Beral Madra, Concrete Achievements, in Support of the Values of Cultural Democracy. Notes on AICA Turkey.
Contemporary art and its ideological infrastructure in Turkey are the outcome of a modernism, which went through three stages during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first stage established during the ‘Westernisation’ policy of the Ottoman Empire called Tanzimat (1839), lasted until the foundation of the Republic in 1923. The second stage, under the influence of Nation State ideology and Eurocentric early modernist movements was imposed on conservative society from 1923 on by establishing state-funded and controlled art institutions, in which the ‘real’ modernism, or at least a real rupture with tradition, took place after the Second World War. In the two decades during which the Republic was established, artistic production was completely integrated into the revolution and mainly comprised programmed paintings and sculptures. The third period introduced a new rupture after the Second World War, which might be termed ’internationalisation’ and lasted until the emergence of post-modernism, from 1985 onwards. At a deeper level, this developed into an emergent pluralism, arising out of the complexity of the historical local, or regional, cultures.
Some mention should be made of the importance of associations founded by artists and art critics during these decades: the Turkish Painters’ Association (1919), the Fine Arts Union (1923), the Turkish Fine Arts Union (1926), the Fine Arts Union (1929), the Independent Painters’ and Sculptors’ Union (1929- 1948), D Group (1933), United Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions (1937-38), Homeland Painters (1938- 1943), and The New Group (1941-47). This historical background created a sustainable tradition, so that during the twentieth century artists and art critics have always reinforced their position through associations and group initiatives. Bearing in mind this historical background, we have organised a fair event in 2009, entitled ‘1st International Meeting for Artists’ Initiatives’, to build up a communication platform between artist initiatives in Turkey and European countries, in order to share information, experience and best practices, and to encourage new collaborations within the framework of Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture.
In 2018 a workshop project conducted by our distinguished member, Derya Yücel, for the Kasa Gallery has revealed that since the 1990s there have been numerous artists’ initiatives, including Altı Aylık, Atılkunst, Bandrolsüz, BAS, birbuçuk, Darağaç Projesi, Dramaqueer Sanat Kolektifi, HAFRİYAT, HAH, halka sanat projesi, Hallederiz İnş. Kooperatifi, HAYAKA ARTI, HaZaVuZu, HER HÂL, İO, KABA HAT, Karapembe Karşı Sanat Kolektifi, Kartonkitap, Kendine Ait Bir Oda, Loading, Maquis Projects, Merkezkaç, Mtaär, Noks, Oda Projesi, Oddviz, Pasaj, Pelesiyer, PiST, Sanatorium, Sürrealist Eylem-Periferi Kolektif, Taşeron, Yaygara, Yoğunluk, Video-İst, and xurban_collective. 2,165,533 such initiatives were launched in İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir, but not all of them are still active.
AICA opened its first branch in Turkey in 1953, and in 1954 AICA’s 6th International Congress was held in Istanbul. From 1950 on, Turkey's internal and external policies signalled a major change. With the political elections in 1950, a new of era of multi-party politics opened up. The Democrats launched an intensive effort to associate Turkey with the Western camp against the Soviet threat. Turkey’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) happened in 1952. To back up this opening towards the Western World, the AICA congress was linked to the painting competition, ’Production’, organised by the Yapı ve Kredi Bank in September 1954, when international AICA members such as Herbert Read and Lionello Venturi were invited out, as jury members. To the surprise of the elites of the art scene, an unknown artist, Aliye Berger, who had not been educated at the Istanbul State Fine Arts Academy, won this competition. She was the sister of Fahrelnissa Zeid, a well-known woman artist who was the pioneer of abstract painting. The result of this competition shook the criteria of the established modernist order of the art scene.
In the 1970s, AICA Turkey began publishing a quarterly research journal, Sanat-Edebiyat’, of which only four issues appeared. The editor-in-chief was a renowned painter, Adnan Turani, and the secretary-general was a young and promising art historian and art critic, Bedrettin Cömert. In 1978, during the period of political violence, and extremist upheaval, Bedrettin Cömert was assassinated by a group of extreme nationalists. AICA Turkey, the Turkish Art Critics’ Association (in Turkish STD and, later, SED) was able to continue throughout the 1950s, though only at a reduced level and, like many other progressive associations, was forced to dissolve itself during the 12 September 1980 military coup d'état.
