Controversial Banksy exhibition resulted in a Banksy-esque intervention

An old saying goes “As of weather, Istanbul is like a cocotte, you look at it, it is closed, and the next moment it flashes open.” The morning which coincided with the beginning of February was a blissful witness: After two rainy days of bone-chilling humid murkiness, the city woke up to a 13°C sunny daytime.

It was perfect weather for making an “uncommissioned” graffiti, but not the perfect place. The street artist was walking the streets of Karaköy, a neighborhood of Istanbul on the shore of Golden Horn, the once-a-river extension of the sea of the Bosphorus Strait. You can sit on the benches along the coast and above the shoulders of fishermen watch the Topkapı Palace of the Ottomans, Hagia Sophia of the Byzantines and the rest of the Historical Peninsula, the cliché but still impressive silhouette of Istanbul. Once the commercial heart of the cosmopolitan imperial capital and then mostly abandoned to small workshops and artisans residing in astonishing neoclassical buildings, Karaköy has been the site of a rapid gentrification the last three years, becoming a hipsterland full of fancy coffee shops, fine dining restaurants, and galleries. The street artist was heading to one of these, a gallery that has opened only a few weeks ago. Once he laid eyes on the wall across the gallery and conceived it a perfect spot, he knew that he had to be cautious and fast — just a few blocks away was the police station, with cops frequently patrolling the cobblestone side-streets full of surveillance cameras.

He managed to complete the work without getting caught. It was a depiction of Sümeyye Erdoğan, the daughter of Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, on her knees, praying. It was an unorthodox expression on her face, not a sanctimonious serenity, but a grin, giving away a not-so-repressed foul savoring with whatever idea was crossing her mind at that moment. It was the nine photocopied 100-liras banknotes floating above her appealing open palms that brought out that twisted smile. Next to her was written “Sümeyye bunu beğendi”, the Turkish version of the Facebook motto, “Sümeyye liked this”.

It was not the content of the graffiti, the daughter of the president, but the objective which made it intriguing. The graffiti was a protest of a Banksy exhibition at the gallery across the street. But the artist was thinking that “Banksy”, not as the artist but as the idea, was there alive in his still wet stencil. He was challenging a Banksy exhibition, putting himself in the place of Banksy, defending the artist and the soul of street art.

***

Banu is working as editor for a city culture magazine covering all the events across Istanbul. On October 10, one e-mail among dozens she received daily from PR agencies caught her attention immediately: “Art Show Banksy in Istanbul in November”. In spite of the typical boring and badly-written sentences like “it will be a very enjoying art project for the art lovers of Istanbul”, it was a big deal. It was Banksy. Below the dull text of the press release, with a different font, was a two sentence invitation to Banu for an early interview with the curator, Steve Lazarides, an English art gallery owner who was once Banksy’s agent — on one occasion, he allowed himself to get caught by the police in lieu of the artist.

Four days later, Banu met him. It was a general talk about Banksy, street art, Istanbul art scene etc. She finished typing and editing the interview, ready to publish, and saved it waiting for the announcement of the opening day of the exhibition. On November 19, she received another e-mail from the same PR agency. There was a new press release on an attached Word file, which, among the always-looking-the-same marketing sentences, revealed that the opening was postponed a month, dated for December 22.

At the beginning of December, she published a short news about the details of the exhibition on the website: “Art Show Banksy” was to be opened at this new gallery, “Global Karaköy”, on December 22 and the other trivia. As the press release said nothing about the price, she assumed that the entrance would be free, as is the general rule for similar exhibitions in Istanbul galleries. The same day, the office phone rang. It was from the PR agency. The woman on the other end told her if they could delete the information about the exhibition being “free of charge”: “We have not spoken yet about the price”, she said, “it is not certain”. It was annoying. How come you are not sure about the entrance fee of an important exhibition that is to be opened in three weeks?

Then came a more annoying moment. Several days later, the PR agency notified that the exhibition was postponed again, for January. The exhibition was to be the first of a new gallery, and they said the construction did not finish yet. Eventually, Banu killed the short news on the site and forgot about it.

Now, a side note. February and March 2011, several Turkish journalists were arrested under the accusation of a “coup plot” against the Islamist government of Erdoğan. As a small group of journalists, we have founded a closed mail group, organizing a campaign for the release of our colleagues. It was a successful campaign with demonstrations where thousands marched, memos to the foreign press and journalism organizations revealing the political nature of the case, putting pressure on the government. (The journalists were released after one to two years and the government now blames the Gülen movement, an Islamic sect that was in a tacit alliance with Erdoğan until 2013. Now they have become enemies and the ruling party is calling the mentioned case they were backing forcefully a few years ago as “an unjust, politically motivated one” trying to put all the sin on the shoulders of their ex-political partners.) Our mail group soon reached hundreds of journalists. Three months ago, at the end of November 2015, two journalists were arrested — this time, because they have reported about trucks full of weapons which belonged to the Turkish intelligence, headed for Syria. (They are still under arrest, the prosecutor demanded life sentences for both.) It was time to reactivate the group and start a new campaign after four years. Discussing what we can do via mails, I recognized the intimidating number of people who have quit journalism — some retired, some opened shops or restaurants, but the majority started working for PR agencies. If you are aware that journalism is living through a bad period, well, it is a terrible period for journalists in Turkey.

