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Controversy in Istanbul Underscores Rising Political Pressures on Turkish Art Scene

A nationalist message from the head of the country’s biggest contemporary art fair stands in stark contrast to limits of expression on other segments of the Turkish art world.

Contemporary Istanbul in 2014 (via Wikimedia Commons)

ISTANBUL — The email was ominous, warning against spreading “black propaganda” about Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria. Its message echoed the Turkish government’s response to international criticism of the cross-border incursion, but rather than a political official, the sender was the head of Turkey’s largest art fair.

“People have been messaging me, asking, ‘Is this for real, is this a hoax?’” one member of Istanbul’s arts community said after the English-language statement from Ali Güreli, chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, was sent out to the fair’s international mailing list last Monday, October 14.

Another art professional in Istanbul suggested sympathetically that the email may have been sent in hopes of averting a similar economic fallout to the one that hit the Turkish art world as a result of a wave of attacks and unrest in 2015 and 2016. (Due to the sensitivity of the topic, many people Hyperallergic spoke with in Turkey did not want to be quoted by name.) But others questioned whether it would have the desired effect, calling it tantamount to “suicide.”

“I was taken aback by the email; it would really give me pause about going to the fair again,” Ellis Edmonds, a New York-based collector who has attended Contemporary Istanbul in the past, told Hyperallergic after receiving the message.

Indeed, by Friday, October 18, Güreli had issued another statement, calling his first missive “entirely inappropriate” and pledging to “remain outside of any political situation or debate.”

With the next edition of the fair 11 months away, it seemed the fallout may be limited for the organization, whose executive committee includes Hasan Bülent Kahraman, a former chief advisor to the Minister of Culture. (Contemporary Istanbul did not respond to a request for further comment.) Then on Monday, October 21, artnet News reported that fair’s artistic director Anissa Touati, and “entire selection committee” stepped down in response to Güreli’s statement.

Most importantly, the incident points to the limits of free expression in Turkey, and to wider issues within the country’s art world.

Pressure on dissenting voices within Turkey has accelerated since a failed military coup in July 2016, with tens of thousands of people, including journalists, academics, union members and civil-society activists, investigated, detained or prosecuted. At least two dozen people have been arrested this month, and many more detained, for online comments critical of the military operation in Syria, which targeted forces linked to a Kurdish militant group designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and other countries.

The contemporary art world has not been spared, particularly artists of Kurdish origin or those addressing issues affecting the country’s Kurdish minority, one of the strongest sensitivities in Turkish politics. When the government was engaged in a peace process with the militant group a few years ago, “you could talk about Kurdish issues freely,” one artist said. “Now you can’t even utter the word ‘peace.’”

“There hasn’t been any counter-statement [to Güreli’s email]. But could we really expect one?” asked Kültigin Kağan Akbulut, a contemporary art critic and editor of Speak Up Platform, a website covering censorship cases in the arts and media in Turkey.

A painting by Zehra Doğan of Nusaybin, Turkey destroyed by military forces

Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan spent more than two years in prison over a painting that was deemed “terrorist propaganda.” Another Kurdish artist, Fatoş İrwen, is still in jail. But for most non-Kurdish artists in Turkey, political impacts are felt through subtler forces.

“Our platform reports many censorship cases about cinema, TV, theater, literature and media — but few about contemporary art,” said Akbulut. “Because the ‘problem’ is already solved by inside negotiations between artists, curators and institutions.”

“The self-censorship starts before the gallery,” the anonymous Istanbul art professional concurred. “Artists don’t bring works that might be censored.”

Many people Hyperallergic spoke with attributed this caution in part to the dominance of corporate interests over the Turkish art world. Most major institutions and events are sponsored by banks or by wealthy family-owned companies with diverse business interests. The Eczacıbaşı Group, a founder of Istanbul Modern, is a leader in the pharmaceutical and construction sectors, while the portfolio of the Koç Group, which is a key sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial and established (through its charitable foundation) the contemporary art museum Arter, includes defense manufacturing and mining companies.

“Business evolved with the state in Turkey and the state can use its power to punish companies, by issuing tax fines, by refusing permits, by not allowing construction projects,” said Asena Günal, program coordinator at DEPO, an independent cultural institution in Istanbul known for its willingness to tackle taboo topics.

“Culturally, some of these companies may be in opposition [to the government], but they benefitted enormously from the neoliberal transformation it has brought about, so their hands are tied. You cannot operate in Turkey without government support,” said Hakan Topal, a Turkish artist based in New York. “Now they feel squeezed because the government is infringing on their area.”

Having already consolidated political power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has begun speaking about the need to gain cultural influence as well, including in remarks before the September inauguration of the Odunpazarı Modern Museum in Eskişehir, which opened with a piece of the president’s own calligraphy on its walls. Though the government’s cultural efforts, including the creation of an alternative biennial, have not faced much critical acclaim, in one way it does dominate the artistic conversation.

“People are rightly outraged about censorship and prosecutions, but every time we speak about this, in a way it allows the government to control the discourse; it shows them this is a button they can push,” said artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu. “We can’t talk about the art itself, only the political conditions, the climate in which it was created.”

Since November 2017, that climate has included the ongoing imprisonment of Osman Kavala, a wealthy businessman and benefactor of cultural initiatives and civil society groups. He is accused of orchestrating the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013, which many artists supported and participated in, as a coup attempt against the government, charges widely seen as without basis.

“Because the government has not been able to establish its own cultural hegemony, they are trying to do it by means of policing,” said Günal of DEPO, which operates under the umbrella of Anadolu Kültür, an organization co-founded by Kavala. Though civil society has rallied around Kavala’s cause, the art world has remained largely silent at an institutional level, Günal believes.

“The people in these organizations know Osman Kavala personally, they know he is being targeted for his political position and what he is doing in the field of art and culture, but they can’t make public statements because it’s impossible to do business if you are always fighting with the government,” she added. “It really shows the limits of the art world when it comes to uniting and saying something critical.”

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