The art world has turned its gaze on Turkey and its vibrant contemporary cultural scene. As Istanbul is crowned this year's European Capital of Culture, Sotheby's is holding a sale of Turkish contemporary art and European collectors are flocking to discover some of the local talent.
'Unleashed: Contemporary Art From Turkey' aims to document this scene. The third in a series of books to explore and map out the current art movements emerging from the Middle East and the Arab world, it features a series of profiles and interviews with over 100 key artists, curators and art supporters within the country.
'Turkey is undergoing almost a cultural explosion,' notes Maryam Eisler, London-based art collector and executive editor of Unleashed. The country's contemporary art scene has been shaped by its volatile geographical location - at the crossroads of east and west. At the heart of this artistic renaissance is Istanbul. Although the capital, Ankara, and other major cities like Izmir and Diyarbakir also have a vibrant art scene - each with their own regional accents - Istanbul is the public face of a country eager to define itself as a liberal Muslim democracy facing Europe.
The vibrant city boasts around 250 mostly privately owned galleries, a huge expansion from just a handful a decade ago. Most of the artists represented by these galleries and captured in Unleashed are responding to Turkey's current social and political tension. There is also a strong dialogue emerging between the local artists and the Turkish diaspora. Berna Tuglular, a contributor to the book, notes that in general the new breed make few references to Turkey's past, be it the Ottoman Empire that ruled over the region for centuries, or indeed its rich visual history and calligraphy.
Instead artists featured, such as Taner Ceylan, are creating highly provocative homoerotic photorealist paintings, while others, like Hale Tenger, deal with issues of immigration. 'There is no censorship in Turkey,' says Eisler bluntly, interesting given the country's current struggles with social liberalism, globalisation, potential entry into the European Union and the rise of Islamic ideology. Not to mention the historical battle it faces with cultural chauvinism and a reluctance to fully listen to regional voices, be they Kurdish or Armenian.
Just recently, one of Ceylan's videos installations was projected at a gallery behind one of Istanbul's main mosques. The only time he was asked to halt the show was during Friday prayer. 'This could not have happened even five years ago,' she notes.
Turkey sits under the watchful eye of its neighbouring Iran, where censorship is supreme. 'We know Iran is there, but almost ignore it,' jokes Tuglular. She says Turkey struggles with similar religious conflicts to Iran, yet so far its regime has been able to ward off extremists from taking cultural control.
'The issues addressed in Turkey's contemporary art movement have a direct link to the concerns of modernisation faced by all non-secular Islamic societies,' says Hossein Amirsadeghi, the brainchild of Unleashed and the two other books 'Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art' and 'New Vision: Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century'. Amirsadeghi notes that in countries like Turkey, art can often be a powerful catalyst for change, the 'blind hand' that guides society. 'Art', he concludes, 'plays an important role in the transformation of culture.'
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