Censorship: Madrid art fair pulls photo exhibition of Spain’s political prisoners

Madrid's International Contemporary Art Fair (ARCO) has pulled a photo exhibition called "Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain" amid controversy because it includes images of Catalan politicians that are currently in jail.

Censorship: Madrid art fair pulls photo exhibition of Spain's political prisoners
A woman observes the exhibit before it was taken down. Photo: Santiago Sierra/Facebook

The decision to remove the exhibition within hours of the art fair opening to the press has prompted charges of censorship against the government-funded body which operates IFEMA, a vast exhibition space on the outskirts of Madrid.

The polemic exhibit contained 24 black and white portraits  by Spanish conceptual artist Santiago Sierra,  displayed in the stand assigned to the Helga de Alvear gallery.

Gallery organisers were asked to remove the exhibit on Wednesday just hours after a press preview ahead of the art fair opening to the public.  

The exhibit was taken down on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

“The controversy sparked by the display of this artwork is diverting attention away from the exhibition as a whole,” read a statement released by IFEMA.

The gallery owner agreed to the request by authorities to dismantle the show.

“I guess someone wants to avoid a fracas over Catalonia,” explained the owner of the gallery in a press conference.

“I'm in someone else's house and if Ifema does not want the exhibit there then I’ll take it away. But in my own house, nobody takes anything from me. “

Madrid City Hall, which is run by a far-left coalition, has demanded a full explanation from IFEMA.

The artist included images of Deposed vice president of the Catalan government Oriol Jonqueras, and two officials Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, who are all behind bars on sedition charges over staging the illegal referendum on independence in Catalonia last October 1st.

Other portraits included those who had fallen foul of Spain’s unpopular ‘gag law’ including two puppeteers who faced charges last year after including references to Basque terrorism in a children’s theatre show.

Sierra said such censorship by authorities was damaging for Spain's reputation.

“I've just learned about the censorship of my work,” the artist wrote on his facebook page. “I believe that this decision seriously damages the reputation of this international fair and of the Spanish state itself.”

“It shows a lack of respect towards the gallery owner, who was among the founding members of this art fair, as well as to the maturity and intelligence of the pubic.

He added: “Finally, acts of censorship like this bring sense and reason to such a piece, which exists to denounce the climate of persecution suffered by cultural artists in recent times.”

The decision to pull the exhibit, which had already been sold in its entirely to one buyer for €80,000,  came amid further outrage over censorship.

Earlier this week, a court ruled to uphold a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for a rapper for “glorifying terrorism and insulting the king”.

Several people have faced charges and jail terms in Spain in recent years because of song lyrics and tweets, particularly over glorifying terrorism.   

READ MORE: The ten most repressive points of Spain's gag law

Leftwing figures have branded the prosecutions an attack on freedom of expression. 

“Censoring a book because it speaks of corruption, sending a rapper to jail for a song, or taking down a work of art because it's uncomfortable. The gag laws of the PP are incompatible with a fair and democratic country,” tweeted hard-left party Podemos deputy Irene Montero. 

READ ALSO: Spanish rapper jailed over glorifying terror and insulting the king

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Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.


In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.