Fulya Erdemci, a leading curator of the Turkish art scene whose exhibitions had captured the minds of many, both within the country and outside it, has died. A representative for the Istanbul Biennial, where Erdemci served as director from 1994 to 2000, said that Erdemci died of cancer, but did not provide her age.
“We will miss Erdemci and her kind soul immensely, and keep appreciating her works that touched the lives of many who accompanied her,” the Istanbul Biennial wrote in a statement posted to social media on Wednesday.
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Erdemci’s many curatorial credits include the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, which she themed around the power of the people to shift discussions and create new discourses. Most of her other shows took place in the public sphere, however, and she considered that kind of curating to be her specialty.
Born in 1962, Erdemci became the director of the Istanbul Biennial in 1994, the year after she received a graduate degree in art history from Columbia University in New York. For much of her career, she remained based in Istanbul, although she continued to maintain a presence on the international biennial circuit.
She went on to become a co-curator of the 2002 Bienal de São Paulo, the 2007 Moscow Biennale, and the 2008 Biennial of Art in Public Space in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2011, she organized the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which that year was given over to Ayşe Erkmen, who created a monumental installation meditating on the Italian city’s water filtration systems.
It was Erdemci’s 2013 Istanbul Biennial, “Mom, Am I Barbarian?,” that brought her some of the greatest attention. That show took as one of its starting points the Gezi Park protests, a wide-scale uprising led by Turks starting in 2013 that attempted to bring attention to issues such as censorship in the media and governmental abuses of citizens’ rights. In tribute to the fact that many protesters gathered at the titular park, Erdemci had tried to place many of the artworks in public spaces, but that proved impossible amid the fraught political climate in Turkey at the time.
“This was an uncompromising exhibition about a world in which our shared spheres of collective freedom are rapidly shrinking,” curator Daniel Birnbaum wrote in a glowing Artforum review. “Gone were the warm conviviality and slightly naive hopes of relational aesthetics. Instead, a gloomier and perhaps more realistic atmosphere prevailed in works that relentlessly presented us with barriers and unsurpassable frontiers.”
Beyond the biennial sphere, Erdemci also worked in institutional settings. She briefly directed Proje 4L, collector Can Elgiz’s Istanbul private museum, leading it from 2003 to 2004, and served as a curator at Istanbul Modern for a year after that. From 2008 to 2012, she was the director of the Amsterdam-based SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain. In 2020, she was named the director of KØS, a museum in Køge, Denmark, whose focus is art in public spaces.
Erdemci’s career was characterized by a genuine belief that art could trigger profound change.
“As I see it, art can open up a space for a transformative experience and has the capacity to foster the construction of new subjectivities, symbolized by the barbarian,” she told Ibraaz, speaking of her 2013 Istanbul Biennial. “Art can create a reflective experience appealing to our emotional intellect. It encourages us to halt and think about what we really need now in the midst of such turmoil (with increasing state violence, detentions and arrests) and other powerful transformations.”