Mar 01 2016

Istanbul Art Space Blocks Its Own Exhibition

by HG Masters

Russian curator Katia Krupennikova, whose exhibition “Post-Peace” was censored by the
hosting venue, Istanbul’s Akbank Sanat, on February 25, 2016. The show was due to
open on March 1. Photo by Oleg Ivchenko.

On February 25, Russian curator Katia Krupennikova announced on her Facebook page that her upcoming exhibition, “Post-Peace,” which was slated to open March 1, had been cancelled by the hosting institution, Akbank Sanat in Istanbul. In her statement Krupennikova alleged it was an act of censorship and said that many of the participating artists agreed. As justification for the sudden decision, Akbank Sanat claimed that “the tragic incidents in Ankara [a car-bombing on February 17 that killed 29 people] are very fresh in people’s memories. Turkey is still reeling from their emotional aftershocks and remains in a period of mourning. Therefore, many events, including—but not limited to—exhibitions, concerts, and performances, are being cancelled every day.” However, as Krupennikova herself noted, Akbank Sanat was continuing with its own program of events (including music concerts) and a film festival (slated for March 7–17) and has only cancelled the “Post-Peace” exhibition to date.  

Krupennikova had been selected as the winner of Akbank Sanat’s 2015 International Curator Competition program, overseen by independent curator Başak Şenova, with a jury of international curators including Bassam el-Baroni, Paul O’Neill, Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ. In an announcement of the competition’s winner, the jury had praised Krupennikova’s proposal for “Post-Peace” as: “a thoughtful attempt to articulate the contemporary condition of war in its concrete and abstract states.” Artists in the exhibition included Ramallah-based Yazan Khalili, Pınar Öğrenci from Istanbul, Anna Dasović of Amsterdam, Russia’s Anastasiya Yarovenko, Cuban-born Adrian Melis and others.

Istanbul’s Akbank Sanat, the hosting institution of Katia Krupennikova’s now-cancelled
exhibition, “Post-Peace.” 

Akbank Sanat’s decision comes at a time of increasing censorship, and self-censorship, in Turkey, as the government applies harsh measures against people perceived as criticizing the war being carried out against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. In particular, calling for “peace” has become a risky gesture, as president Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has targeted individuals who oppose security operations in Kurdish cities, which have brought reports of civilian massacres, most recently in Cizre, in February. In January, a petition calling for peace signed by more than 1,400 academics in Turkey, and by international figures including Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky, Etienne Balibar and David Harvey, was met by a string of condemnation by Erdoğan, and several signatories have been fired from public universities and investigated for spreading “terrorism propaganda.” All the while, human rights groups estimate more than 150 civilians have been killed since fighting between Kurdish militants and the Turkish government resumed in June. Central parts of cities, including Diyarbakır’s Sur (“walled”) district and nearby Silvan, have been depopulated and devastated, and there are an estimated 200,000 internally displaced people from Kurdish cities.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts in Turkey has long been seen as a potential risk for precisely this reason: that cultural programming could be shut down when it threatens political or business interests. Online and privately, many members of the Turkish art community expressed dismay, but not surprise, after the announcement. A corporate-managed space run by a retail bank, Akbank Sanat has many personal and business links to the government. Additionally, one of the board members is art historian and staunch pro-government columnist Hasan Bülent Kahraman, who is also the CEO of the local Contemporary Istanbul art fair. Additionally, many people in Istanbul have also not forgotten that, in 1993, the art and culture center sponsored by Akbank hosted an exhibition of artworks by the Turkish military general Kenan Evren, who headed the brutal 1980 military coup d’état that led to the execution of more than 50 people, hundreds of disappearances, and the arrest of an estimated half-million people, including many cultural practitioners.

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.