The installations formed part of a recent art exhibit in
Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, that the organisers hoped would
uplift a region crushed by years of debilitating strife. Instead, the show came
under furious attack from Turks and Kurds alike, and the government closed it
down early — a reminder of how toxic the subject of the Kurds remains in
“As a Kurdish artist, I wanted the audience to see and
confront the harsh facts,” said Ahmet Gunestekin, the artist at the centre of
the uproar. “I wanted visitors to come face to face with the tragedy of the
people of this region.”
The fighting between Turkish government forces and Kurdish
separatists reached Diyarbakir in 2015, leaving the warren of narrow streets in
its historic old district of Sur in ruins. Since then, the city has lived under
tight police control as the Turkish authorities threw local Kurdish politicians
and activists into prison.
The city’s chamber of commerce, which organised the
exhibition, had hoped it would give Diyarbakir a much-needed boost by
attracting visitors and filling hotels. The organisers chose Gunestekin because
he was internationally known and because his body of work honours the country’s
Kurdish minority. Also in his favour: He had long been supported by people
close to Turkey’s governing party.
The show — “Memory Chamber,” a combination of painting,
textiles and sculpture — included political art and video installations that
recalled the suffering of the Kurds and other minorities throughout decades of
oppression under Turkish rule.
The uproar over it was less about the quality of the art and more
a reflection of how polarised Turkey has become under President Recep Tayyip
When he first came to power nearly two decades ago, Erdogan
quietly encouraged more cultural freedoms for Kurds, especially in media and
publishing, and in 2013, he supported a peace process with Kurdish separatist
rebels. But since 2015, when the peace process broke down, he has presided over
the bombardment of Kurdish cities and a ruthless crackdown on Kurdish
politicians and activists.
The response to the art show, which opened in October, was
bigger than expected in many ways — a celebrity-filled opening, large crowds
and full hotels. But it also brought a storm of criticism from all directions,
including from Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister.
He said the exhibit expressed sympathy for terrorists, a term
the government increasingly uses to describe its political opponents. And he
suggested that Gunestekin had been used.
“This is the first time I’m witnessing terror use art,” Soylu
Gunestekin counts among his friends former ministers and
advisers of Erdogan’s. That cachet, along with his commercial and financial
success, has allowed him to dare to go where other Kurdish artists cannot.
But this was not the first time he had met with censure, and
he took the backlash mostly in stride.
Much of Gunestekin’s artwork reflects his personal story, but
he has increasingly turned to creating starkly political pieces.
Gunestekin grew up in the nearby town of Batman and later in Diyarbakir,
brought up by an Armenian stepgrandmother who was an orphan of the genocide. He
said he was influenced by the multiethnic craftsmen in his childhood neighbourhood,
by years of roaming Kurdish villages and listening to storytellers, and by his
mentor, Turkish literary giant Yasar Kemal.
Two events were dominant in his mind in preparing for the
recent show, he said. The first was the killing of 34 Kurds in 2011 when
Turkish military jets bombed a group of smugglers crossing the border from Iraq
near the village of Roboski. The other was fighting between Kurdish rebels and
Turkish government forces in the old district of Diyarbakir in 2015.
A wall of street signs records the names of victims who
disappeared or whose deaths were never investigated. Another installation was
made from debris retrieved from the rubble of destroyed homes in that old
district, spray-painted gray and mounted on a wall.
Video installations explored the loss of the Kurdish language,
which Turkey banned for many years. In one, actors pronounce Kurdish letters
that have no equivalent in the Turkish alphabet. In another, two men beat the
letters written in chalk on a blackboard with leather straps until they
Gunestekin is not the only contemporary artist to grapple with
these themes, but his exhibition was by far the largest and most prominent in
Diyarbakir in the history of the conflict.
Such conflict at the heart of the art show has stretched for
more than three decades and left an estimated 40,000 dead, most of them Kurds.
It pitted the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against the Turkish
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, a legal
political party that shares much of the PKK’s political platform, is regularly
accused of terrorism for its ties to the militants, and the Turkish authorities
have removed many of its elected representatives from their positions and
imprisoned them, along with dozens of journalists and activists.
A recent political shift in Turkey was evident at the opening
of the exhibit. An alliance of Turkish opposition parties, formed about three
years ago to oust Erdogan, has been cooperating with the HDP with the aim of
combining their voting power ahead of elections in 2023.
The most notable guests at the opening were opposition
figures, including Ekrem Imamoglu, mayor of Istanbul and a presidential
hopeful, and Mithat Sancar, a leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP.
Government officials stayed away.
Young Kurds demonstrated their displeasure by hurling one of
the metal coffins from the battlements, apparently to protest that the
exhibition did not go far enough to recognise all of those who lost their
But the greatest storm swirled on social media, where
Gunestekin engages readily on Instagram with his 1 million followers.
Socialites were criticised for posing for selfies in front of monuments to
suffering, as were guests who danced at a reception.
For some, Gunestekin represents what they dislike about
Erdogan’s rule — the enrichment of people with party connections.
Mounting such a show would have been impossible for most
Kurdish artists, a local artist said. Many in Turkey have been imprisoned for
making political comments.
The work of local Kurdish contemporary artists is much more
guarded, a sign of the self-censorship that most artists have been forced into.
Some local townspeople said they had no need for a “Memory
Chamber” because they were still experiencing oppression by the Turkish
“We have lived what he tries to say,” said Nusret, 30, a
barber, who gave only his first name for fear of repercussions from the
government. “Our pain did not pass yet. What is the point of reinforcing our
But at the same time, there was no doubting the enthusiasm of
many who visited the exhibition over the two months it was open, with lines
forming on the weekends.
“I walked around with a lump in my throat,” said Pinar Celik,
38, a teacher from Ankara. “This is an artist who grew up in our culture and
brought us face to face with issues that we were trying to cover up or forget.”
Many said they did not fully understand the work, but they
recognised the Kurdish imagery and the traditional use of bright colours.
On the battlements, a Kurdish woman, Yildiz Dag, looked out
over the multicoloured coffins and uttered a single word: “Oppression.”
“We are saddened to see them,” she said. “But it is good to
show this, so it does not happen again.”
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