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  • Writer's pictureVeronika Bajnoková

Rejected Palestinian Artists Are Preparing Unofficial Exhibition to the Biennale as Divisions over Israel and Palestine Overshadow the Festival

The exhibition titled Foreigners in Their Homeland will hold an unofficial collateral event without the Biennale’s sanction at Venice’s Palazzo Mora starting April 20. 

The preparation of the unofficial event has gained worldwide attention as the Biennale is under criticism for hosting Israel which is currently at war with Hamas, the Palestinian militia considered by the U.S. and its allies to be a terrorist organization.

The 60th International Art Exhibition will be open from Saturday 20 April to Sunday 24 November at the Giardini and Arsenale venues. The project of the Palestine Museum US was officially rejected by the Biennale on October 20, 2023.

As Israel is charging a military offensive in the besieged Gaza Strip, which has already amounted to more than 31,000 deaths, artists from all around the world criticise the Biennale for allowing Israel to participate while staying silent about the oppression of Palestinians.

Rejected exhibition

The founder of the Palestine Museum US, Faisal Saleh, explained that their exhibition tells the “story of suffering and life under the brutal Israeli occupation” through the works of art from 23 Palestinian artists.

This theme was selected in line with the official title of the Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere. Adriano Pedrosa, the curator of the exhibition, says in his statement that “wherever you go and wherever you are you will always encounter foreigners— they/we are everywhere. Secondly, that no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.”

One of the artists featured in Palestime Museum US exhibition is Jacqueline Bejani from the Middle East with Palestinian origins. “It’s my mother’s homeland and I’m not allowed to go there,” says Bejani.

Her artwork showcasing portraits of Palestinian intellectuals, scholars, and artists was displayed at the official collateral event to the Biennale in 2022. “I wanted to show that Palestinians are great people and that we are not terrorists.” 

Agency of Palestinians

Instead, the Biennale selected for the official collateral event a project by Artists + Allies x Hebron in collaboration with the grass-roots artist-run initiative Dar Jacir for Art and Research from Betlehem.

AAH was founded by South African photographer Adam Broomberg based in Berlin and Palestinian activist and human rights defender Issa Amro from Hebron, and the Biennale has yielded criticism for not selecting a project led only by Palestinians.

“It's the question of agency and Palestinians need to have agency in projects related to Palestine,” argues Saleh.

However, Broomberg sees this criticism as a “bureaucratic misunderstanding.” He says the confusion was caused because the application was submitted by the organization led by him and Amro but the project is “a collaboration with the majority of Palestinian artists.”

Broomberg further argues that Palestinians and their supporters should focus on “common enemies that are very powerful” rather than small disputes. “I come from South Africa and the world recognised apartheid but Israel seems to be a double standard,” says Broomberg.

During the years 1968-1993, until apartheid rule was abolished, South Africa was banned from the Biennale. The art platform has been criticised for not banning the participation of Israel which has been brought to the International Court of Justice under the accusation of committing genocide in its military offensive in Gaza.

Petition against Israeli Pavilion

As of Monday 11 March 2024, more than 22,000 artists and activists have signed a petition against the Israeli pavilion at the Biennale organised by the Art Not Genocide Alliance.

In their open letter, ANGA states “As the art world readies itself to visit the Giardini’s nation-state diorama, we say platforming art representing a state engaged in ongoing atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza is unacceptable. No Genocide Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.”

Signatories of the appeal include Saleh, Broomberg, activist photographer Nan Goldin, and visual artist Jesse Darling, who won last year's Turner Prize, among other prominent figures.

However, the Biennale issued a statement announcing they “may not take into consideration any petition or call to exclude the participation of Israel.”

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano has also shut down calls to exclude Israel, stating on the Italian Culture Ministry’s website that such requests from activists “threaten the freedom of thought and creative expression.”

“I don’t believe in freedom of speech,” says Broomberg. “Some people’s speech is full of hate, and those people should not be given a platform. With what Israel is committing as a state, it should not be allowed to present itself.”

Saleh also criticises the Biennale for not granting a national pavilion for Palestine: “The fact that Italy does not recognise Palestine doesn’t mean that Palestine does not exist.”

Hope for change

“We were forbidden to have the Palestinian pavilion inside the Biennale and this is not acceptable,” says Bejani. She argues that Palestinian artists should have received more support from the Biennal: “Especially this year, we should have a pavilion with the name Palestine on it.”

The Biennale has been further criticised by ANGA for being “modelled on the Eurocentric world fair” and for retaining these “geopolitical biases.”

Saleh remains positive that the high number of people protesting the Biennale will have an impact on the global art scene: “It's unlikely that the artists of the world are going to go along with the fact that the Israeli pavilion will be a part of the Biennale. We expect that something will be challenged.”

A Venice Biennale spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

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