or her practice; she has a great track record at the Whitechapel and Tate and I’m happy to see a woman organise the next biennial. What many of us object to is the lack of transparency at the IKSV.”

Others question how the IKSV can continue to function without clarifying how it appointed Blazwick. In a statement sent to The Art Newspaper, Sarp Özer, another independent curator in Istanbul, said: “Institutions like the IKSV should be bound to principles and protocols that can’t just change overnight. It is difficult to fathom how the professionals in charge thought the absence of the advisory committee would not require a proper public explanation.”

The statement continues: “When Blazwick’s appointment was announced, Görgün Taner, the general director of the IKSV, said: ‘We are delighted that Iwona Blazwick has accepted our invitation to curate the 18th Istanbul Biennial.’ Should we assume that IKSV has settled on issuing personal invitations rather than considering different proposals? Will it continue to do so in the years to come? Cultural institutions are defined by the clarity, consistency, and accountability of their actions.”

“All of the concerns raised so far point to IKSV’s public mandate as the biennial is not named after the foundation [that administers it] but the city of Istanbul. We hope this discussion will help bring the institution forward towards a more equitable, transparent, open and honest mode of operation.”

Vasif Kortun, a curator and writer in Istanbul, has served on the Istanbul biennial advisory board and has curated two editions of the exhibition, in 1992, and in 2005 with Charles Esche, now the director of the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Kortun warned of the dangers of self-censorship, and said Ayas was more than capable of navigating the sensitive political environment. “There is no end to it. The moment you start on this road, you never know how to stop. Dealing with a challenging political climate should be a negotiation. Curators and artists should ask themselves: ‘How far can I go?’; ‘How can I tell this story?’ Defne Ayas is an intelligent woman who understands the complicated context in Turkey. She knows it’s better to do the biennial in the best way possible rather than pointlessly provoking people.”

Kortun adds that “the biennial does not know which geography it is in. There has not been a single curator from the Balkans or the southern Mediterranean. Instead, we’ve seen a succession of white Europeans. I find the whole thing shocking.”

In a statement, the IKSV said: “The decision on the choice of curator [for the Istanbul Biennial] is made by IKSV and approved by the Board of IKSV. Concerning the nomination of Ms Iwona Blazwick who is an internationally renowned curator we would like to point out that the advisory board which included Ms Blazwick did not appoint Ms Blazwick. The decision to appoint Ms Blazwick was taken by IKSV further to the non-acceptance of the advice of the advisory board by IKSV. It is to be noted that the advisory board gives advice which is not however binding and IKSV may act independently of such advice.”

“Ms Blazwick’s work is highly respected by IKSV as she is an internationally renowned curator with wide knowledge of contemporary art and deep knowledge of the context in Turkey thanks to her experience in the advisory board from which she stepped down. IKSV at this time deemed that it is a moment in which to nominate an international curator to lead the next edition artistically.”

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