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Removal of exhibit ‘damages reputation’ of Madrid art festival

Artist calls move a “lack of respect” to the “intelligence of the public” after ‘Political prisoners’ piece withdrawn


21 February 2018 03:43 PM


ACN | Madrid

The removal of an exhibit featuring jailed Catalan leaders from Madrid’s International Festival of Contemporary Art (ARCO) has been deemed as “a lack of respect” to the “intelligence of the public” by the artist himself. As of Wednesday, Santiago Serra’s piece ‘Political prisoners in contemporary Spain’ will no longer feature in ARCO.

Organizers of the event justified its withdrawal by saying they wanted to “avoid the polemic” surrounding it, whilst stressing their “profound respect for freedom of expression.”

Their move has left Sierra “surprised.” Not exhibiting his piece, which features blurry images of various jailed Catalan leaders and other prisoners in Spain as a whole, “seriously damages” the image of the art festival, and also of “the Spanish state itself.” 

The work was due to be on show until February 25 at the stand of gallery owner Helga de Alvear. The festival’s decision was also called a “lack of respect” to Alvear by Serra.

All in all ‘Political prisoners in contemporary Spain’ is comprised of 24 images, featuring the four jailed Catalan leaders, and other cases of people imprisoned for political activities, including the May 15 protests, as well as two young puppeteers from Madrid. Despite all their faces being pixelated, for those who know they are easily identifiable.

Political involvement

Meanwhile, a spokesman for PDeCAT, the party of deposed president Carles Puigdemont, is to ask the Spanish government if it had any involvement in the withdrawal of the artwork.

Sergi Miquel has registered a number of questions for Rajoy’s administration in Madrid regarding a number of cases this week which he termed a “limit of freedom of expression.”

“Black week for freedom of expression”

Aside from the withdrawal of Serra’s exhibit, he also referred to the imprisonment of the Majorcan rapper, Valtonyc, as well as the withdrawal of a book entitled “Fariña.” Meaning flour in English, it chronicles the underworld of drug-trafficking in Galicia.

José Miguel Arenas Beltrán, better known by his hip hop alias Valtonyc, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail by the Spanish Supreme Court on Wednesday.

His crimes, according to the judicial entity, are of glorification of terrorism, slander, ‘lèse-majesté’ (defamation against the crown) and threats in his song lyrics.

All this due to lyrics to a series of songs that he wrote and that he put for free consumption online. The musician's defense argued for their client's right to freedom of expression and artistic creation, highlighting that the language used in hip-hop and rap is often extreme, provocative, allegoric and symbolic.

The massive, international festival, Primavera Sound, that takes place annually in the Catalan capital, spoke out about the Hip Hop artist's imprisonment. "Every time a musician is imprisoned for their music, we feel saddened," the organization said.

PDeCAT's spokesman stated that it has been “a black week for freedom of expression in Spain," regarding the various events that have taken place over the last few days. 

Other reactions

The parliament speaker, Roger Torrent, took to Twitter to express his opinion on the imprisonment of Valtonyc and the withdrawal of Serra's artwork from ARCO. 

"In 24 hours they condemn the rapper Valtonyc to three years in prison for songs criticizing the monarchy, and they censor a work of art about political prisoners with Junqueras and the Jordis (Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart.) Freedom of expression is at a low point," he tweeted.

For her part, gallery owner de Alvear stated that she received a call stating that Serra's work of art presented a "problem." Her reply was that the decision was up to them "themselves" as they were those "who are managing" the show, speaking of the festival organizers. 

"It's possible that neither the Spanish government, nor the Feria de Madrid (where the festival is taking place) want a mess," she said. At the same time she commented that she regretted the removal of the piece now surrounded by controversy. 

Esquerra Republicana's spokesman in Madrid, Joan Tardà, also had his say on the matter. "Welcome to Turkey, welcome to Erdogan's regime. What hypocrisy," he said. "They don't have the honour or honesty to say that it's a case of exercising censorship," he added.


  • The exhibit “political prisoners of contemporary Spain” by artist Santiago Sierra (by Galeria Helga de Alvear)

  • The exhibit “political prisoners of contemporary Spain” by artist Santiago Sierra (by Galeria Helga de Alvear)