Artists Are Pulling Out Of The Sydney Biennale Because Major Sponsor Transfield Runs Asylum Seeker Detention Centres

The Biennale of Sydney is being taken to task by artists for founding sponsor Transfield’s involvement. Photo Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

A war of words over asylum seekers has broken out between the 19th Biennale of Sydney and nearly half the artists involved in the 2014 festival, which begins in three weeks.

Yesterday, five artists withdrew from the exhibition in protest against the show’s major sponsor, construction giant Transfield, which also founded the event 40 years ago. Last week a Transfield subsidiary was awarded a $1.2 billion contract to run Australia’s offshore immigration detention facilities.

Just before the decision, 41 of the Biennale of Sydney’s 90 artists, dubbed the #19BoS Working Group, wrote an open letter to the Biennale Board raising their concerns about Transfield’s involvement, stating:

We appeal to you to work alongside us to send a message to Transfield, and in turn the Australian Government and the public: that we will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights; and that, as a network of artists, arts workers and a leading cultural organisation, we do not want to be associated with these practices.

The Board, which is chaired by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, whose Italian immigrant family founded Transfield in 1956, responded three days later on Saturday, saying, in part:

Firstly, let us say that we truly empathise with the artists in this situation.

Like them, we are inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle. Both parties are ‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument. Neither wants to see human suffering.

Artists must make a decision according to their own understanding and beliefs. We respect their right to do so.

While being mindful of these valid concerns, it is this Board’s duty to act in the interests of the Biennale and all its stakeholders….

Consequently, we unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family – and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale – must override claims over which there is ambiguity.

Aware of the brewing controversy, Transfield also made a pre-emptive strike,
issuing a statement on February 14 in which Mr Belgiorno-Nettis said “Many Australians struggle with the problems of managing the transit of refugees to this country; this is a global challenge. The Biennale of Sydney acts as an artistic platform for dialogue around issues such as this.”

Nonetheless, five artists, Gabrielle de Vietri, Libia Castro, Charlie Sofo, Ahmet Ogut and Olagur Olafsson announced yesterday that they had “revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees” in protest against Transfield’s involvement and called on other artists to boycott as well.

They added

While we have sought ways to address our strong opposition to Australia’s mandatory detention policy as participants of the Biennale, we have decided that withdrawal is our most constructive choice.”

The Biennale responded by saying it would support artists who wanted to use the event as a platform to express their views.

The 2014 Biennale of Sydney opens on March 23 and runs until June 9.

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