Contemporary Turkish Art: Interview with Beral Madra


Beral Madra is a Turkish art critic and curator. She was curator of the two first editions of the Istanbul Biennial (1987 and 1989), and has curated five of the Turkish pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Her curatorial career also includes several international group shows, among them: Orient Express (Berlin, 1994), Modernities and Memories: Recent Works from the Islamic World (Venice, 1998), Registering the Distance: Istanbul/Los Angeles (Santa Monica, 2003), Next Wave: Exhibition of 17 Women Artists from Turkey” (Berlin, 2009). Madra was co-curator, along with Răzvan Ion, of the 2018 edition of the Bucharest Biennale, titled Edit Your Future, which ran from May 17 to July 8, 2018. I met Madra this spring in Romania to discuss contemporary art and politics in Turkey, alongside the trajectory of her important career as an international curator.

Maria Orosan-Telea: How would you describe the contemporary Turkish art scene? What is the relationship between art and politics?

Beral Madra: It is a really complicated political situation now. It is more difficult for artists than for galleries. Artists follow the requisites of making the public aware of political and social problems. In Turkey, most of the artists produce political works. If you look at their corpus of works, you can understand their political vision. Their aim is to influence the innocent public to be more open toward the tragic or challenging realities in the region. There are sustainable biennials in Anatolian cities like Canakkale (since 2012), Sinop (since 2006), and Mardin (since 2010). Mardin is the last city on the Iraqi border. So small cities are inviting artists to stay there for a few days and to communicate with the local public. It helps the local public to see that there is a different production in the world, which is critical and visual. And this visual production shows a different reality and a counter view to post-truth.

There is a lot of energy in Turkish contemporary art. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary art museums, so it is difficult for the public to reach and perceive this energy. We have Istanbul Modern, which is not an official museum but a collection museum; it belongs to the private sector. There are huge collections owned by probably fifteen collectors active in the last thirty years. But the general public cannot see these works, so artists are organizing themselves. They find their own budgets and open shows in empty buildings. This is their way of reaching the larger public. In addition, some municipalities offer their cultural centers to artists’ initiatives.

MOT: What about permanent artist-run spaces?

BM: The spaces run by artists are always temporary. The rents are very high; it is difficult for artists to have a space without any supporting budget.

MOT: Are artists’ rights to freedom of speech being challenged?

BM: Of course, artists are a little bit stressed to work in this difficult political atmosphere in Turkey because there is a kind of censorship coming from authorities who have never been to a contemporary art exhibition and who have no notion of what this production means. They are bursting with ruling ideologies against modernization and progress. They use the past, the Ottoman tradition, for this purpose. This is a severe paradox because the Ottoman Empire actually opened the door to the modernization of the country with the Westernization movement. The current authorities think that if they reestablish the administration models from the Ottoman Empire, they will serve the Islamic religion. Artists may be censored when they are officially exhibiting adverse and oppositional works. In the galleries, it is safer, but even the galleries have had some problems in the past ten years. In some districts where the galleries had to move because of gentrification, they were not welcome. The residents of those neighborhoods restricted their openings.

In 2016, I was invited to be the curator of the 5th Çaanakkale Biennial, envisioned around the concept “homeland.” A contemporary artist denounced me and some members of the ruling parties attacked me with the claim that I was defending a different ideology and opposing the government. They even attacked the opposition party CHP Municipality of Çanakkale that was supporting the biennial. Because of this political conflict, the organizers hesitated to invite twenty artists from different countries. They said the political conflict in the city was too strong to have a safe biennial. However in 2017, Osnabrück Kunsthalle and Thessaloniki Biennale showed solidarity and invited many artists of 5th Çanakkale Biennial to participate.

MOT: You said that many Turkish artists have a critical approach towards political and social issues. But what are the limitations, not only in Turkey but also in the region? How far can they go?

BM: In general it is difficult for an artist to deal with issues related to religion and sex or to use national symbols. For example, if an artist uses the flag in a critical way, this could cause him or her trouble. However, artists in Turkey are well trained in finding metaphors that reflect their critical approach. In many Islamic countries, artists cannot show the image of a naked body in either private or official spaces. In the most conservative Arab countries the works exhibited are abstract or decorative.

MOT: You were the curator of the first and second Istanbul Biennial in the late 1980s. How did the biennial evolve from its origin until today?

BM: So many years have passed that it is difficult to remember how the Istanbul art scene was at that time. There has been tremendous development over these thirty years. In the eighties in Turkey, there was important artistic production. There have been active generations of artists since the Fine Arts Academy was established by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. From 1923 on, during the establishment of the Republic, art was a tool for modernization under the patronage of the state. The big transformation started in the mid-1980s, when state capitalism turned into liberal capitalism and post-modernist transformation began. The business sector became more important for the development of the fine arts than the state. The business sector wanted to have some kind of visibility as they developed their place within global capitalism. Therefore, the biennial was a tool. They realized that making an international exhibition in the model of the Venice Biennale or the São Paolo Biennial could be important for them.

Turkey had a very difficult political situation in the 1980s when the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture decided to organize the biennial; it was still not a pure democracy at that time. The important international artists were not so willing to come to Istanbul and contribute to Turkey’s visibility. However, the business sector was more determined in its investments to art and culture. I was first invited to be part of the board and to develop this international exhibition model.

