Dealer Curating Venice Biennale’s Turkish Pavilion Quits to Avoid ‘Conflicts That May Arise’

The art dealer who had been chosen to curate the Turkish Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale has stepped away from her post, citing a need to avoid “conflicts that may arise in ways that I cannot foresee at the moment.”

Esra Sarıgedik Öktem released her statement via the Instagram of the Istanbul-based gallery she founded, BüroSarıgedik, on Monday. That gallery also represents the artist chosen to do the pavilion, Gülsün Karamustafa.

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Öktem said there had been “major changes” at her gallery that would have precluded any conflict of interest while organizing the pavilion. “As the professional representative of Gülsün Karamustafa, and founding director of BüroSarigedik, I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest that my new role as curator might present,” she wrote. “As such, my team and I have reorganized the workflow of the office, and redefined my role in a way that would keep me separated from the day-to-day operations of the business side of representing Gülsün Karamustafa.”

But Öktem said that the appointment of Iwona Blazwick, currently chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel and previously director of Whitechapel Gallery in London, as curator of the 2024 Istanbul Biennial had moved her to reconsider curating the Venice Biennale pavilion.

According to the Art Newspaper, Defne Ayas had been unanimously endorsed by an international selection committee as curator for the Istanbul Biennial. But the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), which runs the biennial, went with a different curator, instead awarding the post to Blazwick, herself a member of that very organization’s advisory committee.

The Art Newspaper reported that critics believe Ayas was rejected because she organized the 2015 Venice Biennale’s Turkish Pavilion, which included work by the artist Sarkis, and came with a catalogue featuring a mention of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government denies that the genocide happened, and the catalogues were taken out of circulation and Sarkis made them into an artwork.

Öktem said the situation surrounding Ayas “distressed me very deeply and it also highlighted the need for a more transparent selection process and the lack of mutual communication.”

What went unmentioned in Öktem’s Instagram was that the IKSV also organizes the Venice Biennale pavilion. The IKSV’s initial release for the Biennale pavilion made two mentions of Öktem’s role at BüroSarıgedik, but it did not state that her gallery represents Karamustafa.

Scrutiny has continued to follow the IKSV after its reported snub of Ayas. In an essay for ArtReview, Kaya Genç said that the controversy is emblematic of a larger problem affecting the Turkish art world, writing, “in Turkey, demands for institutional transparency are rooted in fears about a pervasive political silence that may soon take the country hostage, particularly as government pressure on the fields of arts and culture continues to grow. These demands and concerns are fundamental in public life; the artworld must commit to adopting them if artistic freedom of expression is to be protected for the future.”

In Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian wrote that the situation can be related to a history of genocide denial in Turkey. “When people say autocrats rot culture, this is what they mean,” he said.

When asked whether Blazwick would still curate the 2024 Istanbul Biennial, the IKSV continued to defend its choice for curator in a statement to ARTnews.

“The Istanbul Biennial Advisory Board, which contributes to the biennial in various ways, is tasked with recommending curator candidates,” a foundation spokesperson said. “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, to be curator of the 18th Istanbul Biennial.”


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