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Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Burcu Pelvanoğlu
1 June 2016

What are the urgent questions affecting cultural production in Turkey?

What are the urgent questions affecting cultural production in Turkey?


I am writing from the perspective of Turkey, rather than the perspective of the Middle East and North Africa in general.


1. Institutions: Although the 2000s were notable for the establishment of museums in Turkey  such as the Sabancı Museum (2002), Istanbul Modern (2004), Pera Museum (2005) and SantralIstanbul (2007 was founded as more of a center than a museum but later became a thing of the past)[1]  it is clear that, with the exception of Istanbul Modern, Turkish museums became venues for temporary and 'blockbuster' exhibitions, rather than comprehensive contemporary museums. Ambiguous institutional policies have had an impact on museums, giving birth to an environment in which museums have assumed the role of galleries and vice versa.


2. Content: During the 1990s, the style of arabesque  which corresponds to the yearning of ascent, consumption, and 'the good life' of the 1980s  started to synthesize with Islamic and liberal values. Global policies that were particularly promoted in less-developed countries resulted in the rise of a representative aesthetic in a Jacques Ranciére-esque sense. The validity of this argument can be better understood by considering the content of the last five biennials and comparing them with large-scale exhibitions such as Manifesta and Documenta. Similar to the dissolution of anti-institutional movements amidst the pains of institutionalization, the tension between-centre-periphery, broken first by the Young Events Exhibitions during the mid-1990s and then by institutions like Anadolu Kultur in the early 2000s, has been replaced by a new form of tension nowadays. An explosion in galleries witnessed in the late 1980s is repeating itself today within a different conjuncture. Art perceived solely as an investment, devoid of its own real meaning and purpose, is undoubtedly directly related to neoliberal economic policies changing their tune, just like in current politics. The re-emergence of an antagonist form of contemporary art will be correlated to it transforming this 'tune'.


3. One of the main problems: One must accept that contemporary art in Turkey has created a path of self-return for itself. While experiencing a rapid transformation of institutions, and therefore the pain of institutionalization, it is obvious that anti-institutional movements lost vigour in this environment of change. Over the last 15 years, the emergence of initiatives, transfer of artists in these initiatives to galleries, and then a disconnection from these galleries, could be considered as self-returns.


4. Current problems: On the one hand, after massive investments in competitive art fairs and auctions, the art topics of Turkey's cultural agenda are stuck within a profile of collectors, ongoing art fairs, auctions and the presentation of artists to international markets. On the other hand, the socio-political programme of transformation by the AKP government toward an Islamic, conservative society has its own requirements concerning art production, intending to restrict freedom of expression and determining art forms in tune with this programme. The AKP government sees no difference between cultural developments envisaged for the society of spectacle or for a society of wisdom and favours touristic or conservative art development.




[1] SantralIstanbul was founded as more of a centre than a museum but later became a thing of the past.

Burcu Pelvanoğlu

is an Associate Professor at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University as well as an art historian and critic. She received her Master's degree and PhD from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University's Institute of Social Sciences. Her publications include Hale Asaf: A Turning Point of Turkish Painting (2007); A Theoretical Introduction to Western Civilization (co-authored with Hilmi Yavuz, 2008); History of the Istanbul Fine Arts Academy, Painting Department: Artists, Tutors and Pupils (2009); and artist's monographs including Devrim Erbil (2010), Mevlut Akyıldız (2011), Neset Günal (2012), Meriç Hızal (2012), Füsun Onur (2013), Özdemir Altan (2014), and Nejad Devrim (2014). She has also curated exhibitions including Chaotic Metamorphoses (Proje4L, Istanbul, 2010) and Dream and Reality (Istanbul Modern Art Museum, 2011). She is currently preparing to publish her PhD thesis entitled Art in Turkey after 1980: Transformations.

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