How the Turkish state of emergency is affecting culture


Since the failed coup in Turkey, restrictions on freedom of expression are increasingly restricting cultural projects, from theaters to contemporary art. DW looks at how some artists are fighting back.

The state of emergency that was declared in Turkey after the failed military coup on July 15 and that was recently extended until January 17, 2017, affects all areas of public life.

Several universities, schools and unions were closed; thousands of teachers, academics and journalists were imprisoned. They were all suspected of supporting what Turkish authorities call the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (FETO) or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Critics rather see these measures as a witch hunt.

The art and cultural scene is also affected. Until now, artists are not among the arrested, yet “censorship can take different forms,” said Asena Günal, director of the cultural center Depo, located in a former tobacco factory in Istanbul’s district of Tophane.

State theaters are no longer allowed to program plays from foreign countries, some actors’ contracts with state theaters have been suspended or the Culture Ministry has cut funding for theaters, explained Günal at an event held at the German art association NGBK (New Society for Visual Arts) in Berlin.

She observed a loss of motivation among artists in Turkey. International exhibition curators, academics and art critics who were previously interested in exchanging ideas are avoiding the country, she said.

Disappointed hopes

These developments weren’t remotely predictable when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started ruling in 2002.”The cultural scene was very buoyant when the AKP came to power,” recalled Asena Günal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP/Getty Images)           He has the last word in Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In 2010, Istanbul became the European Capital of Culture. Although decisions surrounding the use of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) as an opera house stalled – the building had been empty since 2008 -, an atmosphere of hope still prevailed. It was still believed that the country could further develop its potential and be made attractive for international artists and investors.

The turning point came with the Gezi protests in 2013, along with “increasing polarization of society and growing authoritarianism,” said Günal. Since then, the government no longer feels it needs to legitimize anything. People are encouraged to denigrate intellectuals and artists.

While some films had previously been banned at films festivals, for example, the current state of emergency has intensified anxieties; increased self-censorship fluidly complements official censorship.

Cultural funding and events cancelled

Organizers, institutions and investors are pulling out of projects and want to avoid taking risks. This can clearly be observed in contemporary art, which is mainly sponsored by institutions like the Aksanat or influential family clans. They do not want to disrupt their relations with the government, explained Güral.

It is even more difficult for theaters and cinemas, because they don’t have any sponsors.

Asena Günal is also the founder of Siyah Band, a platform documenting cases of censorship in the arts. Abandoning the project is not an option. “We are afraid to be further isolated, but we will continue to fight,” she said.

After the state of emergency was implemented, cultural events such as the art biennials in Çanakkale and Sinopale were cancelled or postponed, often on the initiative of the organizers themselves.

Contracts for theater companies were unilaterally terminated. The pop singer Sila’s concerts were cancelled because she declared on Twitter that even though she was against the coup attempt, she felt that the so-called “Democracy and Martyrs Rally” organized by the AKP was just a show she didn’t want to take part in.

Turkey: Democracy and Martyrs Rally organized by Erdogan in August 2016 after attempted coup (Reuters/O. Orsal)The sea of Turkish flags at the Democracy and Martyrs Rally in August 2016 left little place for cultural diversity

Songs of freedom

Feryal Öney is an artist who’s been dealing with censorship and restrictions for years already. She is the singer of the group Kardes Turkuler (Songs of Fraternity), which has been performing Turkish folk music since they started out in 1993. Among those songs are some in Kurdish and Armenian, as well as songs of the Alevis, who follow a branch of Islam.

The band has barely had a single concert in an atmosphere of peace, said the singer after a performance at the Komische Oper in Berlin. She could always feel the polarization of society; there were always victims of militant violence being buried somewhere in the country.

Musicians singing in Kurdish have always been under pressure in Turkey. “Now, since July 15, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re making,” Öney says. “A few words that don’t please the authorities can lead pop singers to be banned from stage.” Many of her friends were arrested or lost contracts because they were claiming their freedom.

The singer feels that for her ensemble, there is only one way not to become crazy in the current context – by continuing to sing their songs about deportations, love and freedom within Turkey and abroad to share them with as many people as possible.

Drawing in solidarity

Artist Özge Samancı (Hartwig Klappert)               Artist Özge Samanci

Özge Samanci is a Turkish cartoonist and installation artist and was a guest at this year’s International Literature Festival in Berlin. In 2015, she published her autobiographical graphic novel, “Dare to Disappoint. Growing up in Turkey,” which obtained positive reviews internationally.

Samanci has been living in the US since 2003 and has been following developments in her home country from abroad. She recently showed solidarity with the imprisoned author Asli Erdogan by publishing a drawing of her.

“The attitude of the ruling AKP party became increasingly harsher, especially after the elections in June 2015, when they began losing the support of their followers,” Samanci explained. “This led to today’s state of emergency.”

“Academics, artists and intellectuals have never felt completely free, but the pressure on them is continually growing,” she said. Samanci does not believe evidence will ever be found to prove that all the people who were arrested supported the coup, as the authorities currently claim.

The writer Asli Erdogan, the scientist Esra Mungan or the journalist Can Dündar are the most prominent examples of these arbitrary arrests.

Samanci says that even though Turkish artists living abroad may not have to worry about getting arrested, they all have family and friends in Turkey, so they feel the pressure, too. Every one needs to decide for themselves if they want to get involved from abroad. But she sees it as her responsibility to speak out for her colleagues in Turkey.