Wed, Nov 22, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Repressing art

Critics say that Turkey’s government is running roughshod over Istanbul’s vibrant art scene, but artists are defying the trend by tackling big issues head on


Erkan Ozgen, a Kurdish artist from Diyarbakir who opened a new contemporary art gallery, poses during an interview in Istanbul on Oct. 22.

Photo: AFP

A mute Syrian boy, using just body movements, gives a harrowing description of life under the Islamic State group in Syria.

A crowd of passionate anti-establishment protesters gather.

And a galaxy of white ceramic CCTV cameras keeps a Big Brother-like watch over a city.

These are just some of the images from this season’s contemporary exhibitions in Istanbul as artists grapple with issues of censorship and political turbulence in Turkey and raging violence across the border in Syria.

And while critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say the government is riding roughshod over freedom of expression, many artists are openly defying the trend by tackling big issues head-on in a still punchy scene

Almost immediately after the failed coup against Erdogan last year, Turkish authorities launched widespread purges which opponents say have gone beyond suspected coup plotters and are affecting intellectual and artistic circles.

Some artists have self-censored or even left the country. But others have sought to develop new ways of addressing the situation.


“The artistic scene in Istanbul is not in the process of shrinking — it is in the process of becoming more interesting,” said artist Safak Catalbas. “The difficult circumstances make us more creative,” she added.

This year’s Istanbul Biennial, the most important contemporary art event in Turkey, did not shy away from controversial topics like the refugee crisis or conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The event, which was curated by Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, closed its doors this month and contained more than just coded references to the current situation in Turkey.

Turkish artist Erkan Ozgen, a Kurd, presented the video installation of the Syrian mute boy, Mohammed, in a short video entitled Wonderland. A spectacular wall mural by French-Moroccan designer Latifa Echakhch showed a crowd of protesters in a reference to anti-government rallies in Turkey crushed in 2013. Another example came from Turkish artist Burcak Bingol, who used ceramic CCTV cameras scattered across the city to recall the inquisitive eyes of the authorities in a country which has been living under a state of emergency for more than a year.

“All exhibitions must, in one way or another, address the local political-social context to be relevant,” said Biennial director Bige Orer.

“We have tried to find a new language to deal with the current context,” she added. “We felt that a new energy was emerging.”


Few dispute that the climate in Istanbul has changed greatly since 2005, when in the early days of Erdogan’s rule Newsweek magazine famously dubbed the Turkish metropolis “the coolest city in the world.” The repression of the spring protest movement in 2013 — which many artists were involved in — marked the end of a certain carefree attitude in the country.

At least eight people were killed and more than 8,000 injured by police during anti-government protests against plans to build on land occupied by Gezi Park in central Istanbul, according to Turkish NGOs.

Asli Sumer, who runs a gallery in the waterside district of Karakoy, said, however, that instead of criticizing the authorities directly, artists are interested in ways of overcoming these hardships.

“An artist with whom I work is especially interested in plants and their capacity to grow back by being more resistant,” she said.

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