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French Version

Politics and art don't mix in divided Cyprus

Authorities pull the plug on contemporary art event over activities planned in Turkish Cypriot North

The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, founded to tie all of Europe closer together after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has come undone in the long-divided capital of Nicosia.

For the first time in the 10-year history of the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM), lawyers are reading the contractual small print after Cyprus pulled the plug on Manifesta 6 over political sensitivities.

The row over one of the art world's premier contemporary festivals has ruffled feathers and put Cyprus in an embarrassing spot.

Cypriot authorities were unhappy that part of Manifesta 6 would take place in the Turkish Cypriot North, offering a semblance of recognition to a breakaway state only recognized by Ankara.

The Mediterranean island, which joined the EU in 2004, has been divided since Turkish troops invaded and occupied the island's Northern third in 1974 after an Athens-engineered coup to unite Cyprus with Greece.

The crux of the legal wrangle also appears to be over who was making decisions on the $2.3-million Manifesta 6 project, which was being financed by the Nicosia municipality.

Moreover, all three of Manifesta's foreign curators have had their contracts terminated and Nicosia is also in dispute with the IFM. Egyptian curator Mai Abu al-Dahab never even secured a work permit.

"Our contracts were terminated for breach of confidentiality and turning Manifesta 6 into a political issue but it was made clear from the start that it would be a bi-communal event," said curator Florian Waldvogel.

He said the actions taken by Nicosia's town hall were tantamount to censorship of the entire art world and argued there was no confidentiality agreement to break.

"In terms of the agreement the curators had full autonomy over the project and forbidding it is censorship."

Waldvogel claims there was a lack of transparency in the budget, a communications breakdown and that artists were kept in the dark on whether they could go ahead with their projects which needed funding.

He called for a re-think about how Manifesta was run in the future.

When Nicosia got the nod to hold Manifesta 6 it was heralded as a prestige event for Cyprus and a means to bring the divided Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities closer together during a 90-day extravaganza.

Previous editions of Manifesta had been staged in Rotterdam, Ljubljana and San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain. Cyprus beat out bids from Ireland and Estonia to host.

Only months before the event - planned for September 23 through December 17 - Manifesta has collapsed in acrimony, and the mutual recriminations are expected to rumble on.

Although several reasons are given, the main stumbling-block was the opening of an international art school that would also operate in the Turkish-held North Nicosia.

The school was to be the central theme of Manifesta 6 where performances, workshops and lectures were to be staged.

Modeled on the Bauhaus and the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the postgraduate, interdisciplinary art school was to be organized into three departments, each run by one of the three curators. They had lined up an impressive roster of participants, many of them from or familiar to the regional art scene, including Maha Maamoun, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Tirdad Zolghadr, Akram Zaatari, Ali Cherri, Anri Sala, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, Eyal Weizman and Boris Groys.

The Nicosia municipality, through its organizers Nicosia for Art (NFA), said this was something they had not signed up for.

"The establishment and operation on a permanent basis of an essential part of the school in the occupied areas of Nicosia, apart from being in conflict with Cyprus and international law, was also outside the ... terms of the respective agreements," said an NFA statement.

The municipality said the decision-making process about the school's location, apart from the general program, was a "major obstacle in the continuation and realization of Manifesta 6."

Nicosia also accused the curators and IMF of refusing to engage in talks in efforts to lift the deadlock.

"The NFA considers as unacceptable the effort of assigning political dimensions to a cultural event," the town hall said.

The intricacies of Cypriot politics may be lost on the culture world's cognoscenti but scores of students and artists are left with a huge hole in their summer diary.

"A lot of people quit their jobs and changed their lives to spend time here, so the intellectual damage is much bigger," said Waldvogel.

Beirut,06 19 2006
The Daily Star
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