A man paints on a destroyed wall amidst the rubble in the city of Jindires on February 28, 2023 near Aleppo, Syria. (photo by Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — For the past five years, the modest white two-story villa that houses Mordem Sanat has been a place where the local community in Diyarbakır could watch a theatrical performance or a film screening, take a dance or a yoga class, or participate in all kinds of art workshops for adults and children alike. With events in both Kurdish and Turkish, it was an oasis amid political strife and repression for artists in the predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey.

That figurative refuge became a literal one on February 6, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, followed hours later by one of 7.5 magnitude, tore the broader region apart. Thousands of buildings collapsed across Diyarbakır and nine other provinces in Turkey, killing more than 51,000 people, including over 6,000 deaths in neighboring Syria — where an ongoing civil war, insufficient humanitarian aid, and deteriorating infrastructure and basic services complicate mobilization efforts in the aftermath of a disaster, making it more difficult for art organizations to get involved.

“Because our building was a more sturdy one, we opened our venue up to the people escaping from the earthquake,” artist Barış Işık, one of Mordem’s founders, told Hyperallergic. “For the first week, we had around 60 families staying here — our artists, their families, our followers, people we didn’t even know.”

Mordem’s regular programming has been suspended, as were cultural events throughout the earthquake region and even in physically untouched cities like Istanbul and İzmir as the country mourned and mobilized to deliver aid to the vast number of people affected.

Mordem Sanat hosts art activities with children in the tent cities. (image courtesy Mordem Sanat)

Artists and art initiatives both inside and outside of Turkey have been part of that solidarity. Mordem has launched an initiative to bring art activities to tent cities set up for the displaced as a way to help children in particular deal with their trauma. Others have been opening their spaces as depots for collecting donated goods, organizing open-air movie nights for children who have lost their homes, and hosting print sales and other fundraising events for NGOs responding to the quake in both Turkey and Syria.

Ten days after the earthquakes, Diyarbakır-based artist Fatoş İrwen’s solo show Sûr opened at Zilberman Gallery Berlin with a moment of silence for the earthquake victims. Half of the gallery’s proceeds from the show will go to earthquake relief and an edition of one of İrwen’s photographs is also being sold to benefit the Merkezkaç Art Collective in Diyarbakır. The artist said the collective is part of decentralized aid efforts that have proven essential during a disaster plagued by accusations of slow and insufficient state response.

“We knew many events in Turkey were canceled out of respect, and Fatoş’s family home was affected by the disaster, but in close collaboration with the artist we decided to proceed,” Marjolein van der Meer of Zilberman told Hyperallergic. “So much of her work is about her homeland, about how people’s history is tied to the soil and land. We thought the exhibition could be a way to show the Berlin community what has happened there.”

Paintings by children made in an activity organized by Mordem Sanat (image courtesy Mordem Sanat)

Support events have largely been organized by those with ties to the region; Zilberman Berlin, for example, is an offshoot of the owner’s original gallery in Istanbul. This has prompted some anger, as well as soul-searching, about the lack of broader solidarity.

“I won’t name names, but I did get in touch with a few places that are supposedly international in scope, and they said they can’t really do anything because they have affiliated artists with links all around the world,” said London-based collector and independent curator Huma Kabakcı, a member of the Turkish diaspora who is hosting a benefit art sale through her platform Open Space.

“I’m not saying there has been no support, but I think more can be done,” Kabakcı added.

For artists and cultural workers in the affected region, the disaster has only compounded existing challenges stemming from 12 years of war in Syria, the global coronavirus pandemic, and an ongoing inflation crisis in Turkey.

“Even before the earthquake, artists were suffering from a lack of funding; now they don’t have anything,” said Rami Magharbeh, the director of Douzan Art and Culture, which works to preserve and archive Syrian cultural memory and heritage. Their space in Gaziantep suffered minimal damage but the team has been forced to scatter to other cities. Magharbeh spent the first days after the earthquake staying in a friend’s office with around 10 other families, using his car to transport food and firewood and bring sick members of the group to the hospital as aftershocks continued to wrack the region.

“It’s normal in a disaster that all money sources go to relief [efforts], that culture is not a priority, but we believe people still need these kind of activities,” Magharbeh told Hyperallergic. “Culture and art give a sense of belonging, of identity, of solidarity, and can also be used in psychological support.”

Douzan Art and Culture works to preserve and archive Syrian cultural memory and heritage. (photo via Douzan)

For artists to make these kinds of contributions, though, their own solidarity efforts must be sustainable. “You can’t just donate all the time,” said cultural manager Saliha Yavuz. She is part of the volunteer team behind Sanatla Dayanışma, a new platform set up by independent arts organizations in Turkey to support the earthquake-relief efforts. 

In order to minimize the burden on artists and maintain the market value of their work, participants are only allowed to donate one piece to the platform and are advised not to discount its sale price, which buyers send directly to a selected NGO. Each purchase comes with a certificate of originality and a statement that the work cannot be resold. (Currently purchases can only be made within Turkey due to the difficulty and expense of shipping art abroad, but the team is considering ways to take the platform international.)

The urgent call has brought together established, emerging, student, and hobbyist artists with many new collectors, an encouraging sign for the future. The group plans to keep the platform operating for earthquake relief for a year, and then discuss how it can best be used to support both artists and social causes in a sustainable way. “It’s been really nice to see the solidarity,” Yavuz told Hyperallergic. “But the path ahead is long and there is much to do.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she writes about arts and culture, environmental issues, food and drink, politics and society, travel, and urbanism.