In a recent turn of events, Iwona Blazwick, the former Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, has stepped down from her role as the curator of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial.
This decision comes after a controversy that unfolded last summer, triggered by concerns over transparency surrounding her appointment by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), the private entity overseeing the Biennial.
The controversy sparked by the advisory board’s unanimous selection of Turkish curator Defne Ayas, which İKSV diverged from, choosing instead to appoint Blazwick. This decision was met with criticism, leading to divisions in the art circles and, ultimately, the postponement of the 18th edition of the embattled exhibition, initially slated for a September launch in 2025.
In a statement provided to The Art Newspaper, İKSV revealed, “The decision not to organise the 18th Istanbul Biennial in 2024 was made in collaboration with Iwona Blazwick.” The foundation outlined plans to establish a new advisory board led by the recently appointed Istanbul Biennial director, Kevser Güler. As per the updated regulations implemented last year, a fresh curator will be selected, paving the way for the Istanbul Biennial’s return to the public eye in 2025.
Addressing the reasons behind the exhibition’s postponement, İKSV explained in a statement, “Undesired divisions in art circles have emerged, adversely affecting artists who had committed to or might have considered participating in the Biennial, along with collaborations and partnerships. Regrettably, these circumstances have rendered it impossible to proceed with the Istanbul Biennial as originally planned.”
The foundation detailed its ongoing collaboration with approximately 58 global artists since March of the previous year in preparation for the 18th Istanbul Biennial. The curatorial framework aimed to explore the role of art in the aftermath of loss and trauma, fostering the creation of numerous new artworks and meaningful local and international collaborations. However, the controversy and subsequent postponement have disrupted these collaborations and put the artists in a difficult position, as they had invested time and effort into creating works for the exhibition that is now delayed.
The controversy initially ignited in August when The Art Newspaper reported that the Istanbul Biennial’s advisory board had unanimously selected Turkish curator Defne Ayas as the optimal candidate to curate the upcoming Biennial. Despite the board’s recommendation, İKSV diverged and appointed Blazwick, the former Director of the Whitechapel Gallery. At the time, Blazwick concurrently served as a member of the advisory panel responsible for appointing a curator for the Biennial.
Critics assert that the foundation deemed Ayas too risky, citing her curation of an exhibition by Sarkis for the Turkish Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The accompanying catalogue, which included an essay by Rakel Dink, the widow of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, alluded to the “Armenian genocide.” Following a complaint from the Turkish government, which denies the occurrence of the genocide, the catalogue was withdrawn.
After these events, four artists initially invited to participate in the 18th Istanbul Biennial withdrew from the exhibition. İKSV responded by implementing new measures to enhance transparency. In a recent statement, İKSV acknowledged, “In response to criticism of its decision-making procedures, İKSV reviewed its governance mechanisms to make them more participatory. Our goal, as always, was to ensure that the Istanbul Biennial provided a platform for artistic expression, dialogue, and interaction.”
The Istanbul Biennial has grown to be the leading contemporary art event in the region and is also one of the most respected Biennials on the global art calendar. The Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) has organised the Biennial since 1987. The event is vital in promoting contemporary artists from Turkey into the international arena. The event works on an exhibition model which enables direct dialogue between artists from diverse cultures and the audience.
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