On Monday, the organizers of the Çanakkale Biennial canceled the exhibition’s fifth edition, which was due to open on September 24. In an official announcement, the Çanakkale Biennial Initiative intimated that the decision was informed by the current regime of repression in Turkey following the attempted military coup against President Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative AK Parti (AKP) in July.
“[W]e are deeply saddened by the developments within a political agenda that does not place art as a primary point of concern,” the statement reads. “[I]n these circumstances where art is eclipsed by the developments that exclude it, and also due to the sensitizing atmosphere caused by the realities that surround us today, we have lost our ability and enthusiasm to carry out the biennale in line with our most vital values.”
Beral Madra, the art director and co-curator of the biennial since 2012, explained in a statement of her own that the municipality of Çanakkale — the biggest sponsor of the exhibition and whose mayor, Ülgür Gökhan, belongs to the opposition party, the left-of-center CHP — came under pressure from the local AKP office to fire Madra. She announced her resignation at the time of the biennial’s cancellation.
“To our regret, on September 4, the ruling party AKP Çanakkale members have released a press release addressing the Mayor of Çanakkale, who is representing the opposition party CHP,” Madra said in her statement. “Due to the political competition they asked him the question how he is allowing Beral Madra to be the curator of the biennale, given the fact that she is through her Twitter messages criticized CHP party’s leader (I did), and who is according to Twitter her messages a supporter of the recent military coup (no, I am not) and supporter of the pro-Kurdish HDP (yes, I did). They challenged the Mayor to fire me and announce me as a persona non grata in the city.” (Emphasis hers.)
In an email to Hyperallergic, Madra added: “For the moment opposing the ruling party is considered as a reason for punishment! Pro-government population in Çanakkale were alerted and took oppositional position to the biennale.” Indeed, a report this week in the Art Newspaper confirmed that many artists and cultural workers were among the more than 35,000 Turks who have been detained since the attempted coup as part of President Erdogan’s nationwide crackdown on dissent.
“In Turkey’s recent position on limiting free speech and artistic production, the recent attempted fascist coup d’état (which naturally I’m against) has created a kind of McCarthyist ‘hunting’ climate around intellectuals,” Evrim Altug, the arts and culture editor of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, told Hyperallergic. “Many authors and journalists — like the writer Asli Erdogan and translator Necmiye Alpay — are facing imprisonment or persecution by authorities without any chance of defending themselves. These kinds of incidents of course affect the ‘cultural strategies’ of civil or governmental structures, like art fairs, book fairs, and independent art initiatives.”
The biennial’s cancellation is a major blow to the art scene in Çanakkale, a city of about 185,000 on the Dardanelles strait in western Turkey. Since launching in 2008, the biennial has tackled politically sensitive issues, including the theme of dissent in 2012, in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. The 2016 edition, under the title Homeland, was set to tackle themes related to the current migrant crisis, much of which is unfolding on the city’s doorstep in the Aegean Sea. In addition to more than a dozen Turkish artists, the 2016 biennial’s 40 participants were slated to include the French street artist JR, the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, and the Iraqi painter Haider Jabbar.
“We will not be able to realize this biennale, but we will continue our quest of establishing a secure ground for contemporary art and culture production,” Madra’s statement concluded. “Artists and art experts can find many ways and strategies to come out of this obscurity.”