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DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — There’s a popular saying in Turkey that cats have more rights than the Kurds. For hundreds of years, the people of “Greater Kurdistan” — a civilization spread across four nations (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran) — have dreamed of independence, marked in equal measure by moments of both greatness and tragedy. As a culture, they remain today, as they have for decades, under threat. But echoes of resistance remain.
During a recent visit in March 2018, the regions of Kobane and Afrin — predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria — were under near-constant bombardment by Turkish fighter planes from above. These planes were taking off from an airport near Diyarbakır, and for the better part of my five days spent in the region, I could see and hear missiles being let off into Kurdish held regions in northern Syria. This depressing reality, my host explained to me, is the new normal for many of the world’s Kurds today.
In Diyarbakir, an ancient city settled around 1300 BCE with nearly-intact fortification walls, little could be done to curb the city’s destruction nearly 3 years ago during a civil war in the city’s streets. The ancient walls around Diyarbakir are made of black basalt and date back to 297 CE. Nestled on the banks of the Tigris River, Diyarbakir once served as important Roman and Byzantine trade routes. Initially called Amida, Diyarbakir has at various times throughout its history been under threat. The predominantly Kurdish area was once home to numerous other ethnicities and religions, many of whom also peacefully co-existed for centuries, including Armenians, Turks, Muslims, Syriac Christians, and Jews.
Today, however, much of Diyarbakir lies in ruins, thanks to a series of armed conflicts that most recently erupted after peace talks broke down between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government in 2015.
After the general elections gave Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (the Justice and Development Party) a parliamentary majority that same year, the Turkish military intensified operations against Kurdish areas where the PKK was strongest. This included the district of Suriçi, where the armed conflict destroyed nearly half of the ancient city and reduced many of its cultural relics to rubble. Tragically, this is the new normal for most of Turkey’s Kurds, who remain under threat due to ongoing threats to their culture, language and, indeed, their life and existence as a whole, be it in Turkey, Iraq, or Syria.
In 2015, just prior to the eruption of the military escalation, the Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape became an accredited UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, inclusion onto the prestigious UNESCO list did little to curb the site’s destruction. Today, much of the area remains inaccessible behind concrete walls and numerous security checkpoints.
After fighting stopped in Sur, the oldest district of Diyarbakır, the regional and local government (supported by the AKP) expropriated much of the land in the destroyed areas, displacing many residents and forcing them to move to other areas of Turkey.
Despite ongoing threats, increased military pressure from sources both foreign and domestic, Kurdish cultural institutions in Diyarbakır are persevering. Some, like Loading, a nonprofit independent art space located in the district of Ofis, are creating important links between Kurds and international developments in contemporary art.
Founded in 2017 by Şener Özmen, Erkan Özgen, Cengiz Tekin, and Deniz Aktaş, Loading has responded to challenges and threats to Kurdish culture by offering support for young artists in the region to tell their stories through art. Their program brings to local audiences new, cutting-edge developments in contemporary art, access to a library, studio spaces young artists can use for free, and mentorship by Loading’s founders.
As such, Loading is fulfilling an essential function in the community by establishing bridges to local and international circuits of art making, practice, and theory. Their focus is primarily on public programming, rather than on exhibitions, and on creating an educational framework that local artists find nurturing and useful.
Erkan Özgen, one of Loading’s founders, is a well-known international artist, who recently exhibited at this year’s Manifesta in Palermo and whose works have been acquired by many prestigious Western institutions like the Tate Modern in London. For Özgen, teaching the next generation of artists from Diyarbakır is not just about art, it’s a radical act of cultural self-preservation in the face of ongoing government repression and censorship.
“Many cultural venues in Diyarbakır are normalized to the political situation,” he defiantly explained to me on a visit earlier this year. “But because Loading remains independently funded and not reliant on money from the state, we are able to work semi-autonomously.” The majority of Loading’s operating budget comes from its founders, including Özgen, and work around the space is done by a collective of volunteers.
Most of the day-to-day operations of Loading are run by Deniz Aktaş, an accomplished illustrator and painter whose works often explore human impacts on cities and struggles with urbanization, war, and trauma. With great emotional meticulousness, Aktaş’s works capture themes like forced eviction, conflict, and decay, notably of areas in and around Diyarbakır and Mardin, metaphorical for the absence and invisibility of Kurdish culture on these very landscapes.
“The lack of democracy prevents the establishment of similar places like Loading in Diyarbakır,” Özgen told me with regret. He added, “But rather than simply combining the artists who live and produce in Diyarbakır under one roof,” another of Loading’s aims is to “help grow and nurture the career of emerging artists,” like Aktaş, providing what in effect felt like a community center where like-minded could meet and discuss issues over tea and coffee.
Loading is also starting to cultivate an expanding and rather impressive repertoire of materials such as books, magazines, and expensive biennale and exhibition catalogs, stemming from the early 2000s onward.
