Ahead of the 58th Venice Biennale this May, Kazakhstan was preparing to present its debut pavilion until it was disrupted by controversy and eventually pulled from the line-up. According to the Art Newspaper, the cancellation followed pavilion curators finding out they were made redundant through a Facebook press statement due to ‘last-minute budget cuts.’ The jarring news comes at a time of uncertainty in Kazakhstan as protests have led to the unexpected resignation of president Nursultan Nazarbayev on March 19th, who held the office for nearly three decades. The nation’s capital, Astana, was renamed Nursultan to honour the president the following day.
In October of 2018, Nadim Samman was asked to organize and act as one of the curators for the inaugural Kazakhstan pavilion. Samman, who planned the 2012 Marrakech Biennale, then made a number of steps in preparation for the upcoming Venice Biennale. He met with Abay Karimtaevich, the National Museum of Kazakhstan’s deputy director, and a number of agents and owners concerning palazzos in Italy, and presented Biennale officials with a letter of appointment from Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture. Additionally, Samman met with Kazakh artists now living in London and, in December, signed ‘a draft version of an employment contract prepared by the museum’s lawyer, including terms of remuneration beginning 1 November 2018,’ while visiting the National Museum. That contract, however, was not co-signed and returned as promised. As of March 22nd, Samman was still waiting for compensation for the five months of work he did for the pavilion. As late as January, Samman was under the impression that ‘[his] remuneration and contracts with all parties, including [himself], artists and suppliers, were in process.’
In February, however, things began to get odd. Individuals, unbeknownst to Samman, claiming to represent the Kazakhstan National Pavilion began contacting the agents in Venice that Samman was working with. Progress on the pavilion subsequently stalled. Samman then contacted Almaz Nurazkhan, acting director of the National Museum, about the confusion and lack of progress but received no response. Samman, who questions if Nurazkhan censored the project, then ended his partnership with the museum on February 26th. With few answers, Roza Abenova, another curator for the pavilion and then head of contemporary art at the National Museum, formally withdrew their project from the Biennale stating: ‘We had not received any concrete resources or communication from the museum directorate and so could not effectively guarantee a pavilion.’ Abenova has since resigned from her position at the museum as well.
Nurazkhan responded telling the Art Newspaper that ‘any binding treaty between the National Museum and Nadim Samman was not signed. He was informed [about this].’ He then added ‘we affirm that selected works were not subject to any censorship. Lack of funding and non-compliance with procedural issues are the cause of Kazakhstan’s non-participation in the Biennale.’
In early March, Kazakhstan seemed to secure a second group of curators for the pavilion, which were even announced on the Biennale’s website. However, organizers of the Biennale have since been notified by Nurazkhan that Kazakhstan will officially not be participating in this installment of the Biennale.