In 1983, a new law of association (No. 2909) came into force, but AICA Turkey failed to re-establish itself along new lines. It has to be borne in mind that prominent personalities, such as Suut Kemal Yetkin, Bedrettin Comert, Arif Kaptan, Nurullah Berk and Cemal Tollu, who had worked for the association in former times, also died during this period, and that the initiative was not convincing for the current generation of arts professionals. After a nearly ten-year delay, in 1992, AICA Turkey was re-established under the chairmanship of Adnan Turani and prominent art historians and art critics of the time, including Günsel Renda, Kaya Özsezgin, Sezer Tansuğ and Halil Akdeniz became members. The first and only known activity of the association in this period was organised in 1993 under the title, ‘Forty Years in Art History and Criticism’.
From 1990 on, after the two İstanbul Biennales of 1987 and 1989, the contemporary art scene in Turkey gained an encouraging impetus. The promise of Turkey's integration into the EU was most beneficial for contemporary art developments. In March 1991 I was invited to Glasgow, to the Globalisation Congress, organised by the Arts Council,
The British Council and the Sunday Times, in which 700 delegates from Europe and neighbouring countries took part. The discussions, plenary sessions and lectures served as a most accurate guiding determinant for formulating the necessary changes and developments.
At this conference, Europe's identity, consisting of various cultural layers and minority cultures, the problems and dilemmas posed by this identity, and the potential relevance of current artistic and cultural activities, were discussed in detail. Most of the suggestions and requests referred to the need to protect this multicultural environment, to provide equal opportunities for all forms of cultural development, to block or eliminate all nationalist pressures, and to intensify communication and exchange between cultural events. In addition to many other requests, there was a call for the creation of a cultural foundation supported by multinational companies. Catch phrases, such as ‘Pan-European Cultural Network’ and the ‘Myth of a Single Europe’ suggested the imminent emergence of a strong European identity. In the face of this new identity, and as a way of learning from past shortcomings, societies were invited to present their true identities in a concrete way and develop them with a more up-dated approach.
In 1991 I was invited to 25th AICA Congress in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and in 1992 at the 26th AICA Congress, in Vienna. I realised that an essential breakthrough would be achieved, if the art scene based in İstanbul could be encouraged to cooperate with international civil organisations. The practical and ethical infrastructure involving artists, art critics, galleries and other institutions on the art scene was quite stagnant and fragmented, owing to the continuing domination of outdated modernist principles. The necessary energy and the desire to open up to the outside world was hampered by existing convictions and regulations; artists and art critics were not sufficiently aware that, without an organisational structure, their production could not reach international audiences and earn widespread recognition. AICA Turkey, with its base in Ankara, either avoided any kind of communication with the İstanbul art scene, or was impeded by the inactivity of its board. Indeed, towards the end of 1990s AICA’s International board, in Paris, decided to suspend the Section, on account of its inactivity over the previous decade.
My first encounter with the network of art critics and curators of neighbouring countries came about in March 1989, when I was invited to co-curate an exhibition of contemporary artists from around the Mediterranean, in Bari (Italy). Our long-time friendship and collaboration with the Greek critic, Efi Strousa, started during this significant exhibition which, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, connected up the art scenes in several Mediterranean countries. In 2002 December I was invited by Efi Strousa, who to my regret died January 2019, to a symposium of AICA Hellas, in collaboration with the Goethe Institut, entitled Centripetal and Centrifugal Trends: Methods and Roles of Criticism’. Participants, including Denys Zacharopoulos, Henry Meyric Hughes, Efi Strousa, Ute Meta Bauer and Rosa Martinez, encouraged me to re-establish AICA Turkey.
Under a new law, establishing an international association in Turkey involved submitting to lengthy bureaucratic procedures, amounting to almost one year’s work, to obtain the formal consent of both the Council of Ministers in Ankara and the Istanbul Provincial Directorate of Police. With the significant contribution of founding members Ali Akay, Serhan Ada, Ahu Antmen, Evrim Altug, Esra Alicavusoglu Levent Calikoglu, Hasim Nur Gurel, Cem Erciyes and Burçak Madran, we finally managed to re-establish our association on 6 December 2003.
