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ISTANBUL — This year hasn’t been particularly easy for members of the arts community in Turkey, as they have come increasingly under fire, facing growing censorship and cancellations of exhibitions. It’s an uncertain, tense environment in which there is little tolerance for artistic dissent. This past New Year’s Eve, members of the arts community were arrested during the peaceful demonstration “Barış İçin Yürüyorum (I Am Walking for Peace)” in Diyarbakır, and while they have been subsequently released they might be eventually charged like hundreds of others have been in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, including minors and the elderly. In February, the exhibition Post-Peace, curated by Russian curator Katia Krupennikova, to be held at the cultural nonprofit Akbank Sanat, was cancelled a week before the opening because of the delicate situation in Turkey in the aftermath of the Ankara bombings. In March, ARTER, one of the city’s leading institutions, cancelled the opening reception for its major exhibitions of the season, also in response to recent bombings.
On the evening of April 26, the 30-by-20-foot screen on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel in central Istanbul, host to the community-driven public art project YAMA, stopped playing on a loop the video “Time to Sing a New Song” (2016) by Turkish artist Işıl Eğrikavuk; it had recently opened, on April 23, with its removal becoming the most recent act of censorship by city officials. YAMA’s curator Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu sent a statement to Hyperallergic explaining that after the screen went dark, she quickly got in touch with the management of the hotel and learned that municipal police ordered a shutdown on the basis of an anonymous complaint, claiming that the new work by Eğrikavuk insulted religious sensibilities. The video animation projected the slogan, “Finish up your apple, Eve!”
Eğrikavuk told Hyperallergic by email: “For a long while I have been interested in how, as women we can produce new discourses in public space that say ‘no’ to the existing ones. This slogan says ‘no’ to religious mythical stories that are created by a dominant male language, but also to the current situation in Turkey where hundreds of women are killed by male violence every year.”
YAMA has long been the most visible public art project in Istanbul, previously having screened works of internationally renowned Turkish artists such as Emre Hüner and Banu Cenetoğlu. According to Durmuşoğlu’s statement, the PR manager of the Marmara Hotels informed her that there had been a preexisting shutdown order issued by municipal police in response to Finnish artist Pilvi Takala’s work “Workers’ Forum,” also screened by YAMA in February 2016. The shutdown order does not concern only the artworks of Eğrikavuk and Takala, but the entirety of YAMA’s programming, on the basis of “visual pollution.”
Both Durmuşoğlu and Eğrikavuk will file for civic action against the Istanbul municipality in the coming days. Eğrikavuk is no stranger to the political climate of Istanbul, to which she has regularly responded: She was for several years a reporter and editor at a daily national newspaper, a columnist on art for the liberal newspaper Radikal, and a lecturer in video and contemporary art at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. Recently, she held a solo at SALT Ulus titled Art of Disagreement where she borrowed excerpts from Turkish parliament sessions and reenacted them.
In an email exchange, Eğrikavuk told Hyperallergic about the current mood in Turkey: “Censorship in arts, academia, journalism, in every form of speech is getting wider and more internalized. On the other hand, I am really interested in how, as artists we can deal with this situation. For the past three years there is definitely a shift to act collectively, which manifests itself in more community art practices, but in general we are going through some really dark times.”
On May 11, Durmuşoğlu will organize, on behalf of YAMA, a public open debate about the definition of “visual pollution” and the many obstacles for the public visibility of contemporary art in Turkey. YAMA has invited lawyers and a legal expert on censorship to participate in this debate, as well as artist Banu Cenetoğlu and curator Özge Ersoy. The organization has also requested from the municipal police of the Beyoğlu district to send an expert who could accurately define the legal framework of visual pollution.
At the same time, on May 8, PASAJ, an artist-run independent space based in Istanbul, informed Hyperallergic that they had resigned as of April 20 from their position as curators of the 4th Istanbul Children and Youth Art Biennial (April 19–May 23), hosted by the municipality of Beyoğlu, and cited censorship. The biennial featured artwork from children from ages 4 to 18, as well as work by professional artists focused on children or inspired by children’s art. During installation week, members of PASAJ witnessed visits from the Beyoğlu municipality, after which children’s artworks that were found troublesome were moved from the Beyoğlu district to the Beşiktas district. Other artworks were removed on the eve of the opening, including a project by Nurdane Turkmen that features drawings by children of the Syrian-Kurdish town besieged by ISIS, Kobane, and 10 videos of images from Gezi Park protests, among others. At that point the PASAJ team decided to withdraw from the biennial after finishing their work with the local children.
The biennial committee claims there was no censorship and that PASAJ simply did not do their work properly, according to a statement issued by PASAJ. In response, a number of artists withdrew their work, including Anna Borghi, Ekmel Ertan & Seçil Yaylalı, Esin Turan, Geocyclab, Grete Aagrad & Lars Henningsen, Local A., Stefan Endewart, and Julia Brunner. As of today, the biennial website has not updated its program, which will later travel to state-controlled exhibition spaces in the contested Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Hatay province, along the Syrian border.
The actual procedure for arts censorship is unknown and the rules remain seemingly ambiguous, enough to serve only the purpose of targeted censorship. This opinion was shared by a spokesperson, who prefers to go unnamed, for Siyah Bant, a research platform that documents censorship in the arts across Turkey. “Throughout the 2000s, censorship in Turkey has been ‘effective’ mostly because it was arbitrary, and rather than working through direct bans, the government relied on mechanisms of de-legitimation and discouragement,” she told Hyperallergic via email. “Eğrikavuk’s case is an example of how the government censors art by using other regulations as an excuse. It is the government’s new strategy across all artistic disciplines, to legitimize their censorship acts as a part of a procedural act. The questions raised by Eğrikavuk’s work can be thought as a starting point to discuss all those issues in the wider public.”