ERM cancels Israeli artists' exhibition over 'Russian' concerns

Estonian National Museum (ERM) exhibits.
Estonian National Museum (ERM) exhibits. Source: Estonian National Museum (ERM)

The Tartu-based Estonian National Museum (ERM) has canceled an exhibition by two Israeli artists, initially on the grounds of its being from a too 'Russian' perspective. One of the artists has a Russian-sounding name, the second, an Estonian-sounding name – the artist is indeed of Estonian descent.

ERR reports the two artists themselves, Sergei Bunkov and Tenno Pent Sooster, said they were perplexed by the development, as they outlined to Israeli news site Newsru.co.il (which is a Russian-language publication – ed.).

"We are depressed and confused. We spent a year preparing the exhibition, which has turned out to be a senseless waste of time. It seems to me that this is constitutes a witch hunt, with a decision made based on the Russian-sounding name one of the two artists has," Bunkov said.

Sooster, born in 1957 and whose father was the noted Estonian modernist painter Ülo Sooster (1924-1970), added: "I feel disillusioned with a culture that is dictated by politics."

Sooster and Bunkovs' work was to consist of etchings using each letter of the modern Hebrew alphabet; each character is 3D-animated, with the intention of portraying that alphabet in a new way via symbolism or association which the artists say is unexpected.

Given Tartu is the European Capital of Culture 2024, Sooster and Bunkov had planned for the exhibition to constitute their European premiere at the same time.

As to the charge of being "Russian," the ERM has placed itself in an even less favorable light given that some of the works due to be exhibited in Tartu, had already been shown in the Ukrainian cities of Uman, in Central Ukraine, and in Kherson in the South, shortly after those cities were liberated from Russian occupation last year.

Given the rejection from the ERM, the artists are now hoping to re-route the exhibits to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, more specifically the Museum of Modern Art of Ukraine.

After the artists had clarified that they were not presenting themselves or their work as "Russian," the ERM said that in any case the exhibition was to be canceled due to a reduction in the size and scope of the additional program within which the work would have been shown.

The museum also contacted the artists on June 13, apologizing for the wording of their previous missal.

ERM Director Kertu Saks noted in the letter the artists' views on the Ukraine War, i.e. that these are fully in support of Ukraine, and conceded the information which the cancellation was based on had been "misleading."

"We confirm that our decisions regarding the organization of exhibitions are not based on ethnic or religious considerations," Saks added.

"The ERM will continue its existing broad-based international cooperation both in the preparation of exhibitions and within the museum's main direction as a research institution."

The ERM itself had invited Sooster and Bunkov to exhibit, in 2022, with a view to the opening being in March 2024.

The pair received notification of the cancellation a week ago, in a statement signed by Saks and citing "the current international situation," in respect of "persons who define themselves as Russian artists, regardless of their citizenship. Our state forbids such cooperation."

Saks added that when the invite was sent in 2022, the hope had been that the Ukraine War would be over, with an outcome favorable to Ukraine, by 2024, or by the present in fact.

The ERM's primary focus is on Estonian culture, and also that of other Finno-Ugric peoples.

"To dedicate ourselves to this work, we need all the resources of the museum, meaning we have had to massively reduce the volume of the additional program developed in previous years. Unfortunately, we cannot organize your exhibition for this reason," Saks wrote.

At the same time, Saks noted a desire to maintain close Estonia-Israel cultural relations, noting the presence of a Jewish cultural section at ERM's permanent exhibition, the participation of ERM researchers in work relating to the Holocaust, and in the celebration of Jewish-Estonian literary historian Juri Lotman (1922-1993, Lotman's three sons are also noted figures in the present-day political and cultural scene in Estonia-ed.).

"We also support your exhibition still being held in Estonia. We hope that you will be able to find a way to bring it to Estonia. We can help with that in respect of contacts relating to local galleries and art museums," Saks added.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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