Ten years ago, when Turkey had reached ‘peak Erdogan’ and was considered a success on many counts, I was asked to research for a Lonely Planet documentary series on Istanbul that focused on a handful of “cool people” living there. There was an embarrassment of riches, as you could see from the raucous wrap party. We had to choose from a young, willowy wine heiress, a stylish and powerful-voiced Kurdish singer, a DJ and music producer who fused Anatolian folk and jazz, a trendy architect, a feminist photographer, Turkey’s macho chief scout, a gay fashion designer, an up-and-coming contemporary artist and many more.
Then, the city was confident, finally at peace with both its imperial past and its future, embracing its colourful minorities and tickling the interest of the international community, whether tourists or arty nomads. One young British curator told me at the time: “London is buzzing with Istanbul.”
The establishment was onto this too. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, forced the early opening of Istanbul Modern so that he could use its minimalist, industrial glory as a background when he pushed for Turkish accession to the EU – projecting an image as a leader with vision at ease with western modernity.
A decade on, would I have had a harder time? Certainly there are still talented people in Istanbul, but where is the joy, the buzz? It’s a city under attack, physically – the target of three suicide bombings since January. That two of these were claimed by Kurdish separatists in response to the government’s new all-out attack on Kurdish rebels in the southeast points to one big reason why the joy has gone. Where Istanbul’s young once felt they had sanction to collaborate across ethnic lines, the new nationalistic, racist atmosphere is trying to put this back in its box.
There is also the government’s antipathy to the arts. A member of the Justice and Development Party (AK), when confronted with ballet, said: “I spit on art like this.” Erdogan famously called a work by sculptor Mehmet Aksoy “a freak”, which led to its demolition. He regularly sues cartoonists and satirists, deliberately refusing to get the point of their work, and has been accused of taking the narrow view of the disadvantaged male to disdain all art as a Western, elitist construct.
And who can forget that the bitter anti-government Gezi protests in 2013 began over plans favoured by AK grandees to transform Gezi park and the whole of Taksim Square next to it – including Istanbul’s leading performing arts centre, the AKM – into a shopping centre in a building designed to be a pastiche of Ottoman military barracks?
The modernist AKM was shut in 2008 for “restoration”, but it still remains closed to the public with no work done on it for years. The Istanbul State Opera and Ballet moved to smaller premises on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
Censors out in force
With censorship of the media now de rigeur, film has also suffered. Last year, nearly two dozen filmmakers and a number of international critics pulled out of the Istanbul Film Festival after the government prevented the screening of a film documenting the lives of militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The Ministry of Culture said the producers had failed to obtain the necessary paperwork, but rather gave the game away by adding that “PKK propaganda” had no place in a democratic society. The Izmir and Antalya film festivals then scrapped their documentary categories to avoid any more grief.
In its latest report cataloguing global arts censorship in 2015, the Denmark-based advocacy group Freemuse focuses heavily on Turkey, which it says is one of the 10 worst offenders.
“2015 was a more than usually troubled year for Turkey,” it said. With the government still intent on punishing the Gezi protesters, a group of actors were put on trial for making a video to mark the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. Others lost jobs or funding. In a bizarre case – although bizarre is the new normal, really – folk singer Kutsal Evcimen went on trial for insulting Erdogan by singing about a donkey.
Kurdish singer Nudem Durak was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison for alleged Kurdish propaganda. This is part and parcel of the new front opened by Turkey’s administration since it discovered that anti-Kurdish sentiment won votes – the furore over the PKK documentary being a case in point.
Art of offending
One of the bright young things I selected for the Lonely Planet programme was the likable and enthusiastic Ahmet Ogut, a Kurdish artist from Diyarbakir. He has become an award-winning, internationally acclaimed conceptual artist, but his Twitter feed is full of references to Turkey’s human rights abuses, news of court cases against journalists and discrimination against Kurdish MPs. He still exhibits in Turkey, but no longer lives there.
Contemporary art was the first out of the blocks in terms of gaining international cultural successes in Istanbul, but despite the acclaim that greets the Istanbul Biennial, there is a bit of a sombre mood in this scene of late. The 2016 edition of Istanbul’s Art International Fair was cancelled due to unrest. Over the past years, a number of galleries have closed their doors – although that is also partly because of overenthusiastic openings and too-high prices. One of Istanbul’s most prominent destinations, SALT Beyoglu, has been closed since the start of the year amid speculation of government pressure.
Disobliging art does get through, though. Depo, a gallery that gives space to young artists, managed to host Armenian-American Diana Markosian’s exhibition commemorating the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, just as Ankara was reacting with apoplexy at Germany’s decision to recognise the killings as genocide.
Still, controversy and strife make for good subjects for contemporary art. The maverick Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset, who have been appointed as curators for next year’s Istanbul Biennial, are known for their subversive wit and addressing serious social and cultural concerns. That should keep the censorship brigade on their toes.