Israel Pavilion At 60th Venice Biennale Sparks Global Debate

Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale, long regarded as a hothouse for artistic and political exchange, is again embroiled in controversy as thousands of artists have joined forces, signing an open letter demanding the exclusion of Israel’s national pavilion from the upcoming event. Italy’s culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, confirmed today that Israel’s participation in this year’s Biennale, which runs from 20th April to 24th November, will proceed as planned. This push for exclusion evokes previous instances of diplomatic tension, including Russia’s expulsion in 2022 following the Ukraine invasion and South Africa’s boycott during the apartheid era.

The Venice Biennale, renowned as one of the world’s most prestigious art events, has a complex history of political exclusion woven into its fabric. Dating back to its inception in 1895, the Biennale has been a stage for national representation, cultural exchange, and, sometimes, contentious geopolitical dynamics.

One notable instance of political exclusion occurred during the rise of fascism in Italy in the early 20th century. Under Mussolini’s regime, the Biennale became a platform for propagating fascist ideology, leading to the exclusion and censorship of artworks deemed politically subversive or non-conforming to the fascist narrative.

2022 Venice Biennale Russia Pulls Out
2022 Venice Biennale Russia Pulls Out Photo © Artlyst

Similarly, during World War II, the Biennale was suspended, reflecting the broader disruption of cultural life caused by the conflict. The resumption of the Biennale after the war marked a period of rebuilding and redefinition as artists and organisers sought to navigate the complexities of post-war politics and reconstruction.

The Venice Biennale has been criticised for handling politically sensitive issues, mainly representing nations embroiled in conflict or controversy. The question of which countries are invited to participate and how their national pavilions are curated has been debated and scrutinised. One of the more controversial cases of political exclusion involves Palestinian representation at the Biennale. Despite Palestine’s vibrant artistic community and cultural heritage, the territories have been denied a permanent pavilion at the Biennale due to the lack of official recognition by the Italian government.

Israel has maintained a consistent presence at the Biennale despite ongoing criticism and calls for boycotts due to policies towards the Palestinian territories. This disparity in treatment has fueled accusations of bias and selective political engagement on the part of the Biennale organisers.

In recent years, increased pressure has been on the Venice Biennale to address political exclusion issues and ensure greater diversity and representation within its programming. Calls for transparency, accountability, and ethical engagement have underscored the need for the Biennale to confront its history and embrace a more inclusive vision of contemporary art and culture.

As the Venice Biennale continues to evolve and adapt to the changing dynamics of the global art world, its legacy of political exclusion serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between art, politics, and power on the world stage.

Russia’s exclusion from the last Biennale stemmed from the country’s invasion of Ukraine, which occurred in February of that year. The invasion prompted widespread condemnation from the international community, including cultural institutions like the Venice Biennale. In response to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, the organisers of the Biennale decided to exclude Russia from participating in the event. The artists and curators representing Russia had already pulled out.

The exclusion of Russia from the Biennale was a significant statement by the organisers, highlighting the Biennale’s commitment to upholding principles of peace, justice, and solidarity in the face of political conflict and aggression. It also demonstrated the art world’s capacity to engage with and respond to pressing issues through cultural diplomacy and collective action.

South Africa was excluded from the Venice Biennale during the apartheid period ending in 1994. Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the government of South Africa, which led to widespread human rights abuses and international condemnation.

During the years of apartheid, South Africa faced significant isolation and boycotts from the international community across various sectors, including culture and sports. Many countries and organisations, including the Venice Biennale, chose to exclude South Africa from participating in events as a form of protest against apartheid and in solidarity with the oppressed majority population.

The exclusion was part of broader efforts to pressure the South African government to dismantle apartheid and to advocate for racial equality and human rights. It was a symbolic and practical measure aimed at demonstrating opposition to the apartheid regime and supporting the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa.

