The now infamous image by Reuters photographer Osman Orsal was taken in Istanbul last week in the midst of protests against Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan's plans to raze a public park to build a mall. (photo via

The now infamous image by Reuters photographer Osman Orsal was taken in Istanbul last week in the midst of protests against Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to raze a public park to build a mall. (photo via

CHICAGO — Turkey erupted last month with people occupying Gezi Park to protest a project that would have pedestrianized Taksim, Istanbul’s main square. Prime Minister Recey Tayyip Erdoğan wanted to rip apart the park, which in the last few decades has been a site of protests and political change, to transform it into a commercial center. Turkish media largely blacked out the news; CNNTürk aired a documentary about penguins rather than cover police officers tear-gassing protestors. As Hyperallergic’s own Jesse Honsa writes:

” … the protest was an effort to save a part by occupying that very park; it was not a symbolic or ideological demonstration like Occupy Wall Street movements, but a primal struggle between human bodies and bulldozers, that made the political discourse all the more potent.”

We reported extensively on the goings on in Taksim during the protests, and the responses in both New York City and at the Venice Biennale. Increasingly, artists and social media became the leading source of news, offering a more diverse source of information to the people of Turkey and the world at large.

A view of Gezi Park before the protests. (via Wikipedia)

A view of Gezi Park before the protests. (via Wikipedia)

The Turkish artist Taner Ceylan, a prominent Turkish artist whose work deals with the hidden histories of the Ottoman Empire, was on hand as the political upheavals in Istanbul exploded. Nearly one month later, the energy in Gezi Park has quieted, and pacifists continue their work. We reached Ceylan by Skype phone and talked with him about his reactions to what is happening in Istanbul now, and his upcoming solo exhibition Lost Paintings Series at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery this fall, where he will show paintings that examine the histories that the Turkish selectively chose to erase from the cultural memory.

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Taner Ceylan, "1881" (from Lost Painting Series), oil on canvas, 140 cm x 200 cm, 2010

Taner Ceylan, “1881” (from Lost Painting Series), oil on canvas, 140 cm x 200 cm, 2010

Alicia Eler: What’s the scene like at Gezi Park? How have things been breaking down?

Taner Ceylan: So, Gezi Park was the first park built during the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 by Atatürk. Erdoğan started by cutting down the trees in this park. At that point the youth were in the park and started to protest against the government. From that day on, when the protests began, everything changed. And now everyone is demonstrating on the streets, and the government is now very careful about what to say and how to handle, but they are still standing very hard against the protests. The park is still the old park, and nothing has changed. This is an important period for the Turkish democracy. This is also the first time that democratic protests are continuing more than one month. All the demonstrations are democratic, peaceful, funny … this is unbelievable.

There is an apolitical youth, and they were born at the end of the 1980s and the 90s. They are the “internet youth,” and they are connected to other kids around the world. All of these youth have the same tastes, mission, hobbies, reading interests. The only wish they have — we want freedom, life now, like in America, Japan, Spain — and they have been important to the protests. Nobody saw this coming.

Two weeks ago, a man went to Taksim Square, and started standing there in silence from early morning and into the late night. The police cannot do anything to a man who is just standing. It was a passive protest. The next day everyone started standing on the streets everywhere. The next day everyone goes in front of his house, stands in front of their houses for one hour, two hours, and these kinds of creative protesting things are unbelievable, and this is a thing that the government cannot do anything about. Turkey had a lot of crazy military things happen in the last decade. Now everyone has this in their personal histories; nobody wants to die, to fight, everyone is peaceful, and everyone is calling for peace.

AE: What has the art community’s response been like? 

TC: Everyone is affected, especially the art world and its institutions and galleries. The very big art institutions here were showing work about contemporary world politics. The tricky thing is that when these protests began, all these institutions were closed. Restaurants and hotels opened doors for protestors, but these institutions remained closed. Now they are facing the fact that, most art institutions and spaces like these are asking what are we exhibiting, or are we only walls to hang things? Now they are facing the truth because saying something and making something are totally different. Artists are separated between the ones protesting and the ones not protesting. Most art institutions getting funds from the government, and now they cannot be near to the protests. But they are making political art. This is a funny situation … most of the artists are on the streets, demonstrating, especially the actors, actresses, and classical musicians. The opera is closed. The national sculpture and painting museums are closed. Now we have the elections in front of us in six months, and the period of the upcoming six months are important to get organized, and to make alternative parties against AKP. But very big changes have come to Turkey, in a democratic way of course.

Taner Ceylan, "1640" (2010) for Lost Painting series, oil on canvas (image via

Taner Ceylan, “1640” (2010) for Lost Painting series, oil on canvas (image via

AE: Tell me about your current body of work, Lost Paintings series. 

TC: Often times in my art, I make things that eventually become reality. I started to paint these paintings, the Lost Paintings, back in 2010. I painted these paintings against the history of Orientalism and Orientalist paintings which appear as if from a fairytale. There were no naked women in the hamam. During its last century of existence, the Ottoman Empire was very poor. But those were not the views presented to us; there was a romanticization of the East through Orientalist paintings. I want to show that it was not like this at all. It was a sad and cruel world.

When I made the Lost Paintings, I was very much inspired by Western contemporary photographers such as Nan Goldin and Terry Richardson. I am using that kind of light in my paintings. I want to bring the two times together — these contemporary times [of a changing political climate] that we are living in now, and the Ottoman history as we know it. They are two parallel times that are coming together, and especially there is an untold Ottoman history. My painting 1881 portrays a pasha wearing a fez, he is looking directly at the viewer and saying “I can do anything for money.” Orientalist paintings have a decorative feel; in my paintings, I want to break this tradition.

Similarly in 1640, we see a bearded man with a boy behind him with a towel. In this painting, I want to paint the story of slave and master relationship. In my early paintings, the slave and master relationship between man and boy is a very old story from the Greeks to the Byzantine s to the Ottomans and till today.

I received death threats for a painting called “1879.” Here we see a veiled Ottoman woman sitting in front of Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine Du Monde, a painting that was commissioned by an Ottoman pasha who lived in Paris and Istanbul. He had a huge art collection, and commissioned a lot of paintings from Courbet. This kind of scene in my painting was probably a real painting that happened in this story. This painting was hung in a Turkish house. You cannot say this in Turkey, but it was published here in the newspaper, and after that I received death threats. You cannot picture or paint an Ottoman veiled woman in front of a vagina.

Taner Ceylan, "1879" (from Lost Painting Series), oil on canvas, 170 cm x 180 cm, 2011

Taner Ceylan, “1879” (from Lost Painting Series), oil on canvas, 170 cm x 180 cm, 2011

AE: How do you think the paintings you make and the subject matter you are working on and through reflect the reality of a modernizing Turkish Republic?

TC: These paintings are showing the truth about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire’s history. This is not the Orientalist world that Western people have in their minds. This has something in common with what is happening in Turkey. It is not the old Turkey. There is a big crowd that wants democracy and freedom. There is a whole new thing what’s going on here. In my paintings also, there is a reality of what people can see about the Ottoman history. In my exhibition, people will have the chance to see the truth about the history, and now Turkey is also changing. The rest of the world is now seeing that the Turkish people want democracy … let’s see what happens.

Taner Ceylan’s exhibition Lost Paintings series will be on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery (515 West 27th Street, Chelsea, New York) from September 18 through October 26.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...