Turkish Artists Coming Home
Category: Art
By Maria Eliades for LIBERTY Blog


More Turkish artists are returning to their homeland bringing fresh ideas to the country’s flourishing contemporary art scene. Maria Eliades had a chance to meet some of them and find out what’s behind the trend and the challenges they face.

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Talk to most educated Turkish citizens who have never left Turkey and you’ll find a yearning to leave for more idealized lands. Talk to a Turkish artist who has been abroad and decided to come back and you’ll get a different story, a continual back and forth on the positive and negative aspects what they have left behind and what they have come into.

Seza Bali, 30, a native of Istanbul, left due to “an obsession with going to the US.” Serendipity lead her to stay for 11 years, from her years at George Washington University, to working, to getting an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, to eventually working for fine art photographer Richard Misrach. There came a point three years into working for Misrach, however, for the now professional photographer Bali, when she began to think about coming back to her birth city.

A lot of my friends were artists, a good group from the masters, the MFA, but everyone was sort of the young, struggling, up-and-coming artist,” Bali says of her time in the United States. “I wanted to be that here. I’m a young Turkish artist. This is a smaller community and I should be part of it. Another reason was I started getting curious about what was happening here. It was a time for me when I could make that big change. I had the chance to do it, then decided to do it, not knowing what’s going to happen. Part of it was I wanted to be part of here, Istanbul.

Bali’s instincts and her legwork to come back as a part of the art scene in Istanbul almost immediately paid off. After returning in January 2012, she got brought on to a group show with Elipsis Gallery in March, becoming one of the gallery’s represented artists, with showings at the unseen photo fair in Amsterdam in September 2012, Contemporary Istanbul in November 2012, and most recently at ARCOmadrid. She credits being in Istanbul for the rapid rise in her career, paired with a momentum in the Turkish art scene, with more international attention and showings, as well as new galleries which have opened up throughout Karaköy, a former low-income port area, and Tophane, a neighbourhood which like neighbouring Karaköy, has also been part of a meteoric gentrification in the larger municipality of Beyoğlu.

Multi-disciplined artist Banu Cennetoğlu, 43, has seen the effects of gentrification first hand as the owner of BAS, an art space dedicated to printed art in Karaköy, which has existed since 2006. Cennetoğlu, like Bali, spent 11 years abroad, including time in Paris, New York, and Amsterdam. She decided to return in 2005. At first the return was temporary, but after a pair of friends offered up the use of a shopfront for her work in Şişhane, she created a studio and public exhibition space that became the pre-curser to BAS. Istanbul at the time was on its way to having the internationally recognized art scene it has now, with the entrance of international artists visiting the Istanbul Biennial.

Cennetoğlu is not so optimistic however, about the quick rise of Istanbul’s art scene. On the same block as her art space in Karaköy, a gutted building is being prepared, inside and out, with a new marble façade and slick lighting fixtures, to become one of the next luxury hotels of the trendy area. The artist believes the “art boom” is nothing more than a projection from the outside, driven by the nouveaux riche who buy only for the purposes of investment rather than appreciation.

I think there will be a lot of elimination,” she says. Cennetoğlu believes artists will not be able to make a living from their art, once the art boom is over.  “Like there will be people who will be suddenly gone. I don’t know if you follow lately about what happened with santral, the museum? This is just the starting point. There are a lot of small, private family collections when you hear them they want to be a museum because they think the museum is like, okay, this is a place where we can show properly what we have, but they don’t really know, and they’re not interested to know the legal part of it in terms of artists, in terms of institutions, in terms of what is public and what is private, in terms of artists’ rights.

Santralistanbul was founded in 2007 as part of the Santral Campus of Bilgi University. The museum, which is housed in the Ottoman Empire’s first power plant, received international recognition for its reuse of the old space in 2010. A number of well-known Turkish artists donated their works to the museum when it first opened, including Yüksel ArslanSarkis, and Nil Yalter. When news broke in early February that all works in the museum would be auctioned off, anger and petitions emerged from the arts community.

Artist Selma Gürbüz, whose work was in the museum, said to Turkish paper Milliyet that she, her gallery, and other artists, sold their work to Santralistanbul for a symbolic price.

When a museum takes the works of an artist,” she said, “the artist sees that as a stable place of their work, which is why the artist doesn’t think of money at all when this happens. It never entered my mind that one day when the university changed hands that there would be a pillaging of the museum without consulting the artists whose works are there. That’s why I didn’t think of creating a contract.

