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A gallery opening in Tophane, Istanbul (video screenshot via Cumhuriyet)

In Istanbul last week, angry neighbors stormed an art gallery opening, threatening attendees and complaining about women and men drinking alcohol together, Hurriyet Daily News reported. Gallery owners called the police, but no officers came. Instead, police advised them to simply close the gallery opening to ward off the attackers, which they did. The attack is only the latest in a series of clashes between the city’s more conservative residents and its burgeoning art scene.

Titled Kuytu (“Secluded”), the targeted exhibition features the work of 21 female artists at a gallery in Tophane, one of Istanbul’s most conservative neighborhoods. “More people have come to the opening than we expected,” Vardal Caniş, an artist whose work was included in the exhibition, told Huriyet Daily News. “Those who wanted to chat and smoke were waiting in front of the place. A big family, including grandparents, parents, and the children who were disturbed by the crowd including both male and female guests and by the alcohol consumption came to the place and started yelling at the people. They wanted to inflict physical violence on the father of an attending artist.”

YouTube video

The people standing outside went inside to protect themselves. “But although we went inside, they [the assailants] didn’t calm down. In the end, we had to close the exhibition,” Caniş said. In recordings, the offended neighbors yell  “go away,” “you scumbags,” and “you’ve gotten drunk, stop talking to me.”

The owner of the gallery, Melih Apaydın, said people at the art opening were not being disruptive. “There wasn’t any loud music. We were just talking to each other. The attackers came from the surrounding buildings,” Apaydın said. “They swore at us and threatened us. Because we knew about previous similar attacks, we didn’t want to get involved.”

The most violent attack on Istanbul art galleries in recent memory took place in September 2010. A group of men wielding broken bottles, pepper spray, batons, and knives attacked several art openings on a Tuesday night. They claimed to be offended by people “drinking alcoholic beverages on the street.” Five gallery-goers ended up in the hospital.

Then, in May 2014, men wielding sticks raided a graffiti exhibition titled Erör (“Error”) at Mixer Art Gallery, also in Tophane. (Mixer has since relocated to the more liberal neighborhood of Taksim, in the Sıraselviler district.) Yet another similar attack came in February 2015, sparked by word of a couple kissing at the Çoktan Seçmeli (“Multiple Choice”) exhibition at Daire Gallery. And in June 2016, a group attacked a Radiohead listening party at Velvet Indieground Records in Istanbul’s Firuzağa neighborhood. The attackers, again, were offended by alcohol consumption, which is prohibited in the Islamic faith. Turkey has the lowest drinking rate in Europe, and some 83% of Turks don’t touch alcohol.

Still, alcohol is legal in Turkey, and drinking is common at art events, many of which happen around Tophane, where the Istanbul Modern is located. “Tophane is one of Istanbul’s culture and arts centers,” Apaydın said. “If we can’t open an exhibition here, where else are we going to do it?”

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.