Just before the foundation of the association, within the framework of the 8th International Istanbul Biennial (19-21 September 2003) AICA Turkey organised an international workshop and plenary session on ‘Art Criticism and Curating in the East of the EU’. This project was realised with contributions from the European Culture Foundation (Amsterdam), the International Secretariat of AICA (Paris), the International Manifesta Foundation (Amsterdam), the European Culture Association, Istanbul Bilgi University, the Borusan Culture and Art Center, Bir Kültür Sanat Merkezi, and additional assistance from Eczacıbaşı Holding, Om Yayınevi, and Beyoğlu Municipality. The conference aimed to make a critical and theoretical contribution to the 8th International Istanbul Biennial. The participants, including Efi Strousa, Anda Rottenberg, Henry Meyric Hughes, Ramón Tió Bellido, Vanessa Reed, Stephen Wright, Pascal Brunet and Zoran Erić, were invited to discuss current practices in international networking and cooperation, and the possibilities for partnership, funding opportunities, curatorial independence, and the current biennial system. The Istanbul Biennial was presented as a model within the curatorial infrastructure of the region. The workshop, connected to the panel discussion, aimed at informing young professionals, curators, art critics and art publishers in Middle-East, South Caucasus and the East Mediterranean about current developments in EU cultural and artistic policies. The proceedings of the conference were also published in book form, in May 2004.
The new AICA Turkey’s first General Assembly was held in autumn 2004, and we encouraged many local arts professionals to join the association, including Emre Baykal, Fulya Erdemci, Ayşe Orhun Gültekin, Ömer Faruk Şerifoğlu, Zeynep İnankur, Ahmet Kamil Gören, Hami Çağdaş, Deniz Ünsal, Burcu Pelvanoğlu, Ayşegül Güçhan, Uşun Tükel, Ayşegül Sönmez and Başak Şenova.
In the early 2000s, the ruling party AKP revived Turkey’s hopes for EU accession, and the cultural scene had to adapt to the prospect of changes in cultural policy. In May 2004, in anticipation of the planned the Europe Day festivities, AICA Turkey organised another significant conference in the auditorium of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, entitled ‘Transformations in Imagination, Thought and Daily Life in the Process of EU Accession’". Being aware that 2004 was the 50th anniversary of AICA Turkey, we decided to organise a commemoration and award ceremony and invited the former Prime Minister, Bülent Ecevit, who had been one of the earliest members of AICA Turkey and a former secretary of the section, to present honorary awards to the senior artists, Sarkis and Füsun Onur. Henry Meyric Hughes was also invited to be the international witness to this meaningful event.
On two occasions, I was able to represent AICA Turkey and introduce the members and activities of our section to delegates to international AICA meetings – on the first occasion, in my capacity of International Vice-President, at the board meeting in Paris, in March 2005, and the second, as a delegate to the AICA Congress in Ljubljana, in September of that year.
In 2006 AICA Turkey signed an agreement with the Pera Museum, in Istanbul, for a series of lectures under the general title, ‘Global Desires: Contemporary Art and Culture in Globalisation’, as follows: Jean-Marc Poinsot, Head of Research, Professor of Art History and contemporary art expert at the National Institute of Art History/ INHA (January 2006); Edit András, from the Institute of Art Historical Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest (June 2006); Slyvia Naef, from the University of Geneva (January 2007); Marie Luise Syring, Head of Cultural Development at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf and Secretary-General of AICA Germany (February 2007); Els Van Der Plas, Director of the Prince Claus Foundation, Amsterdam (March 2007), and Katerina Koskina, from the Kostapoulos Foundation (April 2007), were our distinguished guests. In the same year, AICA Turkey initiated an ongoing collaboration with the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA), in Istanbul and continued its activity, in providing extensive information and advice throughout the preparations for the Istanbul Cultural Capital of Europe celebrations, in 2010. Within this context, topics and issues relating to sponsors and collectors, museum collections, art in public space, urban transformation and art, gender and art, were debated by local and international art critics and curators. AICA Turkey played an active role during Istanbul’s European Capital of Culture programme, by organising three conferences with workshops. This series of discussions and workshops was held as a collaboration between AICA Turkey and the French Institute in Istanbul and focused on the historical past, urban transformation and the cultural and artistic situation in Istanbul. The first of these conferences was held on January 2007, and focused on the historical identities of art patrons down to the present day, on the role of the curator in a triangle encompassing the institutions, the art community and the audience, and the transformation of the sponsorship system, in relation to cultural policies, worldwide. The second conference, in May 2007, opened the discussion on the museums in Istanbul and the formation of collections. The third conference was organised in collaboration with AICA Turkey and the French Institute, and was held at Akbank Sanat, on 10th of October 2007. It focused on the meaning and development of the Istanbul Biennale, with two workshops entitled ‘Institutional Analysis’ and ‘Theoretical Analysis’. The participants shared their theories, experiences and critics on the past and current problems of the Istanbul Biennale; they discussed the transformations in the last 20 years, and possible solutions to the problems that needed to be overcome.
