Artists find their voice in Turkey’s ‘difficult’ climate

Bige Orer, director of the Istanbul Biennal, poses during an interview in Istanbul on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 21 November 2017

Artists find their voice in Turkey’s ‘difficult’ climate

ISTANBUL: A mute Syrian boy, using just body movements, gives a harrowing description of life under in Syria. A crowd gathers of passionate activists.
And a galaxy of white ceramic CCTV cameras keeps a Big Brother-like watch over a city.
These are just some of the images from this season’s contemporary exhibitions in Istanbul as artists grapple with issues of censorship and political turbulence in Turkey and raging violence across the border in Syria.
And while critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say the government is riding roughshod over freedom of expression, many artists are openly defying the trend by tackling big issues head-on in a still punchy scene.
Almost immediately after the failed coup against Erdogan last year, Turkish authorities launched widespread purges which opponents say have gone beyond suspected coup plotters and are affecting intellectual and artistic circles.
Some artists have self-censored or even left the country. But others have sought to develop new ways of addressing the situation.
“The artistic scene in Istanbul is not in the process of shrinking — it is in the process of becoming more interesting,” said artist Safak Catalbas.
“The difficult circumstances make us more creative,” she added.
This year’s Istanbul Biennial, the most important contemporary art event in Turkey, did not shy away from controversial topics like the refugee crisis or conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The event, which was curated by Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset and closed its doors on Nov. 12, also contained more than just coded references to the current situation in Turkey.

Turkish artist Erkan Ozgen, a Kurd, presented the video installation of the Syrian mute boy, Mohammed, in a short video entitled “Wonderland.”
A spectacular wall mural by French-Moroccan designer Latifa Echakhch showed the crowd of protesters in a reference to anti-government rallies in Turkey crushed in 2013.
Another example came from Turkish artist Burcak Bingol, who used ceramic CCTV cameras scattered across the city to recall the inquisitive eyes of the authorities in a country which has been living under a state of emergency for more than a year.
“All exhibitions must, in one way or another, address the local political-social context to be relevant,” said Biennial director Bige Orer.
“We have tried to find a new language to deal with the current context,” she added. “We felt that a new energy was emerging.”
Few dispute that the climate in Istanbul has changed greatly since 2005, when in the early days of Erdogan’s rule Newsweek magazine famously dubbed the Turkish metropolis “the coolest city in the world.”
The repression of the spring protest movement in 2013 — which many artists were involved in — marked the end of a certain carefree attitude in the country.
At least eight people were killed and more than 8,000 injured by police during anti-government protests against plans to build on land occupied by Gezi Park in central Istanbul, according to Turkish NGOs.
Asli Sumer, who runs a gallery in the waterside district of Karakoy, said, however, that instead of criticizing the authorities directly, artists are interested in ways of overcoming these hardships.
“An artist with whom I work is especially interested in plants and their capacity to grow back by being more resistant,” she said.
In addition to the Biennial, the international contemporary art fair in Istanbul welcomed more than 80,000 visitors between Sept. 14 and 17, a turnout that also showed the resilience of the Turkish arts scene.
This year, one of the main exhibits on display was the “Box of Democracy” by Bedri Baykam, one of the seminal modern works of Turkish three-dimensional art.
The exhibit — a kind of large telephone box inside which the viewer is able to enjoy a totally free space — was created in 1987 to criticize the years of repression inherited from the 1980 military coup.
Maintaining such creative freedom is made possible through the financing of contemporary art by private funds without fear of state meddling.
The Istanbul Biennial is organized by the privately-run Istanbul Foundation For Culture and Arts (IKSV) and funded primarily by family-run industrial conglomerate Koc Holding.
“As a result, the state has little leverage to use pressure,” said Orhan Esen, an expert on urban history and Istanbul’s art scene.

OIC body urges Muslim countries to promote culture of reading

Updated 31 min 24 sec ago

OIC body urges Muslim countries to promote culture of reading

  • Critical shortage of ‘reading rates’ and ‘lack of access to books’ deplored
  • ISESCO calls on Muslim countries to support publishing industry

RABAT, Morocco: Muslim countries must do more to promote books and reading, the Saudi Press Agency reported one of the world’s largest Islamic organizations as saying.

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), which was founded by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 40 years ago, called on Muslim countries to improve the publishing industry, provide copyright protection, and preserve manuscripts by digitizing them so that current and future generations could benefit from them.

It made the comments ahead of World Book and Copyright Day, a UN event celebrated on April 23. 

ISESCO said that knowledge and science in Muslim communities soared when printing was discovered, adding that paper books would remain a pillar of culture and a driver for development because civilization was founded on the discovery of writing.

“The media through which knowledge and sciences were transferred have varied with the advent of the information and communications technology revolution,” ISESCO said. “The world now has digital as well as paper books and, in spite of this great leap achieved by humanity to disseminate knowledge and sciences, there is a critical shortage of reading rates, and a large segment of people lack access to books and intermediate technologies. In addition, certain categories of people, such as the visually impaired, do not benefit from a large number of publications.”

The ISESCO statement mentioned statistics that showed an increase in the proportion of published books compared with previous years, which were characterized by a decline in the sector. ISESCO said the functions of paper and digital books were evenly divided.

But the popularity of books and reading could not hide the difficulties and risks facing the written word, it added. Manuscripts faced destruction and theft in some areas of armed conflict and this phenomenon threatened Islamic culture and history, said ISESCO.

The body said that technology could be used to combat book piracy through practical measures such as standardizing legislation, closing legal loopholes and raising awareness about the dangers of piracy.

ISESCO called on member states to give attention to books and reading as well as people with special needs to help them access books.


Environment protection

Separately, ISESCO and the General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection (PME) had a meeting on Friday in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss the Saudi Arabia Award for Environmental Management in the Islamic World (KSAAEM).

The meeting, held at ISESCO headquarters, was presided over by PME President Khalil bin Musleh Al-Thaqafi and ISESCO Director General, Abdul Aziz Othman Al-Twaijri.

The meeting hailed the support of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the efforts of the PME and ISESCO in the field of environmental protection in the Islamic world, including raising awareness about the importance of protecting the environment and encouraging scientific research through KSAAEM.

The two sides highlighted their coordination, consultation and cooperation to achieve common goals. Mohammed Hussein Al-Qahtani, PME’s director general of media and public relations, commended the efforts made in this area and the results, and said there was a need to develop the award’s media plan to expand its outreach.

Dr. Abdelamajid Tribak, from ISESCO’s Directorate of Science and Technology, gave a presentation on the activities of KSAAEM’s General Secretariat.

He said the number of nominees had risen this year compared to the previous year, with 200 entrants from 40 Islamic and non-Islamic countries.