The Rise of Contemporary Turkish Art

May 23, 2016

Positioned at the cross-section between history and modernity, between the two worlds of East and West, Turkey, and especially Istanbul, is seen as one of the major art centers, or better to say, a sort of hub in the contemporary arts’ world map. The Turkish art, and its presence in both the international and local art scene has influenced the rapid development of the contemporary Turkish art, and also in the wider region, in the Balkans, and in Central Asia. This expansion is evident, not only as influencing and increasing the number of the privately run art galleries and museums, major art events and fairs, the involvement of the major auction houses in the local communities, such as Christie’s, but also in the aesthetic quality of the works produced. The rich history, economic rise of the city, and its positioning have for sure influenced the art’s eye towards this center of the world.

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Ali Kazma - Black Box, Installation view, Hirshhorn Gallery, Image via

Major Art City – Istanbul

Many argue that the contemporary art scene in Istanbul has witnessed an explosion in recent years, but this is not a new phenomenon, rather a continuation and the building of the momentum since the 1980’s. What is seen as a catalyst event that marked the beginning of contemporary Turkish art, and also influenced the rise in the commercial galleries since 2000’s, is the opening of the, now major, art event, Istanbul Biennial in 1987. This fair has since attracted worldwide acclaim, not only as one of the most prestigious events of its kind but as a frontrunner in Istanbul’s contemporary art scene. Raising awareness of the local art scene, and implementing the positioning of the Turkish artists onto the international art platform, many other major art events followed. Contemporary Istanbul festival was created in 2006, Art International in 2013, Design Biennial in 2012, Istanbul Modern in 2004, not to mention the opening of the commercial art galleries, enterprises in their own right such as SALT and ARTER. Privately founded museums, since the government support is at a minimum, independently artist-run off-spaces, and the international success of the Turkish artists, are placing the Turkish art, at the epicenter of interest for the major auction houses, as well as young collectors.

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Left: Ahmet Ögüt - The Castle of Vooruit / Right: Ahmet Ögüt - The Castle of Vooruit, detail. Images via

Major Players of the Contemporary Turkish Art

In the now completely globalized art market, Turkish art is proving to be one of the most vibrant and provocative ones, similarly to the African contemporary art, and its leading figures are not afraid to question issues concerning the censorship in art, reflect upon the issues surrounding identity, experiment with the use of different materials, and at the same time try to position themselves in the big art bubble. The interdisciplinary nature of the contemporary art on a whole has also influenced many of the Turkish artists to work across different art disciplines. Such is the case with the internationally acclaimed conceptual artist Ahmet Ögüt. He has gained international attention due to his work that subtly references complex topics including religion, rural customs and the specter of war, often charged with humor. Questioning the socio-economical and political issues in Turkey is seen in the core of the work of Ali Kazma. Representative of the Turkey pavilion at the 2013 International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, this multimedia artist is just one of many that use the artistic practice for raising awareness concerning political and economic issues in Turkey and its major cities that are going through urban changes. Many artists, like Taner Ceylan, create often-controversial works that engage upon concepts of Orientalism and national identity, subverting official colonialist and imperialist codes of representation, commenting upon the political views of government’s vision of contemporary Turkey.

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Taner Ceylan - Spring Time. Image via

The Position of Turkish Art Today

The Turkish art scene first started to mature in the 1980’s when the privatization of the Turkish economy benefited art galleries. The first Istanbul Biennial in 1987 helped to educate the local community and to also create international visibility. The city’s unique location, cultural history, and economic situation all provided the means for Turkish art to become an international hub of contemporary art. Like in other parts of the world, once the focus of the art market and its money appears, major turns in the infrastructure of art institutions occur. This shift and development of Turkish art helped local artists to gain international focus and has also helped Turkish artists living abroad to gain one as well. The richness of the visual art field is not the only discipline where the Turkish artists seem to dominate. The success of the Turkish cinematography, and the movie director Nuri Bilge Ceylan placed Turkish film into the spotlight in 2014, once the movie The Winter Dream received Palm d’Or at the Canes Film Festival. Exhibiting major talent in visual fields, cinematography, literature, has placed Turkish art and its culture into the spotlight. Geographically placed in the middle of East and West, Istanbul as the major art center of Turkey is yet again re-enforcing the golden tradition and importance of this country for the creation and expression of local themes that are considered valuable in the globalization of the world we share.

Editors’ Tip: Unleashed: Contemporary Art from Turkey

Unleashed is the most comprehensive survey of the exciting Turkish contemporary artists, whose works have been included into some of the world’s most prestigious museums, such as Pompidou Center, Tate Modern, and have received a nomination for the most important art awards. Excellently illustrated it covers over ninety of the most important and influential Turkish local and diaspora artists. Three essays written by leading curators and critics enhance the analysis of the major works of the represented artists in this book that also features interviews with some of the leading curators, gallerists, collector, artist-run spaces, and museums. Unleashed is a book that will help to understand the relationship of the Turkish art and international artistic trends.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Taner Ceylan – Lost Painting Series. Image via

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