Turkey continues to repress artists from expressing their thoughts and ideas under the guise of a variety of concerns, including national security. Visual artists, gallery owners, curators and collectives are having their works shut down or are choosing to self-censor under intense pressure from authorities and social groups. Sara Whyatt explains one of the recent cases with the ‘Post-Peace’ exhibition as a troubling pattern for what artists continue to face in the country.
By Sara Whyatt
On 25 February 2016, an art exhibition was cancelled just five days before it was due to open in Istanbul on 2 March with the gallery director citing the tension in Turkey as the reason. The suddenness of the decision, and the paucity of information about what led to it left the artists, whose work was to be exhibited, perplexed and angered. Speculation is rife that the reasons behind the cancellation are as much to do with political pressure as security concerns.
The exhibition, entitled ‘Post-Peace’, was the winner of the fourth annual Akbank Sanat International Curator Competition that attracts entries from around the globe, with a selection committee made up of leading international curatorial experts. The 2015 winner Russian curator Katia Krupennikova’s project was described by the jury as having “intellectual rigour, adventurousness” and “a thoughtful attempt to articulate the contemporary condition of war in its concrete and abstract states”.
Kuprennikova got together eleven visual and video artists – many of whom, like herself, were based in the Netherlands – and began preparing their pieces for the exhibition over the next five months. The artists and writers originated from Cuba, Ireland, the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Germany and Palestine, and included the guerrilla arts group Anonymous Stateless Immigrants.
So what happened during those five months before the exhibition was cancelled?
An environment of terror
Already acute security anxieties were heightened further with a horrific series of bomb attacks. On 10 October 2015 over 100 peace activists were killed by two bombers in Ankara, and on 12 January 2016, 13 tourists were killed in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. Ankara suffered another bombing on 17 February 2016 where more than thirty people died. Akbank Sanat’s decision to withdraw the exhibition was made a week later.
In a short statement issued on 25 February 2016 explaining the cancellation, Akbank Sanat’s directing manager Derya Bigalı spoke of Turkey going through “a very troubled time”, referring to the “tragic incidents in Ankara [being] very fresh in people’s memories. Turkey is still reeling from their emotional aftershocks and remains in a period of mourning”. She went on to say that her gallery has “a sense of responsibility in the Turkish contemporary art world and following various considerations regarding the delicate situation in Turkey, the exhibition has been cancelled”.
A closer look
Yet on closer inspection of Akbank Sanat’s decision there are a number of troubling elements that point to censorship. For instance, Akbank Sanat was one of the host sites of (and sponsor to) the ten-day-long Istanbul Film Festival that opened on 7 April 2016.
Why were the film showings at the gallery not cancelled? Why was the information given to the curator and artists of the exhibition so cursory, and what lay behind the reluctance to give answers to the questions raised by arts rights advocates?
There is also speculation that one piece by the only Turkish artist, belit sağ, whose artwork was to be included may have been a cause as her proposed video idea for the show was turned down by the gallery. She then put together a second video, entitled ‘Ayhan and Me’, that also referred to the censorship of her original idea. The announcement to pull out came soon after.
The Ayhan referred to in the video is Ayhan Çarkin, a policeman who has confessed to killing over 1,000 people during the height of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict in the 1990s. sağ’s work focuses on the role the media in the representation of images of violence.
Artists provide support
The artists as a group are unsure whether any individual work was a problem, or whether it was the overarching topic itself. On hearing of the cancellation and that the would-be exhibitors were stranded in Istanbul, other artists in Istanbul rallied in support.
The Depo art gallery, situated a short distance from Akbank Sanat, hosted an event for them on the day when ‘Post-Peace’ should have opened. There the artists discussed how to make the best of the difficult situation, possibly exhibiting the pieces individually at various sites around Istanbul.
Independent curator Başak Şenova, who coordinated the competition project, had issued her own statement in which she declined to perceive the situation as “either black or white” and that she was “determined to stay in the grey area” and to explore the “possibility of turning this occasion from an unfortunate incident into a constructive occurrence”.
Meanwhile, as it became clear that Akbank Sanat was unwilling to clarify to local artists how it came to its decision, a group of European arts organisations, including the Istanbul-based Siyah Bant, sent a private letter to the gallery’s managing director Derya Bigalı. In the letter the group asked what the gallery feared would happen if it proceeded with the exhibition, what analysis had been made of the security situation, what reparation would be made to the artists, and whether it would consider staging the exhibition later should the situation improve.
Bigalı responded that there was nothing she could add to Akbank Sanat’s original press release, that the curator had been given detailed information about the reasons for the cancellation, and that they had no further statements than what had already been announced publicly.
