Street-fighting men: Turkish protestors in 2013. PHoto: Bluent Kilic/AFP/Getty

The art of rebellion: how Turkey's creatives are defying an increasingly authoritarian regime

As publications are shut down and once-loyal film producers arrested, artists in Turkey are finding new ways to work under Erdoğan's government
September 13, 2017

As the Sun shimmered over the Bosphorus on a balmy Ramadan evening in June, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, Turkey’s President, stood in the garden of his Istanbul villa welcoming guests. Those shaking his hand included a veteran bottle-blonde pop star, an award-winning Kurdish left-wing folk singer and Hülya Avsar, a beauty queen-turned actress who stood beside the hijab-wearing Mrs Erdoan in a strapless dress. The Erdoans also exchanged warm words with the transgender singer Bülent Ersoy, whose extraordinary cheekbones make her resemble Morticia from the Addams Family.

Erdoan is a devout Muslim who, during his 15 years in power, has become increasingly authoritarian—especially so since the attempted coup against him on 15th July 2016. That evening military officers tried to overthrow the elected government and replace it with a junta. But thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the revolt and calm was restored after only a few hours. Altogether 265 people were killed, and Erdoan’s response was swift and severe. Thousands of soldiers were sacked and hundreds of journalists imprisoned. The country now lives in a state of uncertainty and fear.

So why would members of Turkey’s most liberal, cosmopolitan community—including someone who is transgender, not normally on the same page as Islamists—want to be seen with a man many see as on the path to dictatorship?

Oppression in Turkey is multi-layered and complicated—and so has been the response of artists. Across Turkey’s arts scene the reaction to Erdoan and his ruling AKP party ranges from undying love, uneasy compromise, and outright rebellion to simply trying to keep your head down.

Erdoan’s critics accused the Ramadan guests of cosying up to the president in pursuit of money and fame—or of cowardly self-preservation. In some cases that’s true, but not all. The Kurdish singer Yavuz Bingöl and transgender Ersoy have favourably compared Erdoan’s troublesome rule with the time when the military controlled politics. Ersoy became an iconic figure when she transformed from a 1970s matinee idol to a nightclub queen in the late 1980s, via a sex change in London. Her exile was forced by the military, for whom she bears a severe hatred.

The pre-Erdoan years were not easy for activist artists, leftists and minorities: successive regimes banned Kurdish arts, condoned extra-judicial killings and forced gay artists to remain in the closet. When I first worked in Turkey in the 1990s, I was warned off buying contraband Kurdish albums sold in the southeast of the country, where a guerrilla war was being fought.

In 2002, Erdoan came to power at the head of a “Muslim democrat” party, championing free speech and political reform. He tamed the military and grabbed more power for elected civilians. Although he has now abandoned peace talks with Kurdish rebels and restarted the war, the Kurdish-language state television channel is still broadcasting and Kurdish music is freely available.

Still the Erdoan of 2017 is a very different creature from 2002. His power-hungry tendencies were fully revealed when an environmental protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 exploded into Arab Spring-style anti-government protests. At first the joyous atmosphere sparked creative responses, including songs, jokes and performance art. But Erdoan, terrified his government might be toppled, cracked down hard. Since then he has been determined to extinguish any potential opposition. In April, he won a tight and fractious referendum to transform his supposedly ceremonial role into a super-presidency, diminishing parliament and abolishing the post of prime minister. The opposition warned of an elected dictatorship, while Erdoan accused his enemies of being “terrorists.” Despite his victory, the margin was so small that he may be wary of implementing all he wants.

Having lost favour among many liberals who once supported him, Erdoan courted the far-right. He has been emboldened by a mob of vigilante supporters online and in the streets. Now many in the arts world—at least those without invitations to his villa—worry that he’s coming for them.

