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.


Syria Kurds hand over four Daesh-linked children to Germany

Updated 36 min 31 sec ago

Syria Kurds hand over four Daesh-linked children to Germany

  • They included a boy and two sisters who had lost both parents, and a fatherless girl infant
  • A spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry confirmed the handover to staff from its consulate

SIMALKA CROSSING: The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria on Monday handed over four children linked with the Daesh group to Germany, their first such repatriation to the European country, an official said.
“The autonomous region handed over four children from Daesh families to a delegation from Germany,” said Fanar Kaeet, a foreign affairs official with the Kurdish authorities.
They included a boy and two sisters who had lost both parents, and a fatherless girl infant who was repatriated for health reasons, Kurdish authorities said.
All are under 10 years old, they said.
A spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry confirmed the handover to staff from its consulate in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan at the Simalka border crossing.
“I can confirm that four children who were in custody in northern Syria were able to leave Syria,” she said.
“The children were received on the Iraqi-Syrian border by staff of the consulate in Irbil and will be given to family members,” the spokeswoman said.
“From there, the children and their family members will, we believe, travel to Germany.”
Syria’s Kurds have spearheaded the US-backed fight against Daesh in Syria, and in March expelled the extremists from their last patch of territory in the war-torn country’s far east.
Even as they fight remaining sleeper cells, thousands of alleged Daesh fighters and family members are being held in their custody.
These include hundreds of suspected foreign fighters in their jails, and thousands of their alleged family members in overcrowded camps.
Western countries have been largely reluctant to repatriate their nationals.
But France and Belgium have brought a handful of orphans home, while the United States last year repatriated a woman with her four children.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kosovo have repatriated dozens of women and children.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” there, but offensives in both countries have seen them lose that territory.
A dozen children of alleged jihadist fighters have been repatriated from Iraq to Germany since March.