Challenging an oppressive government
The artists themselves also issued a statement underscoring that the tendency for governments to censor art, and for self-censorship at times of crisis needs to be challenged. They explained that the intention of ‘Post-Peace’ was to “offer a plurality of voices to explore how much ‘war’ is present in contemporary ‘peace’ ‘and that its silencing nurtures ‘a climate of fear and paranoia’”.
The artists accused corporations such as Akbank, the owners of Akbank Sanat, as supporting exhibitions “to enhance their image and then brutally dismiss artworks and artists when they deviate from the corporation’s political agenda”, adding that “the ‘taste’ of the institution becomes an instrument of repression and control”.
Four of the jurors who had been part of the selection committee also issued a statement that although they recognised the difficult situation in Turkey they “still cannot help but identify this as censorship”. They commended the now non-existent exhibition for “its embrace of the complexity of the current global situation and its identification of the proliferation of war as a dominant characteristic of our times”.
Whatever the grounds, it is reasonable to assume that political considerations lay behind the decision to cancel the exhibition. In recent years, Turkish newspapers have been under increasing pressure from the government which has led to forcible shut downs, managements being taken over by pro-government boards, and government directions to fire editors or to ban articles. In the performing arts outspoken actors have been sacked or have had their contracts unexpectedly withdrawn. Films on the conflict in the Kurdish regions have been denied certification for viewing at film festivals. Artwork has been removed from exhibitions. Artists as well as journalists are among the many hundreds who are before courts for insult to government officials, the most litigious of all being President Erdoğan. Across Turkey’s media in all its forms, there has been a dramatic erosion of freedom of expression.
The ‘Post-Peace’ – Akbank Sanat story is just one of a myriad similar others where it is not possible to say for sure who or what lay behind what is clearly self-censorship. In a time of global terrorism, artists play a unique role in confronting and attempting to explain what is going on. As curator Katia Kuprennikova commented on the cancellation, while she recognised the very difficult situation in Turkey, “it is essential to have open discussions and a place for people to engage with different perspectives on issues relevant to the Turkish context and beyond”.
Freemuse update: In the continuation of the trend in Turkey outlined in the story above, an article posted on 9 May 2016 in online arts and culture forum Hyperallergic listed other exhibitions that have suffered the same fate as ‘Post-Peace’.
In March 2016, Istanbul’s ARTER gallery cancelled its opening reception for its new season’s exhibitions due to recent bombings.
On 26 April 2016, just three days after its opening, a large video art piece installed on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel in central Istanbul entitled ‘Time to Sing a New Song’ by Turkish artist Işıl Eğrikavuk, was shut down by municipal police calling it “visual pollution”. The piece was part of YAMA, one of the longest and most visible public art projects in Istanbul, which has screened works by internationally renowned Turkish artists.
According to the artist’s lawyer, who contacted the hotel, municipality authorities first attempted to shut down the project in February 2016 when Finnish artist Pivli Takala’s work ‘Worker’s Forum’ was on display, reported Hurriyet Daily News on 6 May 2016.
Further, on 8 May 2016, artist-run space PASAJ resigned as curators of the 4th Istanbul Children and Youth Art Biennial due to them witnessing censorship at the hands of municipal authorities who removed “troublesome” children’s artworks. Several artists have withdrawn their work in response.
Sara Whyatt is a consultant with many years of human rights advocacy including leading PEN International’s global freedom of expression program. www.sarawhyattconsultancy.com
Photo is a snippet from the ‘Post-Peace’ flyer from Katia Krupennikova’s Facebook page
» Read more:
belit sağ’s open letter
» Hyperallergic – 9 May 2016:
Turkish government censors video projection and youth biennial artworks
» Hurriyet Daily News – 6 May 2016:
Artwork removed from Istanbul hotel rooftop by municipality for ‘visual pollution’
» e-flux.com – 5 April 2016:
Artists’ response to the cancellation of the ‘Post-Peace’ exhibition at Akbank Sanat
» Art Asia Pacific – 4 May 2016:
Istanbul officials stop nightly screening of artist’s video
» InEnArt – 11 March 2016:
What is banned is desired
» Dutch Art Institute – 8 March 2016:
Statement by the jury for the Akbank Sanat International Curator Competition 2015
» Hyperallergic – 26 February 2016:
Istanbul gallery cancels war-themed exhibition, citing “the delicate situation in Turkey”
» Başak Senova’s statement:
Following the cancellation of the 2015 Akbank Sanat International Curator Competition
» e-flux.com announcement of International Curator Competition 2015: Katia Krupennikova
» Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts:
After the 35th Istanbul Film Festival
» belit sağ profile at the International Studio & Curatorial Program
» Artsfreedom.org – 12 November 2015:
Turkey: EU and UN address Turkey’s troublesome arts freedom record
» Artsfreedom.org – 28 October 2015:
Turkey: Tensions between film festivals and government take toll
» Artsfreedom.org – 25 August 2015:
Turkey: Festival director steps down after censorship scandal