Today, the Art Newspaper reported that the Istanbul Biennial rejected Defne Ayas as the next curator of their biannual event in favor of a far more autocratic-friendly curator who is currently working with projects in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, Iwona Blazwick. 

Journalist Christina Ruiz reported that critics are suggesting that Ayas’s curation of the 2015 Turkish pavilion of the Venice Biennale featuring Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis was partly to blame. It’s clearly the reason, even if no one will go on record to state it, and one that I think is probably accurate based on what I’ve seen over the years around this topic. One cannot underestimate the role Armenian Genocide denial has played in Turkish society, how the state has benefited, and how it trickles down to the culture industries, like contemporary art. 

As Ruiz outlines, the 2015 Turkish Pavilion was impacted by genocide denial. She writes:

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 Following a complaint from the Turkish government, which denies that the genocide took place, the catalogue was withdrawn.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).

At the time, many of us, particularly in the Armenian diasporan art community, were shocked to learn that the pavilion would remain open during the Venice Biennale. A small but significant act of genocide denial was met with an esoteric artwork rather than a clear, open response. Sarkis, who, to be clear, most diasporan Armenians have never heard of, was part of that decision (I think most people mistakenly think Armenians in Turkey are part of the diaspora, which they are not, as they continue to remain in the country of their ancestral lands.). It was all very disturbing.

The same year, the 2015 Istanbul Biennial was curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and I, for one, refused to attend the show, seeing from afar how serious topics such as the Armenian Genocide were clearly being obfuscated in a nation that has never been safe for indigenous minorities. Just two months before the show opened, Turkey had entered the third phase of the conflict by the Turkish state to eradicate Kurdish insurgents in the same eastern provinces in which Armenians, Assyrians, and Yazidis were massacred just a century before.

Christov-Bakargiev’s program was clear, since she never tapped into the established and growing networks of Armenian artists, curators, and intellectuals from the diaspora, but chose individual artists with little connection or interest in the Armenian arts community. The choice to essentialize Armenians to artists with Armenian heritage, rather than working with a group of people in the Armenian community doing the memory work related to the genocide and our exile from what is currently the Republic of Turkey during the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, was a definitive political choice. All this is also symptomatic of contemporary art, where minorities are represented by individuals, often with no connection to the community they pretend to speak for, who fail to engage with the current conversations raging inside and outside those same communities and with topics that have real-world political consequences.

A full account of how the Turkish art world continues to benefit from genocide denial is too long to list, but it includes museums, such as the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, where Armenian intellectuals were jailed during the infamous April 24, 1915 events that are commemorated every year by Armenians and human rights defenders the world over. In 2015, I was in Istanbul during the Centennial Commemorations for the Armenian Genocide along with hundreds of other Armenians from the diaspora who are descendants of genocide survivors. Our group wasn’t even allowed the right to gather at the museum for fear of attacks from Turkish nationalists. Then there is the topic of Koç Holding, the main sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial. The country’s largest corporation, Koç Holding is still run by the Koç family, who made much of their money a century ago by buying Armenian properties confiscated during the genocide for pennies on the dollar. The wounds of the genocide, which Turkey continues to adamantly deny, are never seriously addressed, and they never seem to heal.

Now, Istanbul Foundation For Culture and the Arts (IKSV) doesn’t appear to think Defne Ayas is complicit enough in their genocide-denying agenda, so they have inserted the far more ethically challenged Blazwick, who is sure to curate a more plutocrat-friendly exhibition. 

To emphasize what Turkish curator Vasif Kortun told the Art Newspaper:

“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 since 2015. I find the whole thing shocking.”

Why are White Europeans always being tapped for the role? It’s interesting that Kortun mentions 2015, which makes me think perhaps they saw how successfully they were able to tap Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to create the illusion of dealing with deeper societal issues while doing none of that and, in my opinion, hurting the larger conversations that exiled descendants of the Armenian Genocide are trying to have with the Republic of Turkey in relation to its continued history of denial. 

To her credit, Ayas, who can be quite an excellent curator, was very clear with us at Hyperallergic when we asked her about some of the high and low points of 2015

Most distressing? When our publication for Respiro by Sarkis at the Pavilion of Turkey at the 56th Venice Biennale was censored. The news arrived to us on April 24 — the day of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Imagine the double pain and terror of working with the strict codes of the deep state, while trying to imagine a breathing space for all of us.

What I hope Ayas, and other members of the Turkish art world (both inside and outside the Republic), realize is that you can never give in to genocide denial in any form. You might think you’re being political but the reality is you’re emboldening the deniers, who will always demand more.

Blazwick is part of the problem. As a former member of the IKSV board, Blazwick was on the same advisory panel responsible for choosing a biennial curator, and has now rejected the unanimously agreed upon advice to appoint Ayas and has snagged the post herself.

When people say autocrats rot culture, this is what they mean. Blazwick now apes the same autocrats and plutocrats she serves and curates for. Why abide by a vote when you can usurp the position yourself?

Editor’s Note, 08/11/23: The term “Istanbul biennial” was mistakenly used instead of “Turkish pavilion” in one instance and that has been corrected.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

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