Turkish culture reaching out to the world as country gains prominence

RUMEYSA KIGER / HAT?CE AHSEN UTKU
?STANBUL

Turkish culture reaching out to the world as country gains  prominence - It is a fact that Turkish artists have been making their  voices heard internationally more than ever in the past decade with  international achievements in almost all branches of art, from  filmmaking to fine arts, music and literature.

It is a fact that Turkish artists have been making their voices heard internationally more than ever in the past decade with international achievements in almost all branches of art, from filmmaking to fine arts, music and literature. 
Turkey’s cultural life has been getting more global coverage, especially in the past decade, after spectacular achievements not only in the cultural sphere — such as Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel prize win and international awards won by Turkish filmmakers including Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ye?im Ustao?lu and more recently Semih Kaplano?lu, among others — but also in the economic and political spheres, which have helped Turkey become more self-confident.
Of course, the liveliness in the cultural field in Turkey is not one-sided; more and more world-class artists have been visiting Turkish cities, particularly metropolises, for international events such as festivals of music, film and theater; major exhibitions such as biennials and traveling art exhibitions; and literature programs. On top of all this, ?stanbul is one of the three European Capitals of Culture in 2010, and this title brought along with it hundreds of art events related to the project.
The reasons behind the lively atmosphere that’s been surrounding Turkish culture — with all its elements, from movies to performing arts and from music to fine arts — are assorted. The inevitable effects of globalization, a more stable economy in the country, a slight but steady increase in democracy and freedom of speech and artworks increasingly touching upon political and social matters, the list goes on and on. Visual artist Ferhat Özgür says this did not happen overnight. “Everything is the result of cultural, social and political changes. Starting from the second half of the 1990s, Turkey has experienced rapid globalization. Turkey hosted many exhibitions by international artists. … Lecturers at fine arts faculties updated their curricula and aimed at teaching the new trends in the world to their students,” he says during an interview with Sunday’s Zaman.
Sabiha Kurtulmu?, the manager of ?stanbul’s Merkür Gallery, draws attention to the recent economic changes and says that the changes in the financial world following 2007 directed Europe and the US to new explorations in the art world as well. “Art from the Middle East started to stand out as a result of this new demand, and Turkish art also experienced acceleration in this regard,” she explains.
Mixed reception

Asked whether this was a new trend that would vanish eventually, artist Can Erta? from the Sanatorium Civil Art Initiative says it is not a temporary situation. “Even though some dynamics, such as the ?stanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture project give the idea that it might be temporary, the situation will have permanent effects. ?stanbul 2010 affected people positively, both in terms of motivation and economic reasons. It gave self-confidence and energy to the people. [All of the] movements taking root in this energy and financing may not be sustainable in the future, but I believe that everybody will develop their own solutions to problems. It is not right to call this situation a trend that will pass. People were moved by all this and were energized, and I believe there will be permanent effects,” he elaborates.
Kurtulmu?, on a similar note, says it will take time for this atmosphere to settle down. “It is still very new. It might fluctuate in the immediate future. The Turkish economy is being restructured, and art is very much related to economy,” she highlights.
Painter Burcu Perçin, on the other hand, thinks that the demand for art from audiences did not increase as much as the number of art events. So, she notes, this might indeed be a temporary trend. “I am worried that a small minority will take art under their patronage and transform it into a tool for financial investment. In this snapshot, art will gradually turn into a means of entertainment that will eventually disappear,” she says.
About the demand for Turkish artists’ work in the international arena, Kurtulmu? says Turkish artists produce works that draw upon — thus that are of interest to — both the East and the West. “It always used to be like this. Turkish artists’ works were rejected by Westerners because they were very much like the works of their Western counterparts. Now, because of economic reasons, they are interested in works similar to theirs. The new aim is to create a new market and catch the attention of Turkish collectors,” she points out.
According to Özgür, this demand is related to the potential for contemporary art production in Turkey and the networks people build. “There are numerous Turkish artists whose works are featured in high profile exhibitions abroad. Of course, the quality of a work is the most important criterion, but another very important thing is [artist] networks. A contemporary artist has to build a system of relations in order to prove that he or she exists rather than just producing works. This might be wrong or hard to do, but the fact is, you have to have networks,” he explains.
Perçin says she expects Westerners’ interest in Turkish art will increase in the following years in a way similar to the increased attention to Chinese, Indian and Persian art.
Erta?, on the other had, says artists do not just sit and wait for state scholarships or funds to be able to take part in an international art event because now there are more private institutions supporting art than there were before. “Through artist in residence programs, artists can make themselves known internationally. In the past we used to merely create art, but now we can also export what we create,” he explains.
While the rising international popularity of Turkish culture is received with a certain “cautious optimism” in the world of fine arts, developments in the literature scene deserve a more solid position: at least, figures prove that the number of Turkish writers being translated into other languages has been on a constant rise for the past five years, especially following Pamuk’s Nobel win in 2006. Apart from the emergence in the recent years of literary agencies — which have been greatly instrumental in securing international copyright sales for Turkish writers — a literary translation subvention project overseen by the Culture and Tourism Ministry and running since 2005 has also been and continues to be effective in making Turkish literature gain renown outside Turkey’s borders. But this was not a one-sided development, either; numerous literature and poetry festivals that were introduced in the past decade, particularly in ?stanbul, which is the heart of Turkey’s publishing industry, have offered unequaled opportunities for Turkish bookworms to meet some of their favorite authors in book signing and book recital events. The most recent effort in this sphere, the Tanp?nar Literature Festival, for instance, is gearing up to unroll its second edition just next week. “European Literature Goes to Turkey, Turkish Literature Goes to Europe,” another noteworthy project that served as a bridge between Turkish and European authors and their readers, wrapped up earlier this year. Thanks to the Goethe Institut, the 14-month traveling project brought 48 authors from eight European countries to meet book lovers in 24 provinces around Turkey.
Among foreign artists who travel to Turkey, the majority are, of course, musicians, taking part in a wide range of events, from music festivals in various genres to concert series sponsored by corporate firms, to special concerts organized by cultural centers and foundations around Turkey.
Starting from scratch

