Museums seek help as censorship grows in Turkey

Research group to publish guide for artists and museums facing legal action


As incidents of censorship are on the rise in Turkey, museums and art centres must find increasingly nimble ways to negotiate the changing cultural landscape. A new guide for Turkish cultural venues and artists implicated in censorship cases is due to be published later this year by the research platform Siyah Bant.

“I can recite a hundred horrific incidents from last year alone. It would be a pity to think of them as arbitrary or unrelated. This zeitgeist makes the culture wars of the 1980s feel look like toddler’s play,” says Vasif Kortun, the director of Salt, one of Istanbul’s leading contemporary art spaces.

Incidents of censorship of the press have been mounting in recent weeks. Earlier this month, an Istanbul court ousted the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman, which had been critical of Turkey’s president, and appointed new leadership. Days later, on 8 March, Turkish authorities took over the Cihan news agency at the request of a state prosecutor.

Cutting back on Salt Some speculated that the closure of Salt Beyoglu last December was an example of state censorship. The private non-profit gallery has hosted shows focusing on political unrest in the country, including the military coup d’état in September 1980. However, Kortun says the building was closed because it did not have the proper building permits. The gallery’s affiliated space, Salt Galata, remains open.

Turkey’s crackdown on freedom of expression intensified in late 2015, but many point to the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013—when activists demonstrated against the planned redevelopment of the central Istanbul site—as a turning point. Since then, the arts have come under “increasing pressure”, says a spokesman for Siyah Bant, the research platform founded in 2011 that documents censorship in the arts across Turkey.

Siyah Bant will shortly publish a legal guide prepared by one of its representatives, Pelin Basaran, with Ulas Karan of the Human Rights Law Research Centre at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The new handbook focuses on the rights of museums, cultural centres and artists and offers legal advice for those caught up in censorship lawsuits.

“One of the big obstacles to freedom of the arts is the fact that criminal law—particularly legislation designed to protect certain political offices—and anti-terror legislation are cited in order to delegitimise artistic expression,” says a spokesman for Siyah Bant.

Many also fear that self-censorship has become common practice, particularly in light of the increasing violence that followed the general election in June. “The lack of freedom of expression makes everybody frightened,” says the Istanbul-based artist Taner Ceylan.

Meanwhile, some institutions are rethinking their exhibition programmes and finding abstract ways to refer to the state and its power. The first group show at Alt, a new space in the Bomontiada cultural complex in Istanbul, is called If You Can’t Go Through the Door, Go Through the Window and features works by Aykan Safoglu, Hasan Ozgur Top and Hera Buyuktasciyan (until 26 March). Alt’s curator and director Mari Spirito says the show is about “ingenuity” and the ways people have to negotiate the establishment in order to participate in society.