Turkey’s emerging artists dwell in dystopia

The Mamut Art Project, an annual platform for young artists, reflects the new generation’s concerns on immigration, gay rights and the destruction of nature in the country.

al-monitor Barbaros Kayan's "Moving Portraits," displayed at the Mamut Art Project in Istanbul, highlights the plight of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, April 3, 2019. Photo by Nazlan Ertan/Al-Monitor.

Apr 5, 2019

Severed body parts in fluffy textiles, flashing sentences from a paragraph of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” that explains how you can scare people into submission, and glossy photos of a young man in 3D goggles running along the torrid landscape of a post-apocalyptic world greet the audiences at the maze-like exhibition space in the heart of Istanbul. Clearly, the emerging talents selected in the 2019 edition of the Mamut Art Project are mostly a grim bunch who are inspired by dystopian literature, regional strife and Ahmed Saadawi’s award-winning novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad.”

“Yes, some of the works are pessimistic,” agreed Seren Ojalvo-Oner, director of the Mamut Art Project, as she tours the exhibition with a group of journalists. “But there is also a lot of irony, a lot of experimentation with forms and strong undertexts,” she told Al-Monitor.

Since 2013, the Mamut Art Project has provided a platform for Turkey’s emerging talents such as graffitist Nconen and performance artist Leman Sevda Daricioglu, among many others. While connecting the new generation of artists with galleries, collectors and the public, the five-day exhibition casts light on the inspirations, trends and concerns of Turkey’s troubled young artists who are often squeezed between economic hardship and censorious state.

Unsurprisingly, the works of the 50 artists displayed in the 7th edition mostly reflect the grim agenda of the country: immigration, alienated identity, destruction of the environment, sexual harassment and growing authoritarianism.

But references to Turkey’s volatile politics is implicit rather than head-on. “Given that we are living at a time of elections and harsh political debates, it is noteworthy that none of the artists touch [politics] directly,” Kultigin Kagan Akbulut, an art and culture columnist at online newspaper Duvar, told Al-Monitor.

Some of the works, nevertheless, are strong in their defense of gay rights, refugees or cultural diversity. Multimedia artist Barbaros Kayan’s “Moving Portraits,” two-layered collages of the photos he has taken between the years 2016-2018, highlight the present surroundings and the uncertain future of Syrian refugees. The photos show the silhouettes of the refugees in the camps in Turkey, but the forms of their bodies are replaced with the destroyed landscape of their hometowns which they hope to return to. In one of them, a lone figure stands between white, washed-out tents; when you look at the second photograph placed within the form you see a destroyed house with a huge hole where the figure's heart should be.

“I wanted to tell the story of the refugees in a simple way,” Kayan said in an email message to Al-Monitor. The message is clear that when the refugees return — if they return at all — it will be to a ravaged homeland.

Just across, Hasan Mert Oz’s two large photos and one short video point out that the future of the world at large may not be any brighter. Oz’s video, called “The Son of Noah,” shows a young man wearing 3D goggles and torn underwear in a torrid landscape. “The idea is the total destruction of nature and our inability to do anything,” the artist told Artful Living in an interview before the exhibition. Oz says his next project, unsurprisingly, is a dystopia on Turkey. “Imagine Turkey where all intellectuals are killed," he said in the same interview.

Hasan Mert Oz's "Son of Noah" shows a post-apocalyptic world. (photo by Emir Uzun)

Ekin Keser, a 26-year-old video artist and gay activist, challenges the “teacher’s oath” — a statement that each teacher makes at graduation from teacher’s school. “Instead of protecting the … values of the Turkish republic, … I pledge to protect diversity and respect for different systems of values,” Keser, dressed in cap and gown, says in his video art called “Teacher’s Oath.” He completes the oath with the words, “I swear on my honor and on my gay pride.”

Sex and social media are addressed by Yesim Uzunoz, who has compiled the Facebook messages she has received from strangers into three notebooks: yellow (neutral), pink (romantic) and red (aggressively sexual). The public can read through the messages, which range from lonely and desperate to offensive and misogynist. “You are beautiful,” begins one message and — after a few more demands for conversation — ends with, “You’d have talked to me if I told you I was rich, wouldn’t you, whore?”

Yesim Uzunoz's "Mesaj" highlights different messages, from lonely to aggressive, on social media. (photo by Emir Uzun)

“I have compiled these to cast a light on society how those messages are written in a tone that we would never use face-to-face,” Uzunoz explained in the preview of the show. “Many women on social media receive the same sort of messages; I think many people who glance through those will recognize the words, the implications.”

"We tried to give a selection of different formats, different outlooks and different subjects," said Tuba Kocakaya, the art director of the project.

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