When I was working for the first edition, the board asked me to be the coordinator too. At the time, the title “curator” was not used in Turkey. Harald Szeemann was the first to use it in Europe. Therefore, for the first (1987) and second biennials (1989) I was described as a coordinator although I actually curated them. I had my private advisers; for example, my husband, Teoman Madra, a Fluxus artist and photographer making abstract photography, had connections with the Italian and French art scenes. I used those connections to invite artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio, and François Morellet to participate in the first edition, and Daniel Buren, Jannis Kounellis, Richard Long, and Sol LeWitt in the second one. For these artists, the historical heritage of Istanbul was attractive. When they came, they were really enthusiastic about the spaces. For example, in the Ottoman building, near Suleymaniye Mosque, we exhibited Buren, Long and LeWitt. I focused on the very famous artists at that time. The Istanbul Biennial had to jump to a mainstream level so as not to be a “third world” biennial.

For the first and the second editions, I had to contact many people and many institutions in Europe, so I developed a network. After that, the Italians invited me to Bari for the big art fair in 1989. There was this special section for Mediterranean countries. They asked me to go there with a group of artists from Turkey. That was my first independent curating project.

MOT: I suppose the collaboration with the Venice Biennale started with that occasion.

BM: Yes, I met the Venice Biennale commissars and directors there. They saw the exhibition I curated and asked me why Turkey was not present in the Venice Biennale. For the next editions, I was invited by the curators of the Venice Biennale to represent Turkey. I had to find funds in my country. The Minister of Foreign Affairs supported as much as possible, but it was still a very limited amount. I could not participate in every edition either because I did not always have the budget or I could not find a space because Turkey did not have a permanent pavilion. So up until 2005, I showed artists from Turkey in five exhibitions. The first four were group shows to give many artists the opportunity to be seen outside the country. For example, Kemal Önsoy, Mithat Şen, Serhat Kiraz, Erdağ Aksel, Gül Ilgaz, Neriman Polat, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, and Nazif Topçuoğlu showed paintings, installations, photography and video. The last exhibition was a one-person show with Hussein Chalayan.

MOT: What do you think about this idea of national representation at the Venice Biennale? Is it still relevant?

BM: In 1992-93, the curator Achille Bonita Oliva transformed the national pavilion tradition, opening it to global participation. He asked the pavilions to invite a non-visible country. Also, in the Arsenale show, there were many artists from many different countries. Nationalism is a dangerous ideology now. It is mixed with racism and is a conservative and retrograde ideology that is causing wars and massacres. People should always think about it when they argue that nationalism is something positive. In the past, the national pavilions were not so involved in the highest levels of intellectual debate and critical theory. Since the nineties, the situation has changed. The pavilions even invite immigrant artists; this is a very positive development. Some of the curators are really using their ideas to the benefit of global reconciliation.

Nevertheless, I should also add that all the biennials are linked to the art market. There are always partnerships and collaborations with market actors, collectors, galleries, and dealers. They cannot be separated. But a curator must present and advocate for his or her ideas in such a way that they remain independent, free from the art market manipulations.

MOT: Describe your experience of co-curating the 8th edition of the Bucharest Biennale.

BM: It was a great opportunity to be involved in Bucharest Biennale 8 and to have close insight into the Bucharest art scene. I am always interested in creating neighboring relations in contemporary art. I could have contributed with my network, but the Bucharest art scene and the founders of the biennial contributed to my knowledge and experience with their amazing collaborative initiative and energy. The Bucharest Biennale is an independent initiative of a group of artists and art experts based on the political and cultural journal Pavilion, founded by my co-curator Răzvan Ion and Eugen Rădescu. The biennial was realized in three galleries – Mobius Gallery, MORA (Opportunities for Romanian Artists), and Atelier (Contemporary Art Space) – and was sponsored by Transylvania Bank and supported by Partners in Kind. Thus, a large group of people were involved in the process of creating noteworthy content and the biennial’s form. The most challenging issue was our concept and operation. We invited artists to contribute one image related to the concept Edit Your Future. Each image was then printed as a 50 x 70 cm poster and presented to the public to take and make their own catalog. The free distribution of the poster referred to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ongoing poster works first created in 1989, and was a response to the critical LGBT discourse in some EU countries.

MOT: Tell me more about the theme of this edition.

BM: The main aspect of the Bucharest Biennale is its position as an exhaustively independent civil society initiative, consciously distanced to calculating market powers of the global art scene. Its geo-political and cultural position and links to the historical and present cultures of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Middle East was also a point of interest.

When deciding to make a biennial in the age of post-truth – now the ruling ideology within the ongoing global crisis – there is no doubt that artists and curators believe that contemporary art production and its exhibition is one of the most crucial means of dealing with various socio-political and cultural problems, and is the most challenging way of communicating with the society of spectacle. In the age of post-truth, truth is not only irresponsibly fabricated, news sources are manipulated by political and economic powers to create a confusing world of information in which deception, false stories, and gossip spread with disturbing speed. Consequently, curators and artists believe that contemporary art, with its truth-seeking inquisitive and cutting-edge quality, has the power to enter into this post-truth turmoil.

Setting aside the economic and touristic benefits of a biennial, we should concentrate on the provocative meaning of “exhibition,” namely submitting critical thinking through works of art for inspection or examination by the public. Through tangible verbal and visual production, the main objective of exhibitions is to challenge public opinion, and to create a complex agora to provoke the participation of the public into current debates. The role of the artist and the curator in a biennial at a time of social polarization, political upset, and ecological catastrophe is to respond through the selected artworks and to provoke new possibilities for critical thinking. The concept of the biennial, Edit Your Future, is mainly based on these ideas; we wanted to make the public aware that they have the power to resist this post-truth ideology and seek the truth.

We also believe that the power of the exhibition is located in the collaborative and collective attitude and supervision of the artists, curators and organizers; even if under tense working conditions, there can be plausible disputes or conflicts between them. If the public restores, heals and rebalances its sensibility through the biennial’s artworks, the conceptual unity of the Bucharest Biennale guarantees the long-standing influence of the exhibition into the subconscious of the people.

Timișoara, Romania, May 31, 2018

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