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Madrid art fair yanks photo exhibit amid political spat

Last Updated Feb 21, 2018 at 11:40 am EDT

A television journalist reports in front of a blank white wall where art works by artist Santiago Sierra were hung before being taken down in a gallery on the first day of annual the ARCO International Art Fair in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Madrid's International Art Fair has yanked an exhibition entitled "Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain," prompting charges of censorship against the government-funded body which operates the event venue. (AP Photo/Paul White)

MADRID – Madrid’s International Contemporary Art Fair on Wednesday yanked a photo exhibition called “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain,” prompting charges of censorship against the government-funded body which operates the event venue.

The spat came during efforts by pro-independence groups in the northeastern Catalonia region to break away from Spain. Some Catalan political leaders and activists have been preventively jailed because of their secession bid, and their supporters claim they are political prisoners — a charge which the national government in Madrid has vigorously denied, labelling them “politicians in prison.”

The ARCO fair organizers said in a statement that IFEMA, which runs the fair venue, asked the exhibiting gallery to take down artist Santiago Sierra’s photographs of unidentified prisoners because the controversy caused by the collection had diverted attention from the rest of the exhibits. It said the Helga de Alvear gallery complied with the request, leaving a broad stretch of blank wall.

The artist’s studio said the move damaged the international prestige of Spain and of the annual fair. It said in a statement that the common denominator of the prisoners portrayed in the photos was that they had expressed their ideas without resorting to violence.

The collection of 24 black-and-white photographs featured head-and-shoulder portraits of prisoners with their faces pixelated. Captions explained who they were, such as Catalan and Basque nationalists, without naming them.

One group of photographs included people facing potential trial for their actions during the recent Catalan independence turmoil, and many Spaniards would likely be able to identify them despite the pixelation. They include Catalonia’s former vice-president, a former Catalan interior minister and two prominent Catalan separatist activists.

Carlos Urroz, the director of ARCO, said each gallery’s space at the exhibition is a private area. Urroz said that Sierra, the artist, “is always very controversial and all his works have a very political slant.”

Madrid City Council said it didn’t support the decision to withdraw the exhibit, saying it defends freedom of expression and creativity “above all.”