Should the Art World Boycott Turkey?

Artists, curators and gallerists may not be able to stop war, but we can tell those who rake its profits that the arts are not open for their business

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Burak Kara 

A group of 280 leading scholars, writers and artists – including Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky – have signed a petition calling for a boycott on Turkish government-backed cultural institutions, funding and sponsorships following Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria, after US troops were abruptly withdrawn from the region on 21 October. This builds on calls in 2016 to boycott institutions in response to the Turkish state’s escalated repression of Kurdish politicians and civilians, as well as Turkish academics who urged peace. But it is also a new demand in direct response to Turkey’s recent attacks in Syria, which have displaced the local Kurdish population and endangered their autonomous region of Rojava – a confederation formed in 2012 that international scholars have lauded as a radical social experiment in democratic governance.

Cultural activity has always been entangled, whether antagonistically or conspiratorially, with the nation state. Campaigns calling for the cultural boycott of South Africa from the 1960s to the 1990s raised global awareness of racist Apartheid. Modelled on the South Africa campaign, the Palestinian BDS movement to boycott Israeli goods and cultural products began in 2005 and its activities – including calling on international stars to cancel performances – directed press and public attention to the plight of Palestinians.

Kurdish YPG Fighters, 2016. Courtesy: Creative Commons 

On the other hand, cultural initiatives can also be used to whitewash a multitude of sins. Hakan Sandal, who researches Kurdish queer movements at the University of Cambridge, links the offensive in northern Syria to a long history of repression. By ‘blurring and manipulating the truth’, Sandal tells me, Turkish state-led cultural initiatives distract from this violence. ‘In pursuit of justice for the Kurds, being aware of the intention behind [state-led] cultural efforts and boycotting Turkish state-sponsored events are political acts of solidarity.’

As necessary as it is for international galleries and artists to withdraw their participation from cultural events to protest unethical situations, solidarity also requires a long view. The cross-border reach of today’s art world is due, in no small part, to its transnational sources of funding, which are diverse – and often lethal. ‘The ability of cultural boycotts to draw attention to the close ties between the state and those corporations complicit in war is extremely valuable,’ believes a Turkey-born, Amsterdam-based artist who wished to remain anonymous. ‘We must think more inter-connectedly. The international participants of this boycott must also hold their own governments to account; this is why actions like [Hito] Steyerl’s, for instance, are so important.’ 

Noam Chomsky, 2018. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

On 26 October in Berlin, in a protest performance, Steyerl called on German institutions to stop exhibiting her art under the banner of cultural diplomacy. ‘I am sick of my work being deployed to detract attention from the German state’s tacit agreement with displacement, ethnic cleansing and warfare,’ she said. Germany sold US$277 million worth of weapons to Turkey in the first eight months of 2019 alone. Any cultural boycott of Turkey from the international art world must be accompanied by rejecting, as Steyerl highlighted, any association with the global arms industry.

International cultural institutions can look into the companies, organizations and individuals that sponsor exhibitions and festivals in Turkey for any direct or indirect links to arms manufacturing, technology and logistical services. Conglomerates are so named for a reason: it’s hard to trace the many sectors within which they operate. But the arms trade and all of its peripheral industries are relatively visible within the cultural sector, both in Turkey and beyond. For example, the Istanbul Biennial’s sponsor, Koç Holding, well known in Turkey as a patron of the arts, also owns Otokar, which produces tanks and armoured vehicles for the Turkish military. 

Kurdish YPG Fighters, 2016. Courtesy: Creative Commons 

Meanwhile, the official carrier of Turkey’s largest international art fair, Contemporary Istanbul, is Turkish Airlines, whose subsidiary, Turkish Technic, repairs military aircraft. When such economic ties come under scrutiny, they are often revealed by knee-jerk defences; the chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, Ali Güreli, recently called on fair visitors and press not to fall for ‘fabricated news’ about the Turkish offensive in an email that read like a vindication of state policies.

Jala Wahid, a London-based artist of Kurdish heritage, underlines the economic factor as an impactful approach for the international art world: ‘Boycotting government-funded cultural institutions is crucial to disrupting Turkey’s economy, but it’s imperative the boycott extends to tourism, which the Turkish economy is growing increasingly dependent on.’ This is especially important considering that blocking all art initiatives coming out of a multi-ethnic Turkey, in an incomplete understanding of circumstances on the ground, can do unintended harm. ‘Western actors participating in the boycott should foreground voices from within the geographies affected by this war,’ the anonymous Amsterdam-based artist proposes. ‘It’s of vital importance that those Kurdish and Turkish artists and activists who remain in Turkey and continue to openly resist the state against all odds do not also have to suffer international isolation.’

Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, film still. Courtesy: the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, film still. Courtesy: the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

It is through this interpenetrating perspective that cultural boycotts must be executed if they are to be truly impactful. And they can be: if the international art world thinks systemically and acts together across multiple levels – from background-checking the firms sponsoring their events and supporting dissenting regional artists to refusing their custom to those with vested interests in militarism – they can disrupt artwashing. ‘An organized boycott sends a strong message to the Turkish government, to its collaborators, to the public and to people fighting for democracy,’ Sandal believes. ‘A message that not only demands justice, but also actively enforces it.’ Artists, curators, fair programmers and gallerists may not be able to stop war, but they can tell those who rake its profits that the arts are not open for their business.

Sarah Jilani is a freelance culture writer who has been published in The Economist, Aesthetica Magazine and Times Literary Supplement. She is a PhD candidate in postcolonial literatures at The University of Cambridge.

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