Mapping Turkey: Contemporary Visual Arts

Gülsün Karamustafa, A PROMISED EXHIBITION installation view, 2013–2014, SALT Beyoğlu and SALT Galata, İstanbul Türkiye. Karamustafa’s work explores socio-political issues in modern Turkey using personal and historical narratives, addressing themes including sexuality and gender, exile and ethnicity, and the role of religion and secularism in society. She received the Prince Claus Award in 2015.


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The year 2009 saw an upsurge in contemporary art sales, both in Turkish and inter-national galleries exhibiting artists from Turkey, and in auction houses. It was also in 2009 that Sotheby’s in London led one of the most successful sales of Turkish contemporary art, which many have credited for truly launching contemporary ar-tists from Turkey onto an international platform. As international collectors began to collect the works of Turkey’s contemporary artists, the quality of exhibitions rose, and new institutions and galleries proliferated. If the previous years are to be considered a time of growth, then in 2010 this began to boom. Especially the 2010 European Ca-pital of Culture programme was very influential for the local art scene in this decade. In a country where art institutions are largely maintained and supported by private sector financing, it was a unique event when in this year contemporary art projects received public money. Because of these exhibitions and international projects, an increasing number of artists in Turkey were able to go abroad and broaden their hori-zons. In 2011, the hype around contemporary art from Turkey started to calm down, and inflated prices began to drop. With the establishment of the art spaces Arter and SALT, the art scene was enriched with two private institutions that catered to the needs of the public through its interdisciplinary exhibition projects.

In May 2013, however, Turkey came to a temporary, but sudden standstill. The de-monstrations and civil unrest resulting from the Gezi Park protests sent far-reaching waves of impact across almost every aspect of life of those in Istanbul and beyond. This was followed by a string of terrorist attacks starting in 2015, and the events of July 15, 2016, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted a coup d’état against state institutions.

In addition to the above, in October 2016 the news that Turkey had decided to leave the European Union’s Creative Europe programme per January 1, 2017, devastated Istanbul’s art scene, as this was a major source of funding for international exhibition projects organised in Turkey. According to the Turkish daily newspaper Haberturk, the pullout was in response to a concert in commemoration of the Armenian genocide supported by Creative Europe and performed in April 2016 by Germany’s Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra.

Finally, a constitutional referendum was held in Turkey on April 16, 2017, which was very heavily debated by local and international audiences. If approved, this would Summary|Page 4Contemporary Visual Arts in Turkey allow the office of the Prime Minister to be abolished and the existing parliamentary system of government to be replaced by an executive presidency and a presidential system, greatly expanding the legal powers of the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, the referendum was approved by a very thin and contentious “yes” margin. Following the approval of constitutional changes in the previously mentioned referendum, the president elected in the presidential election of 2018 will be both the head of state and head of government of Turkey, taking over the latter role from the to-be-abolished office of the Prime Minister. Erdoğan had won a 52.54% sha-re of the national vote assuming an office imbued with extensive executive powers including the power to issue decrees with the force of law, appoint the cabinet and vice-presidents as well as senior judges. These very controversially discussed politi-cal events have left the country even more divided than before.

While these developments seem worrisome and are also accompanied by an eco-nomic crisis, which further reduces private funding, the troubled situation of the country has increased international interest in the contemporary art scene of Turkey. Gallerists, art advisors and collectors all agree that there have been positive develop-ments in the culture of conscious collecting with an increased interest in conceptual art and a purchase culture that is becoming more informed. The SAHA organisation, which aims to contribute towards the presence and visibility of contemporary art from Turkey, has seen an increase in the number of its core members (mostly consisting of collectors) from 5 to 97 since 2011 and has obviously contributed to positive develop-ment. Despite a number of unfortunate developments, the Istanbul art scene did not come to a halt, which was demonstrated most clearly by the ongoing opening of new art spaces and international exhibitions including artists and curators from Turkey.

The fact that the Istanbul contemporary art scene is rather young in comparison to international art hubs such as London and New York endows it with a power to grow, expand and (re-)invent its own identity. With its very own dynamism, it reinvents itself again and again along with society.

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