Turkish Curator Resigns from Venice Biennale Pavilion Amidst Scandal

16 august, 2023

The reason for the resignation is the shady selection process of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial new curator, related to the unwillingness of the Turkish Government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. 

Esra Sarıgedik Öktem, curator of the Turkish Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale. Source: news.artnet.com

Esra Sarıgedik Öktem has resigned from curating the Turkish Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale. This action serves as a protest against the lack of transparency in the curator selection process for the Istanbul Biennial, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), as reported by Hyperallergic.

Earlier, the advisory board of IKSV publicly selected Defne Ayas as the curator for the Istanbul Biennial, but eventually IKSV did not accept her candidacy and replaced Ayas with Iwona Blazwick, who also was the member of the advisory board. This decision was met with criticism due to its lack of transparency and conflict of interest (Blazwick had previously voted for Defne Ayas's candidacy). In protest, three advisory board members resigned from IKSV:

— Spanish independent curator Agustín Pérez Rubio;

— Turkish curator and art historian Selen Ansen;

— Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis.

Immediately after accepting the curatorship, Blazwick also resigned from the board. IKSV has not responded to requests for comment. 

Defne Ayas (left) and Iwona Blazwick (right). Source: artissima.art / speakersforschools.org

Critics of IKSV believe that the reason for not accepting Defne Ayas’s candidacy is political. Having previously curated the Turkish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), Ayas publicly acknowledged the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917. She included an essay by Rakel Dink, widow of the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, in the exhibition. This led to censorship by the Turkish government. Defne Ayas's rejection reflects IKSV's attempt to deny the Armenian Genocide, according to Hyperallergic's editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian. He also highlighted the potential role of the industrial conglomerate Koç Holding, the main sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial.

Defending Defne Ayas, Öktem was inspired by artist Gülsün Karamustafa, who was chosen to participate in the Turkish Pavilion.

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