Between two worlds


20 Sep 2014

For anyone in the art world, one of the places to be this month is Istanbul, which is fast becoming a major art centre. The second Art International festival (26–28 September) will attract 80 galleries from 24 countries as far-flung as Finland and Saudi Arabia and will include international heavyweights such as Lisson Gallery and Lehmann Maupin as well as local galleries.

This is a city in which you can cross the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, in a country which borders some of the most troubled places on earth, and as you’d expect, many of the works offer a powerful commentary on the situation in the Middle East. Dyala Nusseibeh, the festival director, says: ‘It’s uplifting that a number of galleries are showing artists from the region.’ There are works by Wael Shawky, Steve Sabella, Ghada Amer, Walid Siti, Susan Hefuna, Ahmad Morshedloo and Ahmed Mater, to name a few. ‘It’s a reminder of the cultural depth of the Middle East despite the challenges for the region,’ Nusseibeh continues.

Hani Zurob, ‘Excuse me Lucian Freud, This is the Painters’ Room’, 2014
Hani Zurob, ‘Excuse me Lucian Freud, This is the Painters’ Room’, 2014

Also in town this autumn is the Moving Museum, which opened in August and continues until the end of October. This is an international art organisation that for three months brings 36 international artists together with 12 Turkish artists in an ambitious programme of residencies, workshops and talks. It concludes with a  large, Biennale-style exhibition that opens in October.

Visitors will also be able to take advantage of the many shows in local spaces. Salt, one of the most important locations, features the Turkish conceptual artist Ismail Saray. In the city’s commercial galleries, which have mushroomed from a handful to well over 100 in the past five years, there are several standout shows. At Galerist, the young Turkish hyper-realist painter Rasim Aksan tackles the culture of the selfie; the London-based Rana Begum’s colour-rich abstract sculptures fill Galeri Mana; the critically acclaimed Rodeo stages a two-man show of paintings by the Greek artist Eftihis Patsourakis alongside light works by the Greek designer Michael Anastassiades; at Galeri Tankut Aykut, the Turkish artist Lara Ogel explores in multimedia the relationship between memory and objects.

Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul
Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul

Galeri Mana, which opened in 2011 in a vast converted wheat mill in Tophane, is a good example of the kind of regeneration that makes Istanbul such an exciting city to explore. Istanbul Modern, now in its tenth year, was created in an old warehouse in the docks. And Soho House opens next year in the old American Consulate in Beyoglu.

All this new creative and commercial energy has led to a good degree of media hype, exemplified by a New York Times article on ‘The Istanbul Art Boom Bubble’. Does the hype stand up? Certainly Istanbul has everything it takes to become a major international cultural centre: an incredibly rich cultural history, an extraordinary geographical location and serious wealth. According to Forbes, it has the fifth highest number of billionaires of any city in the world.

Two artists during their performance in the 13th Istanbul Biennial, 2013
Two artists during their performance in the 13th Istanbul Biennial, 2013

The reality is more nuanced. The commercial art world, predicated on growth, is always identifying new El Dorados: Russia, China and the Gulf have not quite lived up to inflated expectations. For all Istanbul’s wealth, the number of serious local collectors is relatively small, and they have historically spent more abroad with the top auction houses and galleries. Speak to local art dealers and it’s clear that they are working hard, both to sell to existing collectors and cultivate new ones. It’s not a gold rush yet.

At Istanbul Modern, now in its tenth year, you can see ‘Yolda’ (translated as ‘On The Road’), a powerful exhibition of photographs by the Nar collective, focusing on aspects of Turkish life that are sometimes hidden from view, from rapid urbanisation and the damage done to communities left behind, through the problems of refugees from Turkey’s borders, to the suppression of the Gezi Park protests.

Istanbul’s growth as an art centre has not been unproblematic. The cosmopolitan, liberal, intellectual cultural elite comes up against the strengthening tide of religious and nationalist conservatism in Turkish society. At its most extreme this has led to some attacks on galleries, but it has also engendered a sense of purpose in the art community, born of opposition, that is now alien to most western artists. There is another conflict in Istanbul’s art scene, between the need to welcome a global market and the need to protect the tradition of Turkish art. But of course, it is all of these tensions that make Istanbul’s growing cultural scene so compelling.
The Moving Museum (
Art International (
Istanbul Modern (