São Paulo Art Biennial is the biggest international arts event in South America, receiving thousands of visitors and being fully covered by specialized media. The 31st Biennial of São Paulo took place on September 6th. Unlike previous events, this one was marked by a surprising protest.A group of 61 artists, the majority of participating artists, called for the organization to return the Israeli cultural sponsorship (about $40,000) otherwise they would not show up. According to a signed letter, they believe Israeli cultural sponsorship is “whitewashing Israel’s ongoing aggression and violation of international law and human rights”, in reference to the consequences of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.Part of the letter (translated) can be read below:
"At a time in which the people of Gaza return to the rubble of their homes, destroyed by the Israeli military, we do not feel it is acceptable to receive Israeli cultural sponsorship. In accepting this funding our artistic work displayed in the exhibition is undermined and implicitly used for whitewashing Israel’s ongoing aggression and violation of international law and human rights. We reject Israel’s attempt to normalize itself within the context of a major international cultural event in Brazil. With this statement, we appeal to the Biennial Foundation to refuse this funding and to take action on this matter before the opening of the exhibition."
The Biennial's curators supported the artist’s right to protest and backed them to reach a deal with the organizers. Therefore, the Israeli logo was taken off of the main published materials, from the pavilion and the website, being left only on the artist stands that directly received the cultural sponsorship. To my surprise, two Israelis: Yael Bartana, born in Israel, living and working in Amsterdam, and Michael Kessus Gedalyovich, artist, curator and chief editor of Ma'arav online art magazine, also signed the letter.Yael told me that she signed the letter in solidarity with other artists just because previous attempts to talk to the organizers were ignored. She concluded by saying that everything ended up well, since the Israeli funds remained in the Biennial and other artists did not withdraw from the exhibition.The Israeli consulate in Brazil told the newspaper O Globo that this letter was a big surprise. For them, there is no logic in mixing art with politics this way. But they respected the artists' decision. They also said that no artist tried to contact them before the letter came out to the public.It is understood from Yael's interview that most of the artists who have signed the letter do not seem to have a strong agenda against Israel. Instead, they just supported a colleague in solidarity. Unlike most of the artists, the leader of the protest, Tony Chackar, is Lebanese and an anti-Israel activist. A quick look at his Facebook page pops up posts full of protests and heavy accusations, like “If you're wondering what to boycott, here's a list of 11 companies, and why you should boycott them..”, or “the names of the martyrs of #Gaza on the Rawsheh rock in Beirut”. Regarding the Biennial decision, Chackar celebrated “we must have hurt them real bad”. This case reminds me of the saying “a bad apple spoils the barrel”. Chackar's clear intention was to force a boycott of Israel in the Biennial of São Paulo by gathering as many signatures as possible. He almost succeeded in it, which indicates to us a red flag that should be seriously taken into consideration.Israel should be very careful when deciding to sponsor or participate in cultural events or any other events where participants have shown interest in boycotting us. Israel has to start taking an active role in preventing these boycott actions. That can be achieved by demanding to the organizers to take measures to prevent this sort of situation.This is a dark episode for the Biennial of São Paulo, yet served for the organizers to learn that they need to use preventive procedures in the future. The bottom line is that an event of this dimension cannot be blackmailed by artists this way. Those who want to protest should do so through their work. After all, common sense says to leave politics to politicians, art to artists and bad apples out of the barrel.