Banu was no exception. After she lost her job as editor for the culture desk of a daily newspaper when the paper sacked dozens, stopped publishing on the paper and going online, she worked for a PR agency for a while. She knew how it worked. “After all those postponements, I did not believe that there would actually be a Banksy exhibition. They had run a horrible communication.”

However, Banu was proven wrong. On January 8 came the new press release, announcing the opening for January 13. The name was changed to “The Art of Banksy”. The exhibition would present 85 works of Banksy, collected from dozens of owners throughout the world and united with the personal collection of Steve Lazarides. The Istanbul exhibition was the “world premiere”, it was planned to continue in different countries. It would be open until the end of February.

This time, the major newspapers also announced it. The news of an upcoming comprehensive Banksy exhibition created an excitement which was shared outside of the usual suspects of the arts milieu. Turkish youth, especially university students, have been keenly interested in Banksy — much more after the Gezi protests. In May 2013, bulldozers entered the Gezi Park near Taksim Square, the political and cultural center of the 15-million metropol and started to demolish the trees. The plan was to destroy the park and the adjacent cultural center, replacing them with shopping malls. It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back — the first group of activists, a few dozens, who managed to avert the bulldozers from demolishing the trees were soon joined by tens of thousands. After fierce clashes, the demonstrators succeeded in repelling the police forces, occupying the square and the park. The government continued to attack for three weeks, which triggered protests all throughout Turkey. Millions of people were on the streets for weeks, protesting not only the urban transformation plans but all the repressive Islamist policies of the government. During those glorious weeks of rebellion, it was almost impossible to find a wall around Taksim Square without graffiti, a stencil, or posters. Street art exploded in a very politicized way. The political style of Banksy’s street art was now something very familiar, reminding the youth about the insurrection. The interest and sympathy for the work of Banksy was no surprise.

However, watchful eyes that did not confine themselves to the superficial and short news but checked the details caught a couple of points that would hinder this excitement. First was the problem of the price. The entrance fee for the exhibition was set to 35 liras, approximately $13. It was not only unusual for this kind of an exhibition not to be free of charge, but the price was also outrageously high. The biggest private contemporary art museum, in Turkey, Istanbul costs just $8 for adults and $5 for students, to see several different exhibitions at once. To pay that much to see art that was created in the streets, ostensibly for the common people who wandered those streets, was thought to be outrageous. On Ekşisözlük, the most popular Turkish social media site which is kind of a mixture of Reddit and Urban Dictionary, one user left a biting comment under “Banksy”: “He is such a street artist that you have to give 35 liras to see his exhibition. Oh such a street artist, honey.” The anger was directed towards Banksy himself.

The second distracting point was the sponsors. The main sponsor was a big financial corporation: Global Investment Holding (GIH), a major player in the government-sanctioned privatization of ports and harbors. The company is also known for its eagerness to get its slice from the big cake of urban transformation: Construction is a leading sector for Turkish economy, and thanks to the colossal urban transformation policy of the government, companies made huge profits from the gentrification of historical centers or working-class neighborhoods. GIH was part of a consortium which participated in the bid for building a new luxury cruise port in Karaköy and reconstructing the surrounding neighborhood. Another consortium won the bid, but there was much uproar against the plan, criticisers saying it would destroy the historical fabric of Istanbul. Currently, the court has halted the process on the appeal of the Chamber of Architects and City Planners. The gallery was located in the newly restored headquarters of the company. Apart from GIH, the exhibition was supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (yes, in Turkey, they belong to the same ministry, which beautifully reveals how the government sees culture) and the local municipality, both of which are controlled by Erdoğan’s party.

Thus, even before the exhibition started, hints of displeasure could be sensed in the air. Occasionally, certain people who are closely engaged with the cultural scene of Istanbul were posting messages of disapproval on the social media: The attempt itself to exhibit street art inside the walls of an art gallery was questioned. The price was another issue. Some were pointing at the discrepancy between the philosophy behind the works of Banksy and the sponsorship of a financial corporation such as GIH. Other more radicals were involving the support of the Ministry and the Municipality, defending that the smallest link with Erdoğan’s ruling party was a blemish for any cultural work or event.

It is hard to deem this hard-line opposition to Erdoğan and his government groundless. Since they have won the elections in 2002 and become the government, Erdoğan&Co. has been applying an ever increasing oppression on the art scene. The instances now are enough to fill an oeuvre. Renowned pianist and composer Fazıl Say has been a permanent target, including a conviction for blasphemy. The “Monument to Humanity” by sculpture Mehmet Aksoy, devoted to the friendship between Turkish and Armenian people and built close to the border between the two countries was called a “monstrosity” by Erdoğan and demolished, and Aksoy risks over four years in prison on charges of insulting the president. “The Soft Machine” by William S. Burroughs was censored for obscenity and the publisher and the translator were charged by the prosecutor, facing up to nine years of prison. Erdoğan threatened the theaters with cutting the state support after his daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan, said that she was insulted by an actor.

