Artists refuse to open Israel pavilion at Venice Biennale until ceasefire is reached

<span>The closed Israeli national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Italy.</span><span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
The closed Israeli national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Italy.Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The artists and curators of the Israeli national pavilion at the Venice Biennale have announced their decision not to open until “a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached” in the conflict in Gaza, on the opening preview day of the largest and most prominent global gathering in the art world.

A sign on the front of the Israel pavilion in the Giardini, or public gardens, in Venice, one of the main venues for the Biennale, conveyed the team’s decision – while the pavilion itself is guarded by three armed Italian military personnel.

The presence of Israel at the Biennale – which this year features 88 national participations as well as the large, central curated exhibition – had been widely criticised.

An open letter signed by more than 23,000 artists and other creatives called for the deplatforming of the Israel pavilion, citing the ban preventing South Africa from participating in the Biennale between 1968 and 1993.

They also cited the fact that at the last edition of the Biennale, the Russian artists and curatorial team recused themselves after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In the Giardini, the Israeli artist Ruth Patir’s video work, Keening, was visible through the glass frontage of the modernist pavilion. But the rest of the fertility-themed exhibition, titled (M)otherland, “awaits inside for the moment when hearts can once again be open to art”, according to the organisers.

Patir said: “As an artist and educator, I firmly object to cultural boycott, but I have a significant difficulty in presenting a project that speaks about the vulnerability of life in a time of unfathomed disregard for it.”

The curators Mira Lapidot and Tamar Margalit added: “It has been six months since the brutal attack on Israel on October 7 and the beginning of the horrific war that is raging in Gaza.

“There is no end in sight, only the promise of more pain, loss and devastation. The exhibition is up and the pavilion is waiting to be opened. The art can wait but the women, children and people living through hell cannot.”

The organisers added: “The decision by the artist and curators is not to cancel themselves nor the exhibition; rather, they choose to take a stance in solidarity with the families of the hostages and the large community in Israel who is calling for change.”

Palestinian artists are represented at the Venice Biennale in the main centrally curated exhibition as well as through a “collateral event” – an affiliated exhibition titled South West Bank, which is also showing artists from beyond the region.

One of the artists showing in South West Bank, Dima Srouji, said: “A ceasefire and the release of hostages may mean business as usual for the Israeli pavilion, but for the rest of us it is a continuation of 75 years of occupation and the status quo of apartheid. We are fighting for our liberation, not only a ceasefire in 2024.”

Another, Adam Broomberg, said of the Israeli announcement: “Great chess move. The building should remain closed until the occupation and apartheid ends and all Palestinians are given full right of return.”