For the 50th AICA Congress in Paris, in November 2017, entitled ‘Everywhere and Nowhere: Migration and Contemporary Art’, I presented a paper looking into the concept of ‘homeland/Heimat’, in which I argued that we all knew that the seas of the Mediterranean were polluted with the shameful act of human trafficking, but were powerless to prevent it. The artist steps forward and performs a task, which not only brings the problem to the attention of the global media, the authorities and intellectuals, but also relieves people’s minds, to the extent that this tragedy has now been decoded and worked through, by artistic means. I suggested that contemporary artworks afforded a perfect opportunity for humanity to face and challenge the problems of global migration through the universal language of contemporary art, and thus showed a civil commitment and positioning in the face of an ongoing tragedy.
I argued that, in the age of post-truth, when political and economic hardships disturbed the state of affairs in our professional field, we wanted to examine the state of networking, collaboration and exchange between the artists, art experts and artistic and cultural institutions of neighbouring countries, as we were aware that the political and economic state of affairs in the region had not supported our strategies for communication and collaboration since 2010. The current local wars and economic shortfalls in the region remain obstacles to the continuation of cultural and artistic exchange. Under the circumstances, artists and experts in the region are mainly dependent on the Western art market and artistic exchanges with Western EU countries, rather than the resources their own countries could provide.
In January 2019, AICA Turkey invited curators and art critics from neighbouring countries to Istanbul, for a conference entitled ‘Collective, Collaborative and Creative Consciousness’ at the Sofa Hotel. The aim of this event was to examine the state of networking, collaboration and artistic exchange between art experts and artistic and cultural institutions in neighbouring countries, and find new ways of improving cross-border collaboration.
The participants were: Shulamit Bruckstein, art critic and curator (Berlin, www.taswir.org), Razvan Ion (Bucharest, www.bucharestbiennale.org), Syrago Tsiara (Thessaloniki), Irina Chemiyeva (Moscow) and Rachel Sukman, President of AICA Israel (Tel Aviv). The two sessions of the forum were moderated by Beral Madra (Honorary President of AICA Turkey) and Fırat Arapoğlu (President of AICA Turkey). The three invited participants were Zoran Erić (Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade), Iara Boubnova (National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia), and Issa Touma (photographer and curator, Aleppo). The last two-named were prevented from coming, for political and economic reasons. Within this framework we put the following questions to the participants: Have you recently had any experience of working in collaboration with others and achieving a collective impact? What are the current essential problems in the development of collective projects? Can we overcome bureaucratic and financial discrepancies? If we truly want to change something, especially anything complex in our profession, how can we proceed?
We can summarise the responses as follows: communication and collaboration with the artists and colleagues from neighbouring countries is mainly based on individual initiatives and networking, rather than on a strong system of artistic and theoretical exchange or a sustainable cultural or artistic policy in the public or private sector. Solid results can only be achieved if all the NGOs in the region can launch effective, new cultural and artistic policies and make well thought-out, systematic demands on their states and governments. Governments and political parties should be made aware of the influence of artistic and cultural projects on developing the processes of democratisation that are urgently needed in the region.
Thanks to this last, timely conference in Istanbul, which was mounted in the face of considerable political and economic difficulties, the experts and artists of neighbouring countries should have understood the need to continue putting on effective and productive events, and inform their governments and major artistic and cultural institutions and offices in the EU. AICA International is the perfect instrument for attaining better intellectual and practical, communicative, collaborative, cooperative forms of activity.