***

On the 13th of January, Banu was searching the location for this to-be-opened-today gallery to attend the opening of the exhibition “The Art of Banksy”. While she was wandering through the streets, she saw a group of people. Scrutinizing the pompous women and overly fancy men, she concluded that the crowd was too weird for the opening of an art exhibition and opened her GPS to check the address. It turned out that the crowd was indeed gathered in front of the Banksy exhibition.

“Once inside, it was even weirder. There was this woman with a headscarf next to Steve Lazarides, surrounded by men in black with huge bodies -obviously bodyguards- and cameramen. They were in front of everybody, the rest of us were following them. At one point the woman turned a little bit, I could see her face, and recognized her: It was Sümeyye Erdoğan.”

Sümeyye Erdoğan and curator Steve Lazarides at the opening of “The Art of Banksy” world premiere in Istanbul.

It was a most unexpected thing. Not only because Sümeyye Erdoğan was a totally unexpected visitor for the opening party of any art exhibition but also because it was not any exhibition, but an exhibition of Banksy, a world-famous artist who advocated political messages fundamentally different than those of Erdoğan.

Banu continued to tell the scene: “Then I noticed another weirdness. There was no wine or any other alcoholic beverage served, which is totally unexpected for opening parties. But as soon as Sümeyye Erdoğan left the gallery, waiters entered with trays full of drinks.” A sickening sycophancy. With the daughter of “the Sultan” around, even having the option of an alcoholic beverage seemed out of line for the organizers. It was a telling case about how the ruling Islamist political discourse works outside of the sphere of legislation, in the daily flow of life.

Next day, the mainstream newspapers dedicated lengthy articles for the opening party. Sümeyye Erdoğan’s participation was covering almost more space than Banksy himself. She reportedly said “I liked it. I attach much value to the fact that Banksy transmits the voice of the people through art.” It triggered an uproar on social media. The attendance of the daughter of Erdoğan was the last piece of irony for the already questionable Banksy exhibition. Some of the reaction was aimed at Banksy himself, once again — but this was proved to be totally wrong.

The same day, Ayşegül Sönmez, founder of the culture news website Sanatatak, asked the question to Steve Lazarides that until that day not a single major newspaper had thought to ask: Was Banksy himself aware of the exhibition? Lazarides explained that Banksy had to do nothing with the organization in any sense: “We have not seen each other for a decade. He does not know about this exhibition. And have not given permission or anything. But I do not have to get permission from Banksy in any way.” (On the FAQ page of the official website of Banksy, it explicitly states: “Banksy is NOT on Facebook, Twitter or represented by Steve Lazarides or any other commercial gallery.”) Sönmez also asked Lazarides about the criticism considering the sponsors. “I understand them [the critics]” he said, “but it is impossible to organize an exhibition without a sponsor. It does not matter in today’s world if the sponsor is a financial corporation. I understand the criticism, but sometimes, it is what it is. You have to acknowledge the situation.” Her report was immediately copied in all the mainstream news websites. The comically bad-organized exhibition was becoming a farce.

***

17 days later, the 1st of February, street artist İzinsiz, Turkish for “unauthorized”, made the stencil depicting Sümeyye Erdoğan praying for money on the wall across the gallery. He shared a photo on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. It went viral in a couple of hours. Five hours later, the stencil was covered with red spray. Some people claimed on the social media that it was the employees of the gallery who covered it using the sprays that were on sale at the “shopping part” inside the gallery, but the claims went unconfirmed. Maybe the claim was purely made up, just because the idea of the utilization of graffiti sprays, put on sale by the gallery as the obvious object of graffiti art, would be used in practice to cover a graffiti of protest would be the perfect completion of the irony of the whole story.

“The work of Banksy is fundamentally opposed to the very existence of this exhibition,” İzinsiz told me via e-mail, “for three main reasons: They attempted to imprison street art, a free and independent form of art produced directly for the common people on the streets inside walls. They attempted to commercialize street art and make profit with an extortionately high price. And lastly, they got the backing of capitalists and state institutions for this.”

İzinsiz was meticulous about anonymity. Understandably so, because Erdoğan’s family has become kind of an untouchable dynasty. Last week a guy posted an impression video of President Erdoğan mocking him, which resulted in a case of defamation the very next day. The artist only hinted his age — he is probably in his late 20s or early 30. “I belong to the last generation lucky enough to have spent their childhood on the streets” he said, referring to the “devastating” effect of gentrification and urban transformation.

Throughout this whole controversial process of the exhibition of “The Art of Banksy”, the only missing part was a reaction from Banksy himself. But the intervention of İzinsiz was the perfect substitute for it. “I do not know about Banksy himself, but his idea was present. I tried to represent this idea.”

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