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
0

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.


Iraqi police arresting protesters in the south — activists

Updated 16 July 2018
0

Iraqi police arresting protesters in the south — activists

  • The government rushed to contain the protests with promises of thousands of jobs, mainly in the oil sector
  • Basra is home to about 70 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels

BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces in the southern oil-rich province of Basra have started arresting protesters who took part in the week-long demonstrations there to demand more jobs and better services, activists said Monday.
Protests in the city of Basra, the provincial capital and Iraq’s second-largest city, are not unusual in scorching summer weather but they boiled over last Tuesday, when security forces opened fire, killing one person and wounding five.
Within days the rallies spread to other provinces. In some places, protesters broke into local government buildings and burned the offices of some political parties.
The government rushed to contain the protests with promises of thousands of jobs, mainly in the oil sector, and an urgent allocation of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars ($3 billion) for electricity and water projects. It blamed “infiltrators” for the damages.
The arrests started on Sunday night, with police chasing protesters down main roads and alleys following demonstrations in the city of Basra, and also in the countryside and around oil fields, two activists told The Associated Press.
The activists could not give a specific number for those arrested, saying only “hundreds.” They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Officials were not immediately available to comment.
The activists said Internet was back on after a two-day shutdown, but a heavy deployment of security forces outside the local government building in Basra prevented protesters from gathering there Monday.
Police also closed off surrounding streets with barbed wire.
Meanwhile, authorities reopened the country’s second-busiest airport, in the city of Najaf, following a two-day shutdown after a mob broke into the facility on Friday, damaging the passenger terminal and vandalizing equipment.
Transportation Minister Kadhim Finjan Al-Hamai was at the Najaf airport to announce the reopening on the Iraqi state TV as an Iraqi Airways plane landed behind him. He said 18 local and international flights were to land on Monday.
The shutdown had caused “heavy losses” to the government, the airport and airline companies, he said without elaborating.
Kuwait Airways, the Royal Jordanian and Iran’s Aviation Authority suspended their flights to Najaf on Sunday, citing security concerns. The United Arab Emirates’ FlyDubai canceled Saturday’s flights to Najaf and said it was suspending its flights until July 22.
Iraq’s vital Um Qasr port on the Arabian Gulf, and two main border crossings — Safwan with Kuwait and Shalamcheh with Iran — were closed to both passengers and goods as protesters had blocked the main roads leading to the sites.
Basra is home to about 70 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels. It is located on the Arabian Gulf bordering Kuwait and Iran, and is Iraq’s only hub these days for all oil exports to the international market.