Curators Respond to German Photo Biennale Cancellation
By The Editors
Last week, the 10th Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie was canceled by authorities from the German cities of Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, and Heidelberg, where the photography exhibition was set to occur next March. In a press release, the Biennale attributed the official reason for cancellation to “antisemitic content” posted to Facebook by one of the Biennale’s co-curators, Dhaka-based photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who vocally admonished the Israeli military’s campaign in Gaza.
Biennale organizers said they voiced concerns to Alam and the festival’s other curators, Bangladeshi photographers Tanzim Wahab and Munem Wasif, in attempts to “sensitize the curators to Germany’s special historical responsibility for the state of Israel and its right to exist,” but Alam continued to post pro-Palestinian content because he “sees himself as an activist and demands freedom of expression.” Meanwhile, Wahab and Wasif said they would not participate in the Biennale without Alam.
On November 28, Wasif shared with ArtAsiaPacific’s editorial team a response written and signed by himself, Alam, and Wahab, as well as separate statements by the Biennale’s curatorial advisors Yasime Eid Sabbagh and Tanvi Mishra. These are published in full, below:
Statement by Curators of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie 2024
We are dismayed by the decision of the Director, Yasmin Meinicke, and the Board of the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, taken in consultation with German state authorities to unilaterally cancel the 2024 edition. For 18 months, we worked with 44 artists, six partner organisations, three advisors and various colleagues to bring the Biennale to fruition. As the curators, we only found out about this cancellation through a press release in the public domain, published without our consent, on November 23, 2023.
We find the conduct of the Director and the Board of the Biennale to be a breach of trust and antithetical to the very premise of the theme we were intending to explore in this edition. Further, it is in violation of our contractual agreement, which states, “All press releases are published in agreement with the curator and the managing director of the Biennale.”
The title of our edition was “Listening to Disquiet,” which looked to address the question of what embodied listening may mean—as a precondition to forming opinions—in the context of a biennale. Our belief in social justice, our collective struggles, our friendships, our mutual losses, and our solidarity urge us to listen carefully. Not only to hear, but to absorb the range of frequencies emitted by this disquiet, and by the images produced by artists across geographies and temporalities. We are saddened that we will not be able to share our planned exhibition with the public.
Since October 15, we had been in multiple discussions with the Biennale management regarding social media posts made by Shahidul Alam, on his Facebook account, related to the ongoing war crimes in Gaza. While the posts were a response to the actions of the Israeli government, the Biennale incorrectly equated these to anti-Semitism. We feel that the failure to draw a distinction between criticism of a government and of a peoples, is irresponsible and damaging to the honesty of public discourse.
During in-person discussions in Mannheim, in the week of October 23, several partners to the biennale—including multiple directors of associated institutions, some members of the Board as well as the Biennale team expressed their disagreement with the position of the Director on these social media posts. Several members of the Biennale team voiced their indignation at the developing atmosphere of self-censorship.
After a series of communications, we were informed on November 14 that we could continue as curators of the upcoming edition. Yet, on November 23, the Biennale Director, after meeting with the mayors of cultural affairs of all three cities in which the Biennale was to be held—Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Heidelberg—sent a press release, unilaterally announcing the cancellation of the event. The Director did not seek to challenge State censorship or to fulfil her role as a leader of the inviting institution, to exercise care towards the curators, and in turn the artists.
At a time where there has been an indefensible escalation in relentless brutalities against the Palestinian people, we believe that we have a moral responsibility to decide which side of history we will stand on. Recent events have led to the killing of civilians on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, which we have stood against, and continue to condemn. However, we cannot ignore the disproportionate toll on Palestinians now and historically since 1948. For us to disregard this stark difference—in the number of Palestinians killed, their homes destroyed, their basic civil liberties curtailed by the State of Israel—would be to turn a blind eye to unfolding realities.
Our acknowledgment of the history of the Palestinian cause, and the present assault in Gaza on civilians, does not, in any way, translate to us dismissing the historical persecution of the Jewish people. Such a conflation is a deliberate and dangerous misreading of our position. It is this shrinking space for care towards the persecution of any community, that we seek to address in the critical space of arts, education, and discourse.
In times of crisis, cultural institutions are meant to create a safe space for careful listening, with and despite our differences. The very institution that was supposed to host us, and make space for diverse voices, has slandered their invited curators. Many of us, from the Global South, who are invited to work with Western institutions, on the premise of inclusivity, often share this skepticism—of how far our diversity is being tokenised or instrumentalised for course correction of their historical legacies. How truly welcoming are these institutions towards radically different ways of thinking, which emerge from vastly different contexts, both contemporary and historical? Have we lost the basic human right to question, protest, or collectively mourn? Our difference of perspective—shaped by our colonial past—in reading history and its contemporary fallouts is seen as a reason to educate or “sensitize” us. We were invited to curate the Biennale because they claimed they wanted our voice, and our perspective on how we see the world. But in a moment of crisis, it has appeared that our voices were only invited on their terms, subservient to their conditions.
Censorship cannot separate the waves of communication by force. We will have to take the initiative to listen differently in our own communities. Space must be created. Creating true pluralism by moving beyond our individual comfort zones is part of a long struggle.
–Shahidul Alam, Tanzim Wahab, and Munem Wasif
Statement by curatorial advisors of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie 2024
The accusation of anti-semitism against Dr. Shahidul Alam comes as no surprise. It is the logical continuation of a witch hunting practice taking place in German cultural institutions for several years now (at least since early 2020 when Achille Mbembe was disinvited from the Ruhrtriennale). It reveals the incapacity of Germany and its institutions to deal with its own past, to deal with conflict, and to question its self-awarded chronic superiority and entitlement — even in a context in which the object of its Staatsraison has clearly and publicly stated genocidal intent.
This disdainful form of scapegoating of Dr. Shahidul Alam and many others is outright censorship, it is racist and discriminatory. The ease and callousness with which these type of accusations are pronounced in Germany these days suggests that fascism is returning to the present.
In this context we should all actively refuse to contribute to cultural labour in Germany!
–Yasmine Eid Sabbagh
We often see western cultural institutions call upon the labour of many, under the ostensible premise of supporting a diversity of voices and fostering critical thought. However, this decision of the Biennale to cancel an entire edition over Shahidul’s social media posts and to communicate it through a press release before they even personally informed the curators, reveals a hierarchical mindset. By offering an invitation, it is assumed that they define the parameters of this diversity, and a critical lens can be used to view the rest of the world, but not themselves. It is worth asking then, if these so-called collaborations are meant for toeing the institutional line and if those invited must express gratitude, in so far as, posing no challenge to that position.
With this censorship, the Western liberal democracy, with its supposed tenets of free speech and expression, is exposing its racist double-standards—valuing the rights of some communities above others. In selectively acknowledging history, and the persecution of only one set of people, it appears that Germany is seeking to absolve itself of its complicity in past events at the cost of another historical wrong in the making. I stand in full solidarity with all three curators, for having the courage to acknowledge the long arc of multiple histories and oppose the grotesque war crimes being committed by Israel in the present moment.