How Turkey’s President Is Weaponizing Culture

ISTANBUL — More than three many years after the final tenants moved out of Istanbul’s first Art Nouveau constructing, the doorways of the long-neglected Botter Apartment had been flung vast open once more final month after a prolonged restoration. Crowds lined up exterior its newly gleaming façade to enter what was as soon as the atelier of Jean Botter, official tailor to the court docket of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, and to see the modern artwork exhibition Reveries, Truths that had been put in there for the grand reopening.

The revival of Casa Botter is an element of a bigger initiative by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to transform items of Istanbul’s historical past — starting from a former fez hat manufacturing facility to a late-19th-century gasworks — into new cultural hubs for the town of 16 million folks. It can also be symbolic of a broader wrestle over political affect on the planet of artwork and tradition as Turkey heads towards essential nationwide elections on May 14.

“It is a clear fact that today, the most powerful weapons of those who manage the global system are the tools of culture,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared in a speech in late 2021. Better recognized for banning, pressuring, and even arresting artists and different cultural figures, his authorities has additionally sought to supplant what the autocratic chief has lamented because the “monopoly” over tradition lengthy held by his political opponents. 

In latest years, Erdoğan has presided over the rebuilding of the landmark Atatürk Cultural Center, personally commissioning the primary opera carried out there; the conversion of an Ottoman military barracks into the large Rami Library; and the inauguration of the Yeditepe Biennial, a would-be competitor to the Istanbul Biennial that aimed to focus on classical Turkish arts.

The president’s political adversaries have decried such tasks as makes an attempt “not to support culture, but to direct it and dominate it,” as Mahir Polat, the deputy secretary common of the opposition-run Istanbul Municipality, put it at a press briefing in November. A former museum director, Polat stated the municipality has “a duty to create new cultural spaces that serve free expression.” In the final six months alone, he has spearheaded the opening of up to date artwork venues in an outdated pumping station, a trio of historic homes, a water cistern, and an workplace constructing, along with Casa Botter.

The municipality’s tasks have typically drawn a hotter response from Istanbul’s arts neighborhood than these promoted by the central authorities. “But at heart, I feel their understanding of the role of culture is not very different from one another,” artist Zeyno Pekünlü instructed Hyperallergic. “They are all seeing culture largely as part of the touristification and promotion of the city.”

The new Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul simply earlier than its official reopening in October 2021 (photograph Jennifer Hattam/Hyperallergic)

Since taking energy in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has accelerated neoliberal insurance policies which have led to elevated privatization throughout all sectors, together with the humanities. One consequence has been the “exclusion of politically engaged women and queer artists,” in addition to Kurdish artists, from each personal and state establishments, stated Esra Yıldız, a member of the cultural administration school at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Funding for main artwork establishments and occasions in Turkey is dominated by giant holding firms, and Istanbul artwork venues are more and more migrating to quasi-public areas these firms management, together with the Bomontiada leisure complicated, the Piyalepaşa İstanbul luxurious housing improvement, and the Galataport purchasing complicated, the place the flagship Istanbul Modern museum reopened this week.

Private funders of the humanities typically don’t share the federal government’s ideological leanings, however depend on its approval for his or her enterprise pursuits in different spheres. “They have been playing the waiting game, hoping it will change,” artist and concrete activist Nazım Dikbaş instructed Hyperallergic. He criticized establishments backed by these firms for not talking out on points just like the jailing of arts philanthropist Osman Kavala.

Institutional silence additionally led many artists to unwittingly change into a part of government-led “artwashing” of controversial city transformation tasks within the central Beyoğlu district, Dikbaş stated. After a largely unsuccessful try to put its personal stamp on the cultural scene with the Yeditepe Biennial, the federal government modified tack, declaring current arts venues a part of its Beyoğlu Cultural Route Festival in 2021 and 2022.

“They just turned up and said, OK, you’re part of the Beyoğlu Cultural Route now; as far as I know, only one gallery said no,” Dikbaş stated. “This kind of approach is a way of neutralizing and pacifying institutions by making them complicit.” Many of the opposite venues on the route had been websites whose building or redevelopment had been fiercely contested and opposed, together with by artwork world figures and entities corresponding to Galataport, the Taksim Mosque, Narmanlı Han, and the previous Emek Cinema.

An identical cultural-rebranding initiative within the majority-Kurdish metropolis of Diyarbakır drew protests, “but here in Istanbul we were frozen like rabbits in a flashlight beam,” stated Pekünlü, who had a chunk in a present that was retroactively declared a part of the Beyoğlu Cultural Route. Government antagonism has “pushed artists into the same corner as institutions that don’t always show them the same solidarity,” she stated.

Municipal initiatives maintain out the hope of making a center floor between the heavy-handed cultural politics of the state and the conflict-averse personal establishments. But the Istanbul Municipality’s method, together with the rapid-fire openings of recent exhibition venues and what some understand as the shortage of a clear imaginative and prescient and technique for the areas, provides some pause.

“So far, the Istanbul municipality’s programming has mirrored the mainstream art world, it hasn’t really given space to anyone who wasn’t already an actor on the scene,” artist Marina Papazyan instructed Hyperallergic. They and others additionally questioned whether or not extra exhibition areas are actually what Istanbul’s arts neighborhood wants most amid skyrocketing rents and common financial turmoil.

“The forums showed the main problems of artists are about poverty and representation,” Papazyan stated, referring to a series of discussions they just lately helped coordinate of their position as a undertaking coordinator at Depo, an Istanbul arts and tradition heart based by Osman Kavala. What discussion board individuals recognized as prime wants, they stated, had been issues like studio areas, assist for unbiased initiatives, and insurance policies on social safety and hire management that might assist working artists make a safer dwelling.

“All of these recently opened exhibition venues are prestige spaces you go to as a consumer: You may not have to spend money, but you are still there as a passive recipient of culture,” Begüm Özden Fırat, a professor of sociology at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, instructed Hyperallergic. “But culture is something that is produced daily; it requires spaces of encounter, places where people can create something together.”

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