First in line have been the satirists. One prominent cartoonist, Musa Kart, is on trial facing a 29-year sentence. Kart, who worked for the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, was charged with insulting Erdoan in 2004 for a cartoon depicting him as a kitten—among the first of a series of cases that demonstrated Erdoan’s thin skin. Then Kart was acquitted. The latest charges against him are more serious—alleged involvement with the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, an exiled former ally of Erdoan who has been, dubiously, blamed for the July coup attempt.

Erdoan and his hotheaded sycophants don’t understand the arts, can’t control them and therefore fear them. “I spit on this art,” one Erdoan ally said of a partly-nude sculpture. In one interview, Erdoan said that he didn’t like ballet because it was “below the waist.” At his celeb-filled Ramadan meal he complained that “certain groups”—for which read anti-government leftist and ultra-secularists—were obsessed with preserving their monopoly over culture.

Such statements have led to increasing fear. When I spoke to satirist Tuncay Akgün about his fellow cartoonist Kart, his sigh was audible over the buzzing Istanbul café. “Do we self-censor? We certainly don’t set out to. But we do think: maybe we should say this in a more roundabout way.”

It’s a painful admission for the Editor-in-Chief of Leman, a 25-year-old Turkish comic that has long prided itself on its merciless political caricatures. As the mood darkens, Leman has become isolated. Rival publication Penguen has just closed down and Grgr, a long-established comic where Akgün worked during Turkey’s last military coup in 1980, was shut in February by its spooked publishers after a cartoon about Moses was fiercely criticised online.

“There’s an incredible army of trolls out there. It just takes someone to threaten you on Twitter because of a cartoon and within an hour there’s someone banging on your door,” says Akgün. Leman’s offices in the bohemian Istanbul district of Beyolu were attacked last year. “They don’t just attack individuals now, but threaten your family, your sexuality… Those who want you silenced have many more tools at their disposal—it’s no longer just about Erdoan suing you over a cartoon.”

In June last year, a mob turned up at a record shop in Çukurcuma district near Beyolu, and attacked a group of young people for drinking beer during Ramadan. The shop has since closed. Threats like these change behaviour more effectively than government diktats: the self-appointed patriotic public does the dirty work.

The whispers and paranoia are more effective than direct government intervention. The arts establishment has become very jumpy. Dystopian fiction like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is selling well.

The attempted coup caused confusion. Even dissident Turks opposed Erdoan’s overthrow, which they saw as a return to the bad old days when the army would get rid of governments it disliked. Unlike many in the west, they also believe that the Gülen movement—which has been compared to a cult—was heavily involved.

Yet few think the huge number of subsequent arrests and sackings of alleged coup plotters—including civil servants, teachers, police, judges—are justified. This stirred even those who had previously been supportive of some of Erdoan’s reforms, such as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who signed an open letter last year accusing the government of a McCarthy-style witch hunt.

"Those who want you silenced have more tools at their disposal—it's no longer just about Erdoan suing you over a cartoon"
Actor Levent Üzümcü is a prime example of what happens when you refuse to pipe down. Famous for starring in a popular television series, he was sacked from a publicly subsidised theatre company in 2015, after two decades of service, because of his record of attacking Erdoan. When I caught up with him in the sunny western city of Izmir—a secularist, anti-government stronghold—he was unrepentant.

“Turkey has never been through such hell,” he said. “It’s all about fighting with honour against insults and threats. How could I sleep in peace if I stayed silent?” He rails against those who don’t speak up even though they hate the government. When he was fired, Üzümcü says colleagues refused to object and producers shunned him. “When I finally get on stage, I’m acting alongside five plainclothes policemen…”

Üzümcü believes his art is a political weapon. He is performing a one-man play set during Turkey’s 1923 population exchange with Greece. Üzümcü says this historical drama has a relevant political message: “Don’t fear the dark. The sun always rises.”

“It’s oppressive in Turkey. Many artists are choosing to leave or find residencies so they can have a breather,” says artist Zeyno Pekünlü, who exhibited in the Whitechapel gallery last year. Along with more than a thousand academics, Pekünlü lost her teaching post after signing a letter criticising the government’s war against Kurdish rebels.

