Esra Sarıgedik Öktem, who was selected to curate the Turkish pavilion at the upcoming 60th Venice Biennale, has resigned from the post following the Istanbul Biennial’s rejection of Defne Ayas as the curator of that event’s upcoming edition. In a since-deleted statement posted on Instagram on August 14, Öktem wrote about the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts’s (IKSV) “need for a more transparent selection process” regarding the appointment of now-former advisory board member Iwona Blazwick as the Istanbul Biennial curator instead of Ayas, who had been unanimously chosen by members of the board — including Blazwick herself.
The news that Ayas had been passed up for the curatorial role was met with dismay and anger by Turkish and international cultural figures, who criticized the opaque decision-making process of the IKSV as well as the conflict of interest of Blazwick’s selection. The Art Newspaper reported that three advisory board members resigned upon learning that Blazwick was chosen: Spanish independent curator Agustín Pérez Rubio; Turkish curator and art historian Selen Ansen; and Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis, who exhibited at the 2015 Turkish pavilion curated by Ayas.
Blazwick, who immediately resigned from the board upon accepting the curatorial role, has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment. She recently began her new role as the chair of the Public Art Experts panel within the Royal Commission of AlUla in Saudi Arabia after 21 years as the director of Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Sarıgedik Öktem runs the gallery BüroSarıgedik in Istanbul, which represents Gülsün Karamustafa, the artist selected for the Turkish Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale. The curator noted that the gallery had taken steps “to avoid any conflict of interest,” but citing the “deeply distressing” rejection of Ayas and the appointment of Blazwick by the Istanbul Biennial, Öktem said the news led her to reconsider her decision. The curator declined to comment further.
It has been suggested that IKSV chose not to appoint Ayas as curator because of her acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide — which Turkey continues to deny — during her work on the Turkish pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. For the pavilion exhibition’s catalogue, Ayas included an essay by Rakel Dink, widow of the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, that included a brief acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide; the text was censored by the Turkish government, and Ayas and Sarkis placed the remaining print copies of the catalogue essay in a coffin overlaid with red glass and displayed it in the pavilion.
Last week, Hyperallergic‘s Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian penned an opinion highlighting how the IKSV’s decision to pass on Ayas in favor of Blazwick is a testament to Turkey’s determined efforts to expunge any association with and deny the existence of the Armenian Genocide. The opinion by Vartanian also drew attention to the fact that Koç Holding, the main sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial, is run by the Koç family, which capitalized on the Armenian Genocide by allegedly acquiring confiscated Armenian property on the cheap.
The controversy has reignited a debate about censorship and “artwashing” in the country and the responsibility of arts and culture institutions like IKSV to create spaces for free expression, as argued in the independent Turkish media outlet Politikyol.
The IKSV has not addressed its decision to forgo Ayas or any other shortlisted candidate in favor of Blazwick and has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment on the potential for reconsidering the selection in light of the backlash.
Editor’s note 8/17/23 10:05am EDT: This article has been updated to include further details about Sarıgedik Öktem’s gallery BüroSarıgedik and its connection to Gülsün Karamustafa, the artist selected for the Venice Biennale’s Turkish Pavilion.