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Turkey’s art scene was booming. Now, it’s braced for trouble

28 October 2016

In the last few decades, Turkey’s turbulent past has become a rich resource for its contemporary artists. The younger generation has been making waves, exploring their complex heritage from a cosmopolitan perspective to produce powerful works – some of which have sold for large sums at auction and drawn international collectors to Istanbul. The steady growth that Turkey’s art scene has enjoyed in recent years has been largely down to the proliferation of small, privately-owned commercial galleries and extensive support from families, banks, non-profits and Turkish expats.

But now, the same galleries and organisations are facing cancellations and slowing sales on the home art market, as the country deals with the ramifications of the failed coup attempt on 15 July by a faction of the military. As everyday life becomes increasingly politicised, and Turkey continues to operate under a state of emergency, the country’s art scene is braced for a downsizing at best.

Monument to Humanity by Mehmet Akyol, drew scorn from Erdoğan (then Turkey's prime minister) in 2011, and was ultimately demolished.

Monument to Humanity by Mehmet Akyol, drew scorn from Erdoğan (then the country’s prime minister) in 2011, and was ultimately demolished. Photo: Ggia/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 3.0])

The ruling AK Party (AKP) has never been one for the arts. In 2011, for example, Erdogan (then the prime minister) made headlines for calling a sculpture by Mehmet Aksoy symbolising Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, a ‘monstrosity.’ This attitude has sharpened significantly since July. The Art Newspaper confirms that many artists and culture sector workers were among the 35,000 or so Turks detained in the wake of the attempted coup, in what looks increasingly like a nationwide crackdown on dissent. In August, Turkish arts organisations and unions condemned the situation, releasing a statement in which they likened the atmosphere to a witch hunt. Among the signatories were the unions for state opera and ballet workers, International PEN Turkey, the Turkish Chamber of Architects (Istanbul), and the Turkish Writers’ Union. The petition fell on deaf ears – and perhaps fortunately so, for three Turkish academics were jailed in March 2016 for supporting a petition calling on the state to resume peace talks with the Kurds.

Some artists and curators have personally been subject to direct and indirect pressure. Renowned Turkish curator Beral Madra resigned as creative director of this year’s Çanakkale Biennial under saddening, and increasingly familiar, circumstances. Accused by ruling party members of being a coup sympathiser (she had pointed out the worryingly nationalistic fervour of the post-coup pro-government rallies, via social media), Madra resigned to avoid conflict. Unfortunately – though admirably – the organisers cancelled the Çanakkale Biennial, citing the current impossibility of realising an event in line with their values. Director of research and programmes at SALT, Vasif Kortun, took to social media to summarise how incidents like Madra’s instill in Turkey’s artists and writers feelings of being a hounded minority. ‘[The cancellation] seems to be a pre-emptive act to avoid further tension with an MP from the ruling party [who was] stirring crowds and the media with banal and ignorant claims,’ he wrote. ‘Cold-blooded smear tactics…the people of Çanakkale lost the chance to see what looked like a beautiful exhibition.’

Madra’s situation is unfortunate, but by no means the worst. Artist and journalist Zehra Doğan was arrested in south-eastern Turkey six days after the coup attempt, with prosecutors using her artwork about Kurdish culture as evidence of disloyalty to the AKP and support of the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party. (The post-coup clampdown has largely been directed at those suspected of Gulenist leanings. Running parallel to this, however, has been the government’s intimidation and detention of Kurds, in response to the ongoing, hyper-sensitive situation in the south east.)

Several major international events are still going ahead (albeit at the same – or reduced – capacity to their previous editions) while small, non-profit and collaborative artistic endeavours are managing to pass under the radar. The Istanbul Design Biennial, curated by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, opened last week (until 4 December). Turkey’s biggest art fair, Contemporary Istanbul, will see its 11th edition take place from 2–6 November. The small Alt Art Space in Istanbul collaborated with New York-based Moving Image Art Fair for the first time this autumn, launching the Virtual Reality Art exhibition ‘New Realities’ in September. Turkish curators continue to garner acclaim abroad: Artnet recently selected the Övül Durmusoglu-curated group show at Turkish gallery Pi Artworks London as a highlight of London’s Frieze Week, while Fatos Ustek curated the fig-2 project at the ICA last year.

But for those working within Turkey, the mood is not optimistic. This September saw the first Istanbul Gallery Weekend, a new initiative to boost falling art sales and, as one participant put it, to ‘bring some positive energy to a scene that has had more than its fair share of trials and tribulations.’ Turkey’s art scene needs stability and creative freedom if it is to flourish, but at the moment that looks a long way off.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 4.0)