Making Art 10 Years After Turkey’s Gezi Protests

ISTANBUL — In the summer of 2013, composer and sound artist Erdem Helvacıoğlu spent weeks making audio recordings of the anti-government demonstrations then sweeping his home country of Turkey. Edited into a one-hour piece that plays in a pitch-dark room, the sound builds cinematically from hushed conversations to the roar of a chanting crowd. When police moved in to disperse the protesters with tear gas, Helvacıoğlu’s own ragged breathing and violent coughs audibly conveyed the turn of events.

“It’s a very intimate but also monumental work,” Helvacıoğlu told Hyperallergic. His installation “The Sounds of Resistance” is included in a biennial program this month that attempts to grapple with the protests’ legacy. It is being held at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, a city where many artists from Turkey have settled in the years since. “There’s never been another event that inspired me to be right in the middle of things for such a long time and to create such a long sound piece,” Helvacıoğlu said.

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A decade since the Gezi protests, which started as an attempt to protect a park in central Istanbul and quickly spread across Turkey, the demonstrations remain an emotional touchstone for their participants — and a useful political bogeyman for the leader they challenged, recently re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Eight activists, artists, and members of civil society are currently serving long prison sentences for their alleged roles in the demonstrations after what was widely seen as politically motivated trials.

Photos of the Gezi protests in 2013 by members of the NarPhotos collective, part of the This Is Only The Beginning (2013) archive

Gezi – 10 Years After, curated by Shermin Langhoff with co-curator Erden Kosova and assistant curator Nele Lindemann, is part of the 6th Berliner Herbstsalon (Berlin Autumn Salon), up through June 25. The artworks included span both the protests and their aftermath. Helvacıoğlu’s sound piece has a visual counterpart in This Is Only The Beginning (2013), an archive of images taken during the demonstrations by the collective NarPhotos and the photographer Ulaş Yunus Tosun. Painter Timur Çelik’s wall installation “Painting the Decade” (2011–2023) depicts scenes of struggle and oppression in Turkey over the last ten years. And a caricature exhibition highlights one of the hallmarks of the Gezi protests: humor, demonstrated in graffiti, signs, political cartoons, and memes. 

“I was 41 when the protests broke out, and I was used to this very sober, angry, virile kind of radical politics in Turkey,” Kosova told Hyperallergic. “The politicization of the new generation [at Gezi] was much more playful, fed by humor, by social media, by the aesthetics and language of the queer and feminist movements.”

Like the Occupy movement that started in the United States and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, Gezi is an example of how “political performativity has changed,” according to Işıl Eğrıkavuk, a Berlin-based Turkish artist and academic whose research focuses on dialogue-based community art practices.

Artist Timur Çelik’s wall installation “Painting the Decade” (2011–2023)

“At Gezi, people were distributing food, cooking together, painting together, singing together, reading together — all these kinds of collaborative acts I had been studying,” said Eğrıkavuk. But just as important as Gezi’s creative potential was its brutal end: a harsh police crackdown and subsequent society-wide silencing of opposition voices. 

“Post-Gezi was a very isolating time. It was hard to speak publicly, even in the digital public space,” Eğrıkavuk told Hyperallergic. Her recent research looks at how artists in Turkey have responded to that in part by forming collectives — “not because they had similar interests artistically, but as a way to support each other emotionally.”

Other artists left Turkey altogether, along with academics, journalists, and activists who were targeted or marginalized in the post-Gezi period. Many have settled in Berlin, among them journalist Can Dündar, who has been sentenced in absentia to more than 27 years in prison. For Gezi – 10 Years After, Dündar curated an installation that includes courtroom sketches from post-Gezi trials, a virtual-reality experience of a prison cell, and the “Museum of Small Things,” a display of 12 everyday items — such as a candle, a safety razor, and a paper airplane — paired with videos probing the meaning that political prisoners found in these scant belongings allowed to them behind bars.

Can Dündar’s “Museum of Small Things” video installation (2023)

“It’s important to note that we are looking at Gezi from Berlin; we can’t do this kind of thing in Turkey now,” said Kosova. After Gezi, he says art institutions in Istanbul shied away from collaborating with him due to his outspoken political views; the lack of work opportunities eventually led him to migrate to Germany.

Though Berlin has offered artists from Turkey more creative freedoms, the state of living in exile creates its own “invisible barbed wires,” Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan noted. Previously imprisoned on the basis of one of her paintings, she is curating a Resistance Radio program series as part of Gezi – 10 Years After, which also includes panels, workshops, theatrical performances, concerts, and film screenings.

“It’s hard for a refugee artist in Europe to be recognized, and not exoticized, in such a white art environment,” said Doğan, who now splits her time between Europe and Iraqi Kurdistan. “If I could live in my own country, I could work on the subjects that are in line with my curiosity — women’s issues, body issues, ecological issues — rather than having my artistic expression defined by what has happened to me.”

Can Dündar’s “Silivri. Prison of Thought” (2022), a replica of a cell at the high-security Silivri prison in Turkey

Organizers of Gezi – 10 Years After are trying to build bridges with other diaspora communities in order to learn from each other about how to engage most effectively with the issues in their home countries, according to academic Şirin Fulya Erensoy, who co-curated the program of documentaries on political protests around the globe.

“It’s not just nostalgia but also a way to remember the importance of collective action, the struggles that happened before Gezi and continue today, like the LGBTQI+ movement and the Kurdish movement,” Erensoy told Hyperallergic. “Gezi was a magic moment of solidarity, and after the last 10 years when there has been so much polarization, going back to that moment when we were all together is very powerful.”

Political cartoons from the Gezi era


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