Many artists have given similar statements to the press, bringing up the issues of an artist’s right to be paid and the need for contracts of sale, even from museums. Vasıf Kortun, one of the curators of SALT, a leading non-profit arts institution, exhibition space, and research centre funded by Garanti Bank, and a leading art critic, has said that in light of this auction, Turkey’s private museums have to be reviewed.

Existing laws are so dysfunctional,” he said in a statement before the auction, “that whoever has works in a museum’s collection does not want them to be auctioned off. In Santralistanbul it is possible for this not to happen, but if a collection can be emptied like this today, it’s a perplexing situation.

In the end, 50 of the 145 works in the museum’s collection were sold according to Bilgi University Public Relations Director Elvan Omay. “Self portrait” and “Arture” by Yüksel Arslan, an installation by SarkisNil Yalter‘s infamous video, “Headless woman or Bellydance,” and an abstract painting by Hakkı Anlı, which were all donated, were left out of the auction, as were all donated works. What continues to rankle the arts community, though is that the university’s board of trustees decided that the artwork would be sold off without warning, and according to Omay, for the purpose of making further investments in education for the university.

In 2006, the start of what could be called a slow growth of artists’ residencies began with PİST, an artist exhibition and studio space in Pangaltı, a neighbourhood just beyond the major art zone of Beyoğlu where most of the galleries are. Other residencies which were founded after PİST include manzara perspectives, CaravansaraiHalka Sanat Projesi (Art to the People Project), and mau mau, all created around the idea that there needed to be some sort of artist space in the middle of Istanbul, and all, with the exception of Halka Sanat Projesi (which is located on the Asian side of the city in Kadıköy) located in the neighbourhoods of Beyoğlu. Unlike what one would expect of a burgeoning art scene, these residencies mainly house foreign artists due to the lack of support from the Turkish Ministry of Culture for artist residencies within Turkey and because sources of funding from international bodies typically support international artists coming to Turkey, rather than Turkish artists within the country.

One Turkish artist who did actually have a fully funded residency in Turkey, Devrim Kadirbeyoğlu, 35, took part in a one-year residency that no longer exists. She says that the freedom of not having to focus on anything else but her art when she returned to Istanbul five years ago completely changed her life.

It’s definitely not easy to be an artist in Turkey just because there are problems with funding, production, spaces, collectors, institutions, directors, curators,” she says. “Everything is a bit of a problem.

Even though Kadirbeyoğlu recognizes that living in Istanbul as an artist is certainly easier than working and living in New York or in other western cities, where the cost of living is much higher, she believes there should be more opportunities for Turkish artists to be supported in Turkey. The current infrastructure, as she sees it, is non-existent and the practices of exhibiting and selling established artists to collectors artificially raises the prices of the art without supporting the young artists. Art has become fashionable, but that fashion has not led to more support for emerging artists.

What has been taking a greater priority, not only according to Kadirbeyoğlu but also to Burak Arıkan, 37, an artist and researcher who works with network structures and digital media, is a certain false commodification around art. Arıkan began coming back to Istanbul from 2009 to 2010 from New York, but lately he sees a much darker future coming up for Istanbul and for art in relation to the government and the economy.

Every social action in Turkey is turning into a market transaction,” he says. “There’s an incentive for this in the government. On one hand you can see this as economic growth, it has effects like that for sure. On the other hand the government has more control over the public and individuals. The results of which you can feel in the street, in relationships with people and companies.

The future of the arts scene in Arıkan’s mind is linked to the future of Beyoğlu, in which projects such as the controversial urban transformation of Tarlabaşı, a historic low income neighbourhood near Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian shopping street, and a super port project in Galata are steps towards creating an entirely touristified area where no locals can afford live, and with that, a pushing of arts and culture on the fringes of the ever-expanding city. While the prospects for artists like  ArıkanKadirbeyoğluCennetoğlu, and Bali look bright, there are hints that the country’s love affair with profits over sustainability and authenticity may complicate the entrance of a Turkish art renaissance.

Maria Eliades

Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer, editor, and translator who was born in New York, but she currently lives and works in Istanbul, Turkey. As a staff writer and editor at The Guide Istanbul, she wrote about visual art, food and drink, and happenings in Istanbul, but in the past she has also written for TimeOut: Istanbul (in English) on Turkish literature in translation and Istanbul’s literary scene, and for other publications about culture in Greece and Turkey like Hürriyet Daily News, Gastronomica, EurasiaNet and Istanbul Altı. Occasionally she also writes about politics, education, and industry news for other publications as a freelancer in addition to arts and culture.


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