Biennial Controversies News Panama

Panama biennial under fire

Boycotts, disputes and deportation overshadow first Bienal del Sur, but director defends curatorial choices

Daniela Nuñez's installation in the Salones Xuma at the Bienal del Sur

As the world's most famous art biennial opens in Venice this week, another fledgling exhibition closes under a cloud of criticism in Panama. An abandoned convention centre, built on land once owned by the US when it controlled the Panama Canal until the handover in the 1990s, is the main venue of the first edition of a contemporary art biennial held in Panama City, from 15 April to 30 May. Even before its opening day, however, the Bienal del Sur—not to be confused with the long-troubled and much older Bienal de Panama—was characterised by disputes, boycotts and the deportation of an artist.

More than 250 artists from 65 countries are taking part in this large-scale biennial: it includes close to 800 works, many commission for the event, as well as public interventions, including around 25 murals created with community participation in poor and dangerous neighbourhoods. Spread across 16 locations, the ambitious programme conceived by the biennial’s director Luz Botero, aims to raise Panama’s cultural profile and to democratise art, but the event has prompted opposition and criticism.

The first problem was the biennial’s name. It was chosen in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of “El mar del sur” (the Pacific Ocean) by the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519)—an event also associated with the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

This is one of the reasons that few Panamanian artists, only 28 in all, agreed to take part. Botero says she invited more than 150 local artists to participate, but few accepted the invitation. She said that the biennial’s name was chosen to coincide with city-wide celebrations of the discovery.

A falling-out with the biennial’s Cuban curators soon followed. In mid-January, Lilian Llanes, Nelson Herrera Ysla and José Manuel Noceda, who have 20 years of experience with the Havana Biennial, stepped down. Their letter of resignation, distributed to the local artistic community, said: “Due to discrepancies in the method of work proposed and carried out by the director, [Luz] Botero… we estimate that we should not continue to work with someone who does not understand the role of the curator in this type of international event.” The curators also said that Botero decided not to invite some of the artists they had proposed and added others without consultation. Botero says: “There was friction, no doubt. But I also invited other European curators to participate, and [the Cuban curators] were supposed to take care of the Latin American artists—who in the end it must be noted, participated in the biennial.”

As the opening approached, problems emerged with logistics; one artist, the Chilean Bernardo Oyarzún, was deported before the biennial’s opening in April. When he arrived at the Tocumen International Airport with his works, customs officers would not let him in, primarily because, the artist says, they had not heard of the event. Botero says: “I have extensive documentation that immigration was informed and had a list of all the artists travelling to Panama, including details of the work. One of the officers just didn’t get the memo.”

There were also problems with the installation of works, and as a result, some projects were not realised. Botero says that the infrastructure in Panama was not in place for so many complex art projects, and some of the companies hired to set up the biennial were not “ready to install complicated videos”.

Botero admits that there were shortcomings, and says the next edition will have fewer artists. But she is keen to make sure that problems are attributed correctly, because, she says, “most of the criticisms have been out of pure misinformation”. Today, however, the biennial posted a mysterious "important notice" on its website: "The Bienal del Sur in Panama has not authorised any institution, museum, gallery, cultural or artistic entity to convene a second biennial, either in Panama or in another country. Similarly, our organisation is not associated with any similar event where artists are being invited to participate in a second version."

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