ISTANBUL — A restored fez factory in Istanbul that reopened with great fanfare last week as a massive new arts and culture venue was briefly forced to shut its doors after its inaugural exhibition became a target of conservative attacks.

Decrying artworks containing nudity, “LGBT propaganda,” and imagery seen as critical of the state, dozens of protestors gathered outside the Artİstanbul Feshane venue on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 27, demanding the show be shut down. The venue was temporarily closed to visitors due to the demonstration but reopened by evening after the group dispersed.

Organized by 19 different curators under the auspices of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the exhibition Starting from the Middle features works by some 300 contemporary artists from Turkey spread over 86,000 square feet of exhibition space. The 19th-century factory was restored by the opposition-run Istanbul municipality as part of its broader initiative to turn historic buildings in the city into cultural centers.

Pro-government newspapers and online accounts, including some belonging to members of the country’s ruling party, began attacking the show after a writer for one of these media outlets posted a video tour of her visit to what she called a “perverted exhibition.” Works singled out for criticism included Taner Ceylan’s “Ingres” (2015), a gender-bending portrait modeled after a famous Neoclassical painting, and a text accompanying Ekin Keser’s installation “Any touch tears me up now” (2023) that describes the difficulties the artist has faced as an LGBTQ+ person in Turkey.

In the installation, a photo of a hand hangs crookedly above a damaged wall and a pile of rubble, referencing both the poor living conditions of marginalized people and the family members the artist lost in Hatay during February’s devastating earthquakes. “I am a struggling queer trying to breathe in social life. This situation can lead to being homeless and unemployed in Turkey. In short, I am dispossessed,” Keser wrote in the text.

Installation view of Starting from the Middle, the exhibition targeted by conservative protesters as “LGBT propaganda”

Harsh anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric figured prominently in the country’s recent national elections, which saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his proxies repeatedly accuse the opposition of being “LGBT supporters” and “terrorists.” But artworks with other themes also drew the opprobrium of the exhibition’s conservative opponents. 

Among these were photographs of the 2013 Gezi protests that they said “contained hostility towards the police,” and a video work by Kurdish artist Mehmet Ali Boran, “The Quests of an Anatolian Leopard in Disquiet” (2021). Featuring a leopard-shaped kite floating over the rugged landscape of southeastern Turkey, the video uses the story of the endangered animal as a lens through which to examine a long history of ecological and cultural violence and displacement, including a reference to a 1937–38 massacre of Alevi Kurds carried out in the town of Dersim (now called Tunceli) by the Turkish army.

“This part of the video, and the language of the video being in Kurdish, were what was targeted,” Boran told Hyperallergic.

Ferhat Özgür’s photograph “Felt like a Prophet Today” (2007), which shows a man obscuring his face with the orb-like light from a desk lamp, also came under fire as “insulting to Islamic values.”

The work “is based on the prohibition of imagery in Islamic belief and the depictions of the Christian apostles with halos in traditional Western painting,” Özgür told Hyperallergic. “So it might be interpreted as a surrealistic juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian belief, but it has nothing to do with the defamation of Islamic values.”

The protest at Feshane is not the first such incident in Istanbul. A sculpture depicting the face of an Ottoman sultan on a woman’s swimsuit was pulled, then reinstated, then withdrawn by the artist from the 2016 Contemporary Istanbul art fair after an angry mob demanded its removal. A small group of Islamists also tried to attack an artwork they objected to during a 2017 showing of businessman Ömer Koç’s private collection. 

“That [Koç] exhibition became a hot topic and reached a record number of viewers,” artist historian Osman Erden noted on Twitter yesterday, wryly suggesting that the “Istanbul municipality and the art community should thank” the Feshane protesters.

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.