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
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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.


From Syria, Daesh slips into Iraq to fight another day

Updated 18 min 12 sec ago
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From Syria, Daesh slips into Iraq to fight another day

  • Hundreds Daesh fighters have crossed the open, desert border in the past six months, defying a massive operation by US, Kurdish, and allied forces
  • “IS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria,” said the Iraqi army spokesman

BAGHDAD: Daesh fighters facing defeat in Syria are slipping across the border into Iraq, where they are destabilizing the country’s fragile security, US and Iraqi officials say.
Hundreds — likely more than 1,000 — Daesh fighters have crossed the open, desert border in the past six months, defying a massive operation by US, Kurdish, and allied forces to stamp out the remnants of the militant group in eastern Syria, according to three Iraqi intelligence officials and a US military official.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on intelligence matters. But indications of the extremist group’s widening reach in Iraq are clear.
Cells operating in four northern provinces are carrying out kidnappings, assassinations, and roadside ambushes aimed at intimidating locals and restoring the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago.
“IS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, the Iraqi army spokesman.
The militants can count between 5,000 and 7,000 among their ranks in Iraq, where they are hiding out in the rugged terrain of remote areas, according to one intelligence official.
In Syria, Kurdish-led forces backed by the US-led coalition have cornered the militants in a pocket less than one square kilometer in Baghouz, a Euphrates River village near the 600-kilometer (370-mile) border.
The Iraqi army has deployed more than 20,000 troops to guard the frontier, but militants are slipping across, mostly to the north of the conflict zone, in tunnels or under the cover of night. Others are entering Iraq disguised as cattle herders.
They are bringing with them currency and light weapons, according to intelligence reports, and digging up money and arms from caches they stashed away when they controlled a vast swath of northern Iraq.
“If we deployed the greatest militaries in the world, they would not be able to control this territory,” Rasoul said. “Our operations require intelligence gathering and airstrikes.”
At its height in 2014 and 2015, the Daesh group ruled over a self-proclaimed “caliphate” that spanned one-third of Iraqi and Syrian territory. The extremist offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to exterminate religious minorities.
Iraqi forces, with US, Iranian, and other international help, were able to turn the war around and Baghdad declared victory over the group in December 2017, after the last urban battle had been won.
But precursors to Daesh have recovered from major setbacks in the past, and many fear the militants could stage a comeback. The group is already waging a low-level insurgency in rural areas.
The Associated Press verified nine Daesh attacks in Iraq in January alone, based on information gathered from intelligence officials, provincial leaders, and social media. Daesh often boasts of its activities through group messaging apps such as Telegram.
In one instance, a band of militants broke into the home of a man they accused of being an informant for the army, in the village of Tal Al-Asfour in the northern Badush region. They shot him and his two brothers against the wall, and posted photos of the killing on social media.
Sheikh Mohamed Nouri, a local tribal leader, said it was meant to intimidate locals in order to keep them from sharing intelligence with security officials.
“I have members of our tribal militia receiving threatening messages warning them to abandon their work,” said Nouri.
In other instances, Daesh cells have killed mukhtars — village leaders and municipal officials. They have attacked rural checkpoints with car bombs and mortar fire, and burned down militia members’ homes. In the Shurgat area in central Iraq, militants stopped a police vehicle last month and killed all four officers inside.
Other activities have aimed at restoring the group’s financial footing.
On Sunday, militants kidnapped a group of 12 truffle hunters in the western Anbar province, marking a return to a strategy of intimidating and extorting farmers and traders for financial gain.
Naim Kaoud, the head of provincial security, urged locals to suspend truffle gathering, which has just one season a year and is an important source of income for rural families.
Other truffle hunters have disappeared in the countryside, according to former lawmaker and Anbar tribal figure Jaber Al-Jaberi. He said the militants are taking cuts from truffle hunters in exchange for access to the land, and kidnapping or killing those who refuse to cooperate.
“This is one of the sources of their funding,” said Al-Jaberi.
Al-Jaberi cautioned against exaggerating the Daesh threat, saying the militants have been less successful at infiltrating communities than they were earlier this decade.
“These are different times,” he said.
Others are not so sure. Hans-Jakob Schindler, a former adviser to the UN Security Council on Daesh and other extremist groups, said the same grievances that gave rise to Daesh in 2013 remain today, including a large Sunni minority that feels politically and economically marginalized by the Shiite-led central government.
“I’m very worried that we are just repeating history,” said Schindler, who is now at the Counter Extremism Project.
He said he has seen Daesh “revert to the old type” of “classical terror attacks” and kidnapping for ransom, tactics that were once widely employed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The militants staged a dramatic resurgence after 2011, when US forces withdrew from Iraq and civil war broke out in neighboring Syria. Today some 5,200 American forces are based in Iraq, after they were invited back to help stem the IS rampage in 2014.
After President Donald Trump promised in December to pull American forces out of Syria, Iraqi lawmakers began clamoring for the US to leave, arguing that the mission against Daesh was approaching its end.
But with no letdown to Daesh militancy, those calls have petered out.