One major group that has long been organizing an annual cultural event is the ?zmir Foundation for Culture Art and Education (?KSEV), whose ?zmir International Festival and ?zmir European Jazz Festival have been running for the past 24 and 17 years, respectively. However, ?zmir citizens’ interest in cultural events is quite high, whereas foreign artists’ interest in ?zmir required a bit of encouragement from organizers.
“These festivals have offered ?zmir major art events,” Sirel Ek?i, ?KSEV’s public relations specialist, told Sunday’s Zaman. “Our foundation has provided a great expectation by hosting international artists, and it has kept this expectation alive by better targeting each year. ?zmir people are very interested in these events, and we can say that the rate of admission in cultural events is higher than in many other [Turkish] cities.”
Nevertheless, it has not been easy to reach that point. “Twenty-four years ago, at the first ?zmir festival, we had to transport a limousine from ?stanbul for Ray Charles,” recalls Ek?i. “But today, there are people attending festivals not only from ?zmir but also from other countries. A great number of audiences from Greece and the Greek islands have been attending the annual Turkish-Greek art festival for the past 10 years. Opera societies are coming from England on private airplanes for operatic events held at the ancient theater of Ephesus. And of course, classical music concerts [in the ?zmir festival] are indispensable for tourists visiting ?zmir.”
Yet, the fact that many cities and institutions in Turkey, even those in ?stanbul, have started everything from scratch should not be ignored. If there’s a slightly increasing international interest today, if not at the desired level, this is the result of — somewhat belated — efforts for many years. “In order for people to demand something, they have to be informed about it,” says Y?lmaz Büyüker?en, the mayor of the central Anatolian city of Eski?ehir. “The excuse that people are not demanding cultural events could only be a justification for lazy people.”
In this respect, Büyüker?en explains how they have constructed a city of culture, which has recently been the topic of a BBC documentary. “All human beings have an aspect that is eager to be refined. If there wasn’t, our civilization wouldn’t have invented areas of art. So, even if there weren’t any such expectation in Eski?ehir, there was a certain social foundation [of curiosity for cultural events]. We didn’t take any risks when we first started, but we paid for it. And we received a great reward in the end.”
Yet, “the biggest difficulty we faced was that there was no infrastructure,” Büyüker?en notes, recalling the difficulties of turning this Anatolian city into a city of culture. “There were no event halls. There were no regular artists. The budget was so small. After we opened new halls and formed a young team, we didn’t have many difficulties left. The halls started to fill to capacity. Later on, people from the neighboring cities started attending events in our city too.”
“It is not only a matter of paying money and bringing in artists,” indicates Ahmet Erdönmez, one of the founding members of the Bursa Foundation for Culture, Art and Tourism (BKSTV) and the director of the Bursa City Museum, explaining the difficulties they had in the first years of the city’s annual International Music Festival, which marked its 46th edition this summer. “They [artists] didn’t even know where Bursa was. We had to introduce ourselves, and we became known in just three or four years.” Opening up to the worldThe common trait shared by all major Turkish cities is that they all plan in the long term to become cultural hubs — both locally and internationally. “?zmir is the window of Turkey opening to the West,” says Ek?i. “We would definitely like to see more cultural activities in ?zmir, but this is not to say that the city is completely devoid of important international artists.”
“Our primary target is to enrich and diversify art activities in Eski?ehir,” notes Mayor Büyüker?en. “We have plans to open new museums and increase the number of art exhibitions we hold in the city. And certainly we’re drawing larger masses each year. Our municipal theater and symphony orchestra perform not only in various provinces in Turkey but also in international centers such as the Greek islands, St. Petersburg, Tunisia and Kazan, the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan. However, our international activities have not yet reached the desired level. Currently, we find it hard to even afford transportation costs for such activities. Still, we are able to carry out some international projects. If we can find sponsors, we have a theater project to introduce Yunus Emre to the world.”
“Our objective in the long term is opening Bursa up to the world,” says Erdönmez. “We are thinking of how we can make our festival one of the most important music events in the world. This is crucial for Bursa to become an international landmark.”
“Last year when Loreena McKennitt came to Bursa, she was deeply impressed by the [traditional shadow puppet show] Karagöz and Hacivat,” says Erdönmez. “And when she returned home, she dedicated a part of her new album to Karagöz and Hacivat. This is a good example of the reflections of our city’s culture in other countries.”
“Most of the foreign artists who come here don’t know anything about ?zmir on their first visit,” notes Ek?i. “But after they come, they can never forget ?zmir, and they recommend it to their friends. The contentment of the artist is related to the success of the organization. And since ?KSEV’s [festival] has been cited globally as one of the most significant international festivals thanks to its success, we have no difficulty in inviting international guests. What’s more, we get to choose among many artists who want to attend.”


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