Two days ago, a group affiliating themselves with the religio-political Milli Görüş movement in Turkey stormed into the opening of Contemporary Istanbul exhibition in protest over Ali Elmacı’s sculpture that displayed a depiction of Sultan Abdulhamit, an Ottoman Emperor known for his conservatism, on a female body form.
The group is reported to have entered the exhibition hall, chanting, “Allahu Ekber,” and demanded the sculpture to be removed from the exhibition.
Elmacı said, failing to calm down the angry mob and seeing the exhibition is about to close for the day, they took the sculpture down temporarily to prevent further tension and damage to other art work at the fair.
The next day, in a written statement, the fair officials said they have immediately reinstalled the piece after the group has left the premises and it will be on display until the end of the fair.
Of course apart from the audacity of what has taken place, what begged for attention in this statement was that, both the artist and the fair organizers almost seemed to make a point of removing the sculpture only “temporarily.” At least at first…
The way they underscored this fact felt like they were almost defending their handling of the situation.
Obviously, they were trying to give the message that they wouldn’t give credit to coercion… But, it was just really so hard to bear witness to this failed attempt.
It was like watching an abuse victim trying to justify flinching in the face of aggression, all ashamed. Especially considering that eventually Elmacı announced he had decided to withdraw his work from the fair.
In a political climate where self expression is declared public enemy number one, it isn’t surprising that artists sometimes resort to self-censor.
Turkey has been systematically silencing its artists for some time now, with so many organizations either being forcefully shut down or choosing to close doors under pressure.
The incident is only the latest in a series of attacks on art events that occurred in the past year in Istanbul, and reflects how the social and religious divide, censorship and suppression in Turkey feeds a culture of intimidation, infringement and intolerance.
This year, the violence and terror attacks that left the country reeling and the failed coup attempt on the government, which justified the purge on all opposition and further crackdown on freedom of speech, saw many festivals, concerts and art exhibitions being cancelled, including the Çanakkale Bianel, One Love Festival, Art International Fair and Moving Image.
The decade old Contemporary Istanbul itself hardly managed to open its doors this year thanks to the participation of exhibitors coming to show solidarity, despite the shadow of unrest and some 40 international exhibitors pulling out from this year’s edition.
While the emergency state that allows Erdoğan and his cabinet to bypass parliament on issues of suspending freedoms and human rights or passing new laws continues, only last week fifteen media outlets shut down.
The police detained the editor and several other writers of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet and the two leaders as well as twelve MP’s of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a party that is Turkey’s third largest and is elected to the parliament with the support of 10% of the voters, just got arrested yesterday as part of a terrorism investigation.
TurkeyBlocks monitoring network detected restrictions on access to multiple social media channels yesterday, which is believed to be related to the raids to HDP headquarters in Ankara that accompanied the detentions. Social media throttling and internet restrictions are increasingly used in Turkey to prevent certain political incidents to gain wide media coverage.
Needless to say, in the middle of all the external suppression and restrictions on human rights being enforced in the name of national security, the last thing needed is free speech to put a knot on itself as well.
It is more important than ever in Turkey today for art to keep challenging oppression, offer a plurality of voices that is missing from the conversation, complicate established boundaries, ask questions, demand answers and turn hierarchies upside down without fear.
To recognize the danger of self-censorship may just be the first step to prevent it from becoming the norm.
Yesterday artist Ali Elmacı and the CEO of Contemporary Istanbul, Ali Güreli stated that they will be filing a complaint against the members of the group who attacked the opening and the fair resumed today in spite of the unsettling news of a car bombing in the Kudish dominated south eastern Turkey, killing nine.
The question, however, remains if Turkey will be able to restore a safe platform for self-expression any time soon, whether it is in media, politics, religion or art.