Özgen adds that there are numerous challenges to running Loading. “During the intensified civil war in the last few years,” he said, “the state waged an ongoing assault against just about every aspect of Kurdish culture.” Despite this, Loading’s core purpose is to resist the “cultural liquidation” of Kurdish culture,” Özgen said. “This is the most important part,” he went on, “to resist totalitarianism by insisting on the autonomy of contemporary art.”
After the peace process between the AKP and PKK broke down in 2015, a number of Kurdish cultural and educational institutions were closed after managers and employees of the organizations were taken into custody. Media in the area have fared no better. After the failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016, media outlets across the country have come under increasing pressure from the state as well, with most forced to close. For Turkish media outlets, however, this is nothing new. Kurdish as a language was banned in Turkey until 1991.
Anadolu Kültür is another extremely important organization doing work around Kurdish culture in Diyarbakır. Founded by Osman Kavala, the organization has been in a near-constant state of guerrilla operations since its founder was imprisoned in November 2016, accused of being the “leader and organizer” of the Gezi Park demonstrations. Anadolu Kültür was founded as a means of creating dialogue and peace after conflict between Kurds and the Turkish government re-ignited in the 1990s, a cultural institution tasked with building bridges across different areas of Turkey. In 2002, Anadolu Kültür provided support for the founding of the Diyarbakır Arts Center (Diyarbakır Sanat Merkezi – DSM), an organization that provides support for culture and artists across the region.
Övgü Gökçe, the acting program coordinator for DSM, explained to me the main mission and program behind DSM was to cultivate peace, understanding, and co-existence through art and literature. “One of our main visions is to bring people, spaces, and cities together through art,” she said. DSM provides long-term programs for young people particularly active in photography and video, with a focus also on Kurdish language and literature.
One of the key programs Anadolu Kültür has been organizing since 2012 is an initiative called “BAK: Revealing the City Through Memory.” The BAK project aims to circumvent cultural misunderstanding across different parts of Anatolia by building bridges between different cities through art.
“We thought about starting a program that enhances artistic production in a collaborative way,” Gökçe said, “so the idea was to bring together young people from different cities across Turkey, building for them a sustainable framework to collaborate through artistic and cultural exchange.” In 2016, BAK included participants from diverse regions like Aydın, Balıkesir, Batman, Çanakkale, Diyarbakır, İzmir, Mardin, Muğla, Şırnak, and Urfa, all of whom were brought together under the theme of recording different stories about their daily lives, using media like film and photography.
“Being in Diyarbakır brings about methods of coping with hard times through the arts,” Gökçe said with the same sense of defiance I sensed in Özgen. “We’re trying to act but always with caution, responsibility and sensitivity to the issues young artists are facing today.” Most of DSM’s funding comes from abroad, she told me, including from foreign consulates based in Turkey like the Charles Steward Mott Foundation, the Swedish consulate, and the Open Society Foundation.
Responding to the issue of whether DSM has faced censorship, Gökçe said they are certainly affected by deteriorating developments in their programming, but was careful to remain diplomatic about political events. She told me that some of DSM’s partner institutions, such as the Kurdish Writers Association, have been closed down by government censorship, and that she often worries about what will happen to young artists critical of social and political issues, many of whom face one of two bleak choices: either self-censor, or re-locate.
Despite its relatively small size, Diyarbakır punches well above its weight in terms of the cultural and artistic luminaries it has produced. Numerous well known names in contemporary art are originally from Diyarbakır and surrounding Mardin, including Ahmet Ögüt and Halil Altındere, artists who have found success abroad without compromising their criticality. But for local artists who find it difficult to leave and go abroad, the situation remains bleak. Those who remain face uncertainty and challenges because, as Gökçe told me, today anything the Turkish government deems as “terrorist propaganda” faces swift rebuke. Nevertheless, “there is a need to hear and tell more stories,” she said.
The problem is when telling stories can land you in jail.
Case in point is that of artist and journalist Zehra Doğan, who today remains in a Turkish prison (sentenced to 2 years and 10 months) for painting the destruction of the city of Nusaybin, a district not far from Diyarbakır in the province of Mardin, a mostly Kurdish area destroyed by military artillery forces in 2015.
In response, Doğan painted an image of Nusaybin in ruin with Turkish flags flying above. The painting was based on a popular image circulated by the Turkish military via social media. In turn, she was sentenced two years ago on the basis of being part of illegal “terrorist organization” and “propaganda for the organization.” Earlier this year, however, a mural of Doğan appeared in New York painted by the prolific street artist Banksy, which helped draw international attention to her case. Nevertheless, Doğan’s case is emblematic of the challenges artists and journalists face who remain living and working in Diyarbakır today.
In the wake of such challenges, spaces like Loading and DSM are playing essential functions by existing in the trenches and doing the difficult, but necessary work of preserving Kurdish culture and language. Surrounded by the debris of apartment blocks and bombed-out streets, these spaces offer some glimmer of hope against the ongoing cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people, a dangerous task to be sure, but nevertheless one of monumental importance.