The Plagiarism Controversy at the Venice Biennale

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The Venice Biennale, also known as the Art Biennale, is a biennial art exhibition that focuses on contemporary art and is famous for having countries all over the world present national pavilions.

The event is incredibly popular, drawing more than 500,000 visitors, and is often seen as a way for countries to gain international attention for their local artists. The event was scheduled to be held in 2021 but was delayed due to the pandemic, having moved it to this year.

Though the 2022 Biennale has just begun, it’s already been rocked by a bitter plagiarism and nepotism controversy. However, the issue doesn’t involve a particular piece of art or any single creation. Instead, it involves the curation of an entire nation’s exhibit. 

As originally reported by ARTnews, the accusations involved the Bolivian pavilion. The claims come from three people, a curator named Marisabel Villagómez and two artists named Maximiliano Siñani and Iván Cáceres.

According to the trio, the trioapplied to participate in the Biennale the Bolivian Ministry of Cultures, Decolonization, and Depatriarchalization. That proposal was accepted by both the Ministry and artist Mamani Mamani, the counselor of the Cultural Foundation of the Central Bank of Bolivia, which previously organized the pavilion with the Ministry.

However, as the date crept closer, Siñani claims that both the Ministry and Mamani stopped communicating with them. The only information they got was when Mamani told Villagómez that his participation in the pavilion would not be acceptable as he held a cultural position with former President Jeanine Añéz, who is in prison and is accused of carrying out a coup against her predecessor. 

With Villagómez pushed aside, the Ministry unveiled its pavilion, which featured the newly formed Warmichacha Collective and listed Mamani as the commissioner (under the name Roberto Aguilar Quisbert). Also working on the project were Mamanit’s two sons, Illimani and Illampu Aguilar.

However, according to the original trio the new proposal “contains various points of our curatorial proposal”. This has led to allegations of both nepotism and plagiarism against  Mamani, the Ministry and others involved. 

Either way, the exhibition, entitled Wara Wara Jawira is on display in Venice at the venue Artspace4rent and includes dozens of works from the members of the group.

But, while the show goes on, it appears so does the controversy that surrounds it and that may have consequences, even for those that don’t deserve it.

The Black Mark

Villagómez does a decent job backing up his major allegations. An article, written in Spanish for the site Artishock, contains screenshots of messages he received as well as several scanned documents.

While this obviously doesn’t answer the question of whether the proposal was plagiarized, it does prove that he and the two artists were working with Mamani, had their proposal accepted and then rescinded on political grounds.

Even if we only accept what is documented, we know that Mamani then made himself the commissioner of the exhibition and recruited his sons to be involved. Mamani claims to have paid for his sons himself, but their involvement is still a potential significant boost to their careers.

With further accusations, things look even worse. In an interview with ARTnews, Siñani claimed that he had to explain what the Biennale was to both the Ministry and Mamani as they didn’t know when they were approached.

Plagiarism or not, none of this looks good for Mamani or the Ministry. At the very least it gives the strong impression that the pavilion is the product of nepotism. 

This, in turn, has an ugly effect on the entire pavilion, including dozens of artists that produced works for it but were not involved in the alleged plagiarism or nepotism. For many, this is likely their biggest exposure on an international stage, perhaps their only, and their moment of triumph is marred by allegations that were out of their control.

It’s also not fair to the other pavilions and exhibitions. This scandal has largely dominated coverage of the Biennale. Even though other nations and other artists are completely removed from this story, their time in the spotlight is unfairly diminished.

In short, what should have been a triumphant return for a major art exhibition after a pandemic-led delay has turned into a very different kind of story and one that takes away from the countless artists whose creativity is on display.

Bottom Line 

In all the coverage of this story, the word “transparency” is used a great deal. Siñani, Cácere and Villagómez are arguing for a more transparent process for the selection in the future. That is a completely reasonable request.

The problem those like Mamani face is that, as those selecting candidates for such high-level exhibitions, is that their duty isn’t just to avoid nepotism and plagiarism, but to avoid the appearance of it. 

Even if everything Mamani did was above board, it’s very easy to see why others are questioning whether it was. Making himself the commissioner, regardless of his credentials, looks suspicious enough. Engaging his children to be involved, regardless of how they were paid, adds another layer.

We expect judges to be impartial, and that’s whether they are in the courtroom making decisions of life or death or whether they are determining the winner of a contest with limited implication.

Transparency is how those outside the process confirm that lack of bias. Without it, we are left to look only at the outcomes and judge those. Here, the outcomes do not look good.

Hopefully, this can be a lesson both for Bolivian and other nations about how to make their selection process not just fair, but to make sure it is believed to be fair. That can help avoid not just scandals, but the appearance of scandals in the future.

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