Israel Pavilion Photo Wiki Commons
Israel Pavilion Photo Wiki Commons

The Venice Biennale, which opens in April, is a global artistic gathering revered as a beacon for cultural exchange. It currently finds itself embroiled in yet another heated debate over the implications of hosting Israel this year. A recent letter from a group calling themselves The Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA) has accused Israel of perpetrating what signatories to the petition describe as “genocidal atrocities.”

The Venice Biennale has traditionally been a focal point for the discourse of art and politics. Hundreds of artists have lent their names to an open letter demanding the exclusion of Israel’s national pavilion from the Biennale. Among the voices contained as signatories are contemporary art figures, including a Turner Prize winner, acclaimed artists, prominent academics and curators. The list of signatories contains past and present Biennale participants, along with both Palestinians and Israelis, adding their names to the list. Renowned artists such as Carolina Caycedo, Nan Goldin, Michael Rakowitz, Jessie Darling, Rehana Zaman, Cecilia Vicuna, Eddie Peake, and Rosalind Nashashibi have signed. Beyond the confines of the art world, scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, economist Yanis Varoufakis, and Tariq Ali lend their voices to the protest. Among the thousands of signatories, 471 boast previous affiliations with the Venice Biennale, including artists Sin Wai Kin, featured in the 2019 edition, and Sophie Al-Maria, selected for the event’s prestigious 2022 Special Project.

The letter reverberates against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Middle East, following the paramilitary wings of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PRC, PFLP and DFLP launching a series of coordinated armed incursions into Israel on 7 October 2023, murdering and maiming 1,200 Israeli civilians, and taking 250 hostages. This prompted Israel to retaliate with reports of the deaths of 30,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, and the destruction of much of Gaza, including hospitals and other necessary infrastructure. Disease and famine are gripping the area and humanitarian aid is difficult to deliver.

The letter from the artistic community denounces Israel’s military actions in Gaza and implores the Biennale to refrain from providing a platform to what they perceive as a State complicit in ongoing human rights violations. The spectre of double standards looms large, with critics lambasting the Biennale’s silence on Gaza, pointing out that the response has been non-existent compared to their vocal support for Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression.

Amidst this maelstrom of controversy, the spotlight falls on Ruth Patir, slated to represent Israel at this year’s Biennale alongside curators Mira Lapidot and Tamar Margalit. her project, entitled The Fertility Pavilion, focuses on contemporary motherhood. Patir’s reflections on the recent Hamas attack underscore the profound sense of grief and apprehension pervading Israeli society, offering a stark contrast to the celebratory ambience typically associated with the Biennale.

Faisal Saleh, director of the Palestine Museum U.S., laments the rejection of his institution’s proposed exhibition, “Foreigners in their Homeland,” which sought to amplify Palestinian narratives marginalised by the political realities. Saleh’s advocacy for the exclusion of Israel’s pavilion resonates with a growing chorus of dissent, fueled by a genuine desire to uphold the Biennale’s commitment to artistic integrity and social responsibility.

The Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA) is a nascent coalition of artists, curators, and cultural workers calling for justice in Palestine. Their rationale, embodied in an online petition gathering momentum by the day, challenges the Biennale to confront the uncomfortable truths lurking beneath the veneer of artistic diplomacy. With over 15,000 signatories and counting, ANGA’s call reverberates across continents with collective action in pursuing ethical accountability.

As the countdown to the 60th Venice Biennale draws nearer, the stakes have never been higher. The fate of Israel’s pavilion hangs in the balance, emblematic of broader fault lines intersecting the realm of artistic expression. Banning exhibitors like Israel, Palestine or Russia, for that matter, from participating in an event like the Biennale is not the answer. Their exclusion creates a missed opportunity for discourse that will not happen if exclusions are in place. In 2022 the state-selected Russian artists and curators did the right thing by pulling out as a protest against the inhumanity of the war in Ukraine. The Biennale stands at a crossroads, compelled to reckon with its role as arbiter of cultural diplomacy in a world beset by conflict and division. – Ceasefire NOW!

Top Photo © Artlyst 2022

The letter in full:

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