Russian director asked to open French theatre festival despite travel ban

Kirill Serebrennikov has been chosen to open the Avignon Festival in France but is currently banned from leaving Russia until 2023. Organisers say they are sending a "clear sign" to the Russian government.

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 for what he said were trumped up charges of embezzlement.
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 for what he said were trumped up charges of embezzlement. Now he has been invited to open a French theatre festival. (Photo by MORRIS MAC MATZEN / AFP)

Celebrated Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, currently banned from leaving his country, has been chosen to open one of Europe’s leading theatre festivals in Avignon, its organisers said Thursday.

“We don’t know for now whether he will be present in Avignon. We strongly hope so, of course,” festival director Olivier Py told AFP.

He said the programming of Serebrennikov’s new play “The Black Monk” at the Avignon Festival (July 7-26) was set two years ago, “long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.

Serebrennikov, 52, was convicted in 2020 of embezzling funds at Moscow’s Gogol Centre theatre, where he was artistic director.

He has called the charges “absurd” and supporters say he was being punished for backing LGBT+ rights, and productions that criticised authoritarianism and homophobia, and often featured nudity and obscene language.

Py said there was no hesitation in maintaining Avignon’s opening night slot for Serebrennikov — “a major artist we have wanted for a long time”.

He added they were sending “a clear sign” by opening with a Russian director and closing with Ukrainian dancers in a show by Py himself alongside singer Angelique Kidjo.

‘My motherland’

Serebrennikov was first detained in 2017 and placed under house arrest without phone or internet access, accused of stealing more than $2 million in state funds allocated to his theatre.

He was released in April 2019 but told he could not leave the country until 2023.

He received a three-year suspended sentence in June 2020 and was soon after fired from the Gogol Centre, which he had transformed into a cultural beacon.

However, in January he was allowed to travel to Hamburg, Germany for a preliminary run of his new play, which is an adaptation of a short story by Anton Chekhov.

He told AFP at the time that he had “no idea” why the authorities had let him leave, since they had blocked previous requests.

He was unable to visit Cannes last year when his latest film “Petrov’s Flu” was competing for the Palme d’Or.

One of the film’s stars, Chulpan Khamatova, recently announced that she was in exile in Latvia after criticising the war in Ukraine.

Serebrennikov continued to work while under house arrest, receiving USB hard drives with videos of rehearsals and shows via his lawyer.

In this way, he was able to stage his play “Outside” at Avignon in 2019.

Despite his problems, he has vowed not to leave Russia.

“It’s my motherland,” he told AFP. “I am a citizen of the culture… I love it a lot. I have a lot of friends in Russia. My dreams are still in Russia.”

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Former Louvre museum director charged in art trafficking case

The former president of the Louvre museum in Paris has been charged with conspiring to hide the origin of Egyptian archaeological treasures that investigators suspect were spirited out of the country during the Arab Spring uprisings, a French judicial source said Thursday.

Former Louvre museum director charged in art trafficking case

Jean-Luc Martinez was charged Wednesday after being taken in for questioning along with two French specialists in Egyptian art, who were not charged, another source close to the inquiry told AFP.

The Louvre, which is owned by the French state, is the world’s most visited museum with around 10 million visitors a year before the Covid-19 pandemic and is home to some of Western civilization’s most celebrated cultural heritage.

The museum declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

French investigators opened the case in July 2018, two years after the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi bought a rare pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other historic works for eight million euros ($8.5 million).

Martinez, who ran the Paris Louvre from 2013 to 2021, is accused of turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought to involve several other art experts, according to French investigative weekly Canard Enchaine.

He has been charged with complicity in fraud and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement,” according to the judicial source.

Martinez is currently the French foreign ministry’s ambassador in charge of international cooperation on cultural heritage, which focuses in particular on fighting art trafficking.

“Jean-Luc Martinez contests in the strongest way his indictment in this case,” his lawyers told AFP in a statement.

Arab Spring looting

“For now, he will reserve his declarations for the judiciary, and has no doubt that his good faith will be established,” they said.

French investigators suspect that hundreds of artefacts were pillaged from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries during protests in the early 2010s that became known as the Arab Spring.

They suspect the artefacts were then sold to galleries and museums that did not ask too many questions about previous ownership.

Martinez’s indictment comes after the German-Lebanese gallery owner who brokered the sale, Robin Dib, was arrested in Hamburg in March and extradited to Paris for questioning.

Marc Gabolde, a French Egyptologist, was quoted by Canard Enchaine as saying that he informed Louvre officials about suspicions related to the Tutankhamun stele but received no response.

The opening of the inquiry in 2018 roiled the Paris art market, a major hub for antiquities from Middle Eastern civilisations.

In June 2020, prominent Paris archaeology expert Christophe Kunicki and dealer Richard Semper were charged with fraud for false certification of looted works from several countries during the Arab Spring.

They also had a role in certifying another prized Egyptian work, the gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nedjemankh that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2017.

Gabolde said an Egyptian art dealer, Habib Tawadros, was also involved in both suspect deals.

After New York prosecutors determined that the sarcophagus had been stolen during the revolts against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Met said it had been a victim of false statements and fake documentation, and returned the coffin to Egypt.