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Turkey’s Çanakkale Biennale to forge ahead despite attempted coup

Immigrant artists are due to take centre-stage in the September exhibition

Organisers of the fifth edition of the Çanakkale Biennale in Turkey are to press ahead with the September event despite the failed coup of 15 July and its contentious aftermath, including continued security concerns after attacks at Istanbul Airport and elsewhere.

“We are determined to realise this biennial even under the current difficult conditions,” said the show’s general director, Beral Madra. “Maybe some artists will be reluctant to come—which we fully understand—but their works will represent them. We trust the prudence and will of the people and the officials who support the biennale as a product of democracy.”

“Considering the 20th-century history of Turkey, the generations born in the 1940s and 50s have now seen four military coups,” Madra added. Over past 50 years, the country has built up “a significant heritage of contemporary art, which cannot disappear in one day”, she said, although the art scene may be facing “a stagnant and non-active period”. With artists from several European countries visiting, she called on EU colleagues to “strengthen their collaboration and solidarity and our achievements will continue”.

The biennial was planned to focus on the human tragedies of migration, rather than political issues, exploring the fate of both migrant and refugee, as well as the concept of homeland. Forty international artists, many of them immigrants or from immigrant families, are due to take part. Çanakkale, the biennial’s location, is a city on the southern side of the Dardanelles strait, close to the main migrant routes from Syria across the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The theme will resonate strongly in Turkey, which is at the centre of the ongoing refugee crisis. The country initially offered shelter to nearly 3 million refugees from Syria, and in March it agreed a controversial deal with European leaders to take back migrants in return for financial aid.

Madra, who curated the Istanbul Biennale in 1987 and 1989, and organised the Turkish pavilion at the Venice Biennale several times, says she and her colleagues hope to bring groups of Syrian refugees, including artists and intellectuals, from Istanbul to visit the show.

The biennale is inspired by the writings of the Czech-born refugee, journalist and philosopher, Vilém Flusser. Most of Flusser’s family were murdered in the Holocaust and he spent most of his career in Brazil and France. His 1994 book, The Freedom of the Migrant, questioned the viability of national identity at a time of increasingly permeable borders.

New work commissioned for the exhibition includes a multichannel video by the Palestinian artist, Aissa Deebi. This will explore 30 years of life in exile in the US and Europe.

Other participating artists include the Turkish-German artist Nevin Aladağ, the Iraqi artist Akam Shex Hadi, whose work has dealt with Isil and the fate of Iraqi refugees, and the Greek artist Kalliopi Lemos, who is known for public art installations on the theme of illegal migration.

The city of Çanakkale has provided €200,000 for the event; additional funding comes from the Swiss, Swedish and US governments. Venues include the Armenian Church, a synagogue, and the Piri Reis Museum, which takes its name from an Ottoman admiral.

Madra said continuing investment in contemporary art from the private sector—particularly in private museums in Istanbul and biennales in Sinopale, Çanakkale and Mardin—remain vital to the “neo-capitalist” image of Turkey, “which cannot be ignored by the ruling politicians and economy team”.

• The 5th International Çanakkale Biennale: Homeland, 24 September-6 November, http://canakkalebienali.com/en/