Brutal Attack During Gallery Openings
By Duygu Demir
On the evening of September 21, four art galleries in Tophane, an Istanbul neighborhood that lies between the busy pedestrian avenue of İstiklal in the cultural Beyoğlu district and the port area of Karaköy, organized simultaneous openings to welcome the autumn art season. All four galleries—Outlet Istanbul, Galeri Non, Elipsis and the two-venue Pi Artworks— are participants in Tophane Art Walk, a bi-monthly collaborative event that promotes contemporary art in the area.
It began as a typical crowded, social affair, with the art audience spilling out of the spaces to smoke, drink and chat with friends on the stretch of sidewalk between the galleries. At around 8:30 pm, several men approached the edge of the crowd outside of Galeri Non and told the bystanders to leave. Their requests were ignored. Shortly after this initial verbal confrontation, a group of 40 to 50 people armed with batons, broken bottles, frozen oranges and pepper spray accosted the crowd. Panic ensued, quickly spreading to the other galleries and eventually culminating outside Outlet. Five people were seriously injured in the melee and taken to area hospitals. More severe outcomes were prevented by gallery staff, who pushed as many of their guests as possible inside their spaces and pulled down protective steel shutters.
The local press leaped on the story, and the following day’s headlines were filled with varying speculation about the evening’s shocking chain of events. Some initial reports called it a minor sidewalk dispute over crowds disrupting pedestrian traffic, while others chose to characterize Tophane as a community with a large and established observant Muslim population deeply disturbed by the public alcohol consumption associated with art-gallery culture. Still others claimed that gallerygoers verbally assaulted headscarf-clad women earlier in the evening, incensing young men in the neighborhood as word spread.
Hours later, a unified press statement was issued, signed by “Tophane galleries, artists and art audience” and claiming that “we have witnessed for a time now the actions of a certain group to disrupt the openings, exhibitions and events of art galleries in Tophane and to create an atmosphere of intimidation. Galleries, artists and guests have been frequently harassed and threatened. We know that these actions are carried out by a group organized via certain websites and around certain localities in the neighborhood.”
Tophane is an area undergoing rapid urban transformation. An underdeveloped and affordable neighborhood until about two years ago, meeting houses for immigrants from poorer eastern Turkey cities such as Siirt and Erzurum continue to testify to the area’s traditionally working-class makeup. According to statements from local shopkeepers, Tophane has long been a peaceful place to live.
On the other hand, vocal discomfort on neighborhood-website forums suggest that many inhabitants are displeased with the district’s current influx of restaurants, hostels and galleries, and threatened by the perceived effects of urban renewal upon the cost of living in the area. “Tophane residents feel anxious about their future ability to stay in the neighborhood,” stated Erhan Demirdizen, former chairman of Istanbul’s Chamber for City Planners, to the Hürriyet Daily News on September 23. In a television interview, Osman Kavala, the chairman of the board of directors of thecivil and cultural initiative Anadolu Kültür, an organization dedicated to promoting ties between Turkey’s cosmopolitan, urban elite and its religious, rural conservatives, claimed that smaller incidents had taken place before, but that they had been mutually resolved with nonconfrontational dialogue.
In the media, the fact that these galleries serve alcohol soon became a symbol of escalating political and religious tensions. Some have reasoned that anxiety has risen through recent polarization among the Turkish population following a September 12 referendum vote in which a package of constitutional changes passed with 58 percent approval. These changes, touted as a step toward European-style democratization, quickly aggravated existing social divisions between secular Kemalists and more religious Islamists or, more broadly stated, between groups that embrace different lifestyles. Such an analysis, however, would be a simplification.
Seven people suspected to be involved in the attacks were taken into custody on September 22, but all were released soon after. On Thursday, the Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertuğrul Günay visited Tophane, condemning an event that has proved deeply embarrassing for Istanbul, especially during the year that the city has been honored as the “Cultural Capital of Europe.” Günay stressed that physical violence, whatever its motivation, will not be tolerated, and assured the community that he would lead a serious investigation into the organizers and perpetrators of this attack.
Galeri Non and Outlet have repaired cosmetic damage to the exteriors of their spaces and reopened their doors to the public, stating that they are as much a part of Tophane as anybody else. Other Tophane gallery owners have reported that locals are stopping by to express solidarity, even if they are not entering the spaces or taking a look at the exhibitions inside. A section of the co-authored statement reads that “we always had a strong bond of communication with all our neighbors, with children, parents and other commercial enterprises.” Nevertheless, it is evident that more effective communication has to be mutually initiated.
Most of all, it is important that the galleries acknowledge their role as agents of gentrification. In the absence of a clearly articulated state cultural policy or of well-planned urbanization projects in densely populated areas of dramatically different faiths and levels of education and income, these galleries have a crucial role to play in Turkish culture, and a great responsibility to it, as the country evolves.