Contemporary Art in Istanbul - Between the Enthusiasm and Oppression

May 29, 2016

A home to different civilizations and cultures over the ages and a place where East meets the West, Istanbul is a city with incredibly rich and exotic history. The contemporary art in Istanbul, in this vibrant city with continent-spanning bridges, towering mosques, and exotic labyrinthine bazaars, is experiencing an explosion in recent years. This phenomenon that has been building since the change of the political climate during the 1980s has positioned Istanbul as the major international cultural center. With numerous galleries and art spaces opening at the fast pace and the presence of important events such as the Istanbul Biennale or Contemporary Istanbul, the creative and commercial energy of Istanbul has generated a good degree of media hype. Yet, the rise of contemporary art scene has not been unproblematic, as artists face the strengthening tide of religious and nationalist conservatism within the Turkish society as well as the rising censorship imposed by the Turkish ruling party.

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Istanbul Biennal 2015, via

The Art Scene Boom

It seems that Istanbul is having its moment of rebirth when it comes to contemporary art. Turkey has been welcoming private investors in fields of art and culture, the number of privately run public galleries and museums is increasing, and Turkish artists are in the epicenter of interest for major auction houses and art collectors. Hosting various art events and fairs that attract visitors from all around the world, this new wealthy corner of the East seems full of possibilities. The core of Istanbul’s art scene coalesced in the 1980s and '90s through the efforts of a few prominent figures such as curators Vasif Kortun, Ali Akay and Beral Madra, or the artist Halil Altindere. It is argued that the catalyst event for the rise of the contemporary art in Turkey has been the establishment of Istanbul Biennial in 1987. A major art event that turns the whole city into a large-scale museum each year, Istanbul Biennial has raised awareness of the local art scene and has attracted worldwide acclaim. As a frontrunner in Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, it has paved the way for others to follow. The Contemporary Istanbul has been founded in 2006, Design Biennial in 2012, Art International in 2013 and in October 2015, Istanbul hosted the Moving Museum, a global art event bringing major international and local artists and ambitious program of residencies, workshops and talks. Private art galleries and museums abound, including the Istanbul Modern, Mixer, Misir Apartment, Galerist, Pera Musem or newly opened SALT and ARTER. Artists are becoming well aware of the changes to their once-ignored city that has now become a market connected to the rest of the world, and those who have once fled abroad are now coming back. With such a rich history and culture, pulsating energy, serious wealth and self-confidence, it seems Istanbul has everything that it takes to become a major artistic and cultural hub. But, is it really so?

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Protesters protest near Gezi Park in Istanbul, via

The Non-Existant Cultural Policy

Despite the apparent art boom, beneath the surface, a different picture emerges. Turkey has never developed a tradition of cultural policy, and the neoliberal Justice and Development Party (AKP) hasn’t contributed to it either. Even though the party has promised the democratization and cultural pluralism prior to the elections, its interpretation of culture has turned out to be different. The cultural policy of the country has been shaped to fit the views of the government. Often legitimizing censorship and limitations of the artistic freedom with regard for the ‘national security’ and ‘public morals’, the government has often employed arbitrary oppressive interventions solely for the political and ideological reasons. Last year, the government proposed a new law the has announced the establishment of an 11-person council who would be appointed directly by the cabinet to fund art and allocate money to cultural institutions, examining project by project. Prominent cultural figures fear that their decisions would mainly be governed by politics rather than art.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, via

The Bully of Istanbul

Ever since coming to national power in 2002, Erdogan’s party has been defending and promoting age-old Muslim traditions in Turkey and has been remaking the country in Erdogan’s image. During his 14-year-reign, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded to transform what was once a secular and a promising democratic nation into a despotic, repressive and Islamic-aligned state. He has also transformed state institutions and criticized the secular elites for their previous hold on culture, announcing that the government will fund and support the art and culture as they see fit. The continuous oppression has resulted in infamous Gezi Park protests in 2013 that have united LGBT activists, anti-capitalist Muslims, Kurdish groups, secular Turkish nationalists, hardline leftists, and apolitical middle-class professionals. First starting with a local cause to save Gezi park from becoming a shopping mall, the protests soon triggered an outburst of general anger as the police response became more violent. Even though the Gezi Park protests had helped to raise hopes for change, the brutal repression of the protests has resulted in only further censorship.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Binali Yildirim, via

The War on Contemporary Art in Istanbul

The governing AKP, with president Erdogan and the prime minister Binali Yildirim leading the way, has introduced a climate in which the freedom of expression is bad for politics. Even though there has never been a strong tradition of free speech in Turkey, it seems that the situation has become evidently worse as critical thought is the most unwelcome and the media diversity and freedom have visibly shrunk. Artists are increasingly subjected to state pressure or intervention or the withdrawal of government funding - the bullying politics which at its most extreme has resulted in attacks on individual artists or galleries. As government’s conservative values and standards for what is considered offensive are arbitrary and keep shifting, it has resulted in a climate of anxiety and self-censorship. Since boundaries are invisible, artists are usually not aware of them until they cross them. Those who are not in line with a ruling ideology are usually socially oppressed. Those campaigning on behalf of Kurds face prosecution under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, and the number of lawsuits against those who have insulted the Prophet or the President Erdogan is rising.

On one hand Turkey has a need to welcome a global contemporary market since it is good for business, but on the other hand, the need to protect the tradition of Turkish art is still strong. This has resulted in another conflict in Istanbul’s art scene. The modern and contemporary art have long been neglected and today they receive no public funding. Newly-opened museums funded by the government serve only to highlight the country’s Islamic heritage or to stimulate the construction industry.

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Bent (a play based on Martin Sherman’s Bent, 1976) D22 Theater, Istanbul, via

The Artists in Revolt

For years, artists have played a vital role in Turkish social protest and advocacy. As it often happens, the oppression produces revolt and many Turkish artists and cultural figures have acted on and spoken about the profound censorship and