Pekünlü believes it’s important to keep working. She continues to highlight issues such as violence against women in her feminist video art. But many others are depressed, she adds, and some think there is no point carrying on exhibiting.

Many have embraced introspective art. What’s the use of making a political film if you won’t get it into a mainstream cinema or a big festival? It’s all comedies and blockbusters these days, I’m told, although you do see the odd daring production at small film festivals that nobody bothers to censor.

Funding for films has fallen, partly because Turkey pulled out of the European Union’s Creative Europe project. This means local officials hold more power over subsidies and can promote the types of film they think the government wants. It prefers films with national heroes, that are family friendly or promote religion. Four major independent cinemas closed down recently and protesters, including top directors, were repelled with pepper spray and water cannon. The Erdoan leadership is trying to create its own cultural heritage as a riposte to what it feels is western cultural imperialism.

Yet while the battle rages between Erdoan and his detractors, some artists are equally concerned about the energy-sapping effect of politicisation. Pressure from anti-government activists can be wearing, especially for those who have little experience of clashing with the authorities or online thugs. Rather than obsess over battles they can’t win, such figures are more equivocal. They want to remind Turks that there’s more to life than politics.

Author Mehmet Açar is a case in point. “Some [government] opponents, particularly in their social media comments, maintain that journalists, writers and intellectuals have a duty to stand against the government,” says Açar, who only agreed to talk after a great deal of texting. “A more pressing problem is that the political tension in Turkey is reducing interest in non-political issues. Literature and the arts need to exist beyond all kinds of political pressure.”

Critics have tied themselves in knots trying to read a polemical message into Açar’s new novel, Kayp Hasta (Missing Patient). The story, which involves a man who wakes up in a computer-controlled hospital with his memory wiped, can be read as a critique of Turkey’s efforts to rewrite cultural memory. Açar insists not, urging readers to think more about universal issues.
“Choosing only one side is an anti-intellectual stand.”
The political polarisation in Turkey precludes a more sophisticated analysis, complains Kutlu Ataman, an artist and film-maker. “Choosing only one side is an anti-intellectual stand.”

Modern Turkey was created as an artificial, western-looking construct after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This suited the modernised elite but not the traditionalist majority Erdoan represents. Ataman says he tries to reconcile the two groups. He drew ire from all sides for trying to mediate between the government and Gezi Park protesters.

Ataman is Turkey’s most internationally famous contemporary artist—winner of the Carnegie Prize, exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Royal Academy. Openly gay, he has made works on a variety of subjects—including the Kurds, prostitutes, homosexuality and religious devotion. He enjoys politics and controversy, yet maintains he doesn’t feel under pressure while working. He was invited to Erdoan’s Ramadan meal but was abroad.

He sees the rise of Erdoan as a necessary transition from the militarist attitude of the state to a more democratic country. He agrees his rule is unnecessarily divisive, but adds that before him things were even worse. “Anyone who didn’t fit the middle class (nationalist, secularist) ideology faced serious pressures and discrimination—such as girls with headscarves and gays. That sort of pressure isn’t there now.”

When I mention that some interviewees compared today to the military junta years, Ataman, who was imprisoned and tortured after a military coup, objects. “That’s an insult to people who suffered during the 1980 coup. The government made huge improvements, though definitely not enough, on some of the extremely fascistic laws that were passed during the coup.”

Still that doesn’t diminish the pain of those caught up in today’s turmoil. Even those trying to ingratiate themselves with Erdoan are not exempt. Ali Avc, producer of Chief, a fawning biopic of the president, was arrested in late July for alleged links to Gülen. This was provoked by a controversial trailer for his next project Awakening, the tale of a bloody coup in modern-day Turkey, that shows Erdoan held at gunpoint and his family killed in a barrage of bullets. Erdoan’s opponents will have little sympathy, perhaps, but the message is now out there. If he isn’t safe, who is?