MADRID – An international contemporary art fair in the capital of Spain caused a stir on Wednesday when it decided to remove one of the featured works that depicted 24 people – including several imprisoned leaders of the region of Catalonia’s separatist movement – as political prisoners, a decision that has been met with criticism by various politicians and institutions alike.
The organizers of the ARCOmadrid fair, IFEMA, asked gallery owner Helga de Alvear to remove from her stand the piece “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” by photographer Santiago Sierra, which was made up of 24 portraits of “jailed celebrities” such as the former vice president of Catalonia and other pro-Catalan independence activists.
“While the fair has the highest respect for artists’ freedom of expression, it has decided that the controversy this particular artwork has caused in the media is damaging the visibility of all the other content in ARCOmadrid 2018,” IFEMA explained in a statement. “As organizers, it is our responsibility to distance those discourses that divert attention from the fair as a whole.”
Sierra’s set of portraits, valued at 80,000 euros ($98,635), showed pixelated faces of figures including Oriol Junqueras – the leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party who has been in pre-trial detention and charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds since an illegal referendum on Catalan independence was held on Oct. 1 – as well as Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, two civil society leaders who had promoted the northeastern region’s secession from the rest of Spain.
This was the first time in the fair’s 37-year history that a piece of art has been removed.
“Art is a permanent dialogue with the world; to ban that dialogue is to ban me as a person,” Sierra told EFE after learning of the decision. “To reflect on (this) isn’t frightening, or at least it shouldn’t be.”
The artist, 52, explained that the purpose of his work was to prove the existence of political prisoners in current-day Spain and to show the conditions of ideological persecution suffered by professionals in the world of Spanish culture.
“It’s a primitive and disgraceful act of censure,” Sierra added.
Sources in Madrid’s local government, which is made up of a coalition of left-leaning parties, told EFE that they disagreed with IFEMA’s decision – of which they had not been informed beforehand despite the fact that Madrid city hall sits on the fair’s governing board – and had asked the organizers to rectify what they considered a mistake.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the progressive party Podemos (“We Can”), told journalists at the Spanish lower house that censuring certain topics was incompatible with democracy.
“In a democratic state, there must be freedom of expression,” Iglesias said.
Joan Tarda, the parliamentary spokesman for ERC, compared the artwork’s removal to the censure present in “regimes” like the government headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Welcome to Turkey,” he said, while adding that he regretted “such a superlative exercise in hypocrisy.”