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Istanbul Gallery Cancels War-Themed Exhibition, Citing “the Delicate Situation in Turkey”

Akbank Sanat's space on İstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district (photo courtesy of Akbank Sanat)
Akbank Sanat’s space on İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district (photo courtesy of Akbank Sanat)

Post-Peace, an exhibition that was slated to open on March 2 at the nonprofit cultural center Akbank Sanat in Istanbul, has been cancelled due to what organizers are describing as ongoing political tensions within Turkey.

The cancellation of the exhibition, curated by the fourth recipient of Akbank Sanat’s Annual International Curator Competition, the Russian curator Katia Krupennikova, comes at a particularly sensitive time in the country. On February 17, a car bomb exploded outside a military housing complex in central Ankara, killing 29 and injuring 61. It was the country’s fifth major terrorist attack in less than a year.

Asked to comment on the cancellation, Derya Bigalı, directing manager of Akbank Sanat, told Hyperallergic: “in accordance with its consistently leading role in Turkish contemporary art over the years, Akbank Sanat would like to announce to the public that the exhibition has been cancelled following various considerations.” Pressed to elaborate on the nature of these “considerations,” she said:

We have been organizing International Curator Competition for 4 years. We have supported and hosted many curators and artists during these exhibitions.

As you all know, the last competition was held 5 months ago. In the intervening months, we worked very hard on the project and gave it our full support in anticipation of a wonderful exhibition.

However, over the course of our preparations, Turkey went through a very troubled time. In particular, the tragic incidents in Ankara are very fresh in people’s memories. Turkey is still reeling from their emotional aftershocks and remains in a period of mourning.

In accordance with Akbank Sanat’s sense of responsibility in the Turkish contemporary art world and following various considerations regarding the delicate situation in Turkey, the exhibition has been cancelled.

Katia Krupennikova, winner of Akbank Sanat's 2015 International Curator Competition (photo by Oleg Ivchenko, via e-flux)
Katia Krupennikova, winner of Akbank Sanat’s 2015 International Curator Competition (photo by Oleg Ivchenko, via e-flux)

Krupennikova, however, sees the decision as an act of censorship. “I, along with the artists in the show, believe this to be a case of political censorship,” she said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic (see below for the full statement). “I fully recognize the tense political atmosphere in Turkey right now, and the reasons why Akbank Sanat may not wish to be associated with the exhibition. But this is also why it is essential to have open discussions and a place for people to engage with different perspectives on issues relevant in the Turkish context and beyond.”

Though the precise reason for the cancelation of the exhibition at Akbank Sanat remains unknown, several sources inside Turkey’s cultural scene who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation suggested it may be due to a heightened sense of conservatism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The flyer for 'Post-Peace' (via Katia Krupennikova/Facebook)
The flyer for ‘Post-Peace’ (via Katia Krupennikova/Facebook) (click to enlarge)

Krupennikova’s exhibition was set to explore the “contemporary condition of war in its concrete and abstract states.” The artists invited to participate in the show included Anonymous Stateless Immigrants, Ella de Búrca, Anna Dasović, Yazan Khalili, Adrian Melis, Dorian de Rijk, belit sağ, Alexei Taruts, Anika Schwarzlose, and Anastasia Yarovenko; the writers Oxana Timofeeva, Ece Temelkuran, and Etel Adnan; and public programming participants Yaşar Adanali, Pınar Öğrenci, Koken Ergun, and Jaha Koo.

The incident comes soon after a similar controversy at SALT Beyoğlu, one of Istanbul’s most important cultural destinations, which closed in December of last year. Founded in 2011, SALT conducts interdisciplinary research projects, public programs, exhibitions, performances, and workshops. Vasif Kortun, SALT’s director of research and programs, said that the closure of its Beyoğlu space was due to “technical reasons” after the institution failed to gain approval from the Istanbul building authority for ongoing renovations. However, many speculate that the cancellation of the permit on the basis of a technicality was merely an excuse to mask the government’s ongoing policy of suppressing dissent.

Akbank Sanat was established in 1993 under a mandate to provide a “place where change never ends.” In coordination with art critic and writer Basak Senova, Akbank Sanat’s International Curator Competition was established in 2011 as a juried award “intended to provide support for emerging curators, reinforce interest in curatorial practices, and encourage new projects in the field of contemporary art.” Located on İstiklal Avenue in the heart of Istanbul, not far from Taksim Square, Akbank Sanat is a stone’s throw from where protests began in Gezi Park on May 28, 2013. The demonstrations ushered in a wave of discontent initially over plans to develop the square, swelling to encompass a wide range of issues including freedom of the press, expression, and assembly, as well as what protestors claimed was the government’s encroachment on Turkey’s secularism.

Whether as a result of official censorship or self-censorship on the part of the gallery, the cancellation of Post-Peace belies an ever more repressive climate in Turkey.

Katia Krupennikova’s original statement regarding the exhibition’s cancelation reads in full:

In October 2015 I won the Akbank Sanat Curator Competition with an exhibition project which brings together artists from a variety of origins to question how war and peace appear today. The title of the show is “Post-Peace,” a term that is a possible name for our difficult and confusing present. It was planned to open on 1 March 2016 and run until 7 May, 2016 in Akbank Sanat, Istanbul.

The project was selected by an international jury consisting of Bassam El Baroni (independent curator and theory tutor at Dutch Art Institute, Arnhem), Paul O’Neill (curator, writer and Director of the Graduate Program at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York), Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ (directors of the Württembergisch Kunstverein Stuttgart). Developed and coordinated by Basak Senova, the competition is intended to provide support for emerging curators, reinforce interest in curatorial practices, and encourage new projects in the field of contemporary art.

On the 25th February, 2016, a few days before the opening, the exhibition was cancelled by Akbank Sanat.

The official explanation letter to myself and the jury states the following reasons:
“…over the course of our preparations, Turkey went through a very troubled time. In particular, the tragic incidents in Ankara are very fresh in people’s memories. Turkey is still reeling from their emotional aftershocks and remains in a period of mourning. Therefore, many events, including – but not limited to – exhibitions, concerts, and performances, are being cancelled every day.”
I, along with the artists in the show, believe this to be a case of political censorship.

I fully recognize the tense political atmosphere in Turkey right now, and the reasons why Akbank Sanat may not wish to be associated with the exhibition. But this is also why it is essential to have open discussions and a place for people to engage with different perspectives on issues relevant in the Turkish context and beyond.

This situation is a very complicated one, and that is why I am currently in discussion with several institutions in Istanbul to host conversations about the ethics and responsibilities of art professionals working in tense political and social environments. I am also proposing to these institutions to co-host events and parts of the exhibition. I believe that turning this unfortunate situation into a critical dialogue is the best and most constructive decision.

In a subsequent statement sent to Hyperallergic, she added:

This situation is a very complicated one, and that is why I am currently in discussion with several institutions in Istanbul to host conversations about the ethics and responsibilities of art professionals working in tense political and social environments. I am also proposing to these institutions to co-host events and parts of the exhibition. I believe that turning this unfortunate situation into a critical dialogue is the best and most constructive decision.

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