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  • Nov 04, 2016

Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair Raided By Islamist Group

ALI ELMACI’s sculpture I Can’t Reciprocate Your Feelings Osman III (2016), which an Islamist group protested during the opening day of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair. Under pressure from the group about his satirical depiction of Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II, the artist had the work removed.

On the evening of November 3, the 11th edition of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair at the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center was stormed by an Islamist group angered by the depiction of the late Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid II, in an artwork by Ali Elmacı at the booth of Chilean gallery Isabel Croxatto. The group demanded the removal of the artwork, and after a heated confrontation, the artist complied and took his sculpture out of the gallery booth. Contemporary Istanbul released a statement on Thursday night, saying the work would return and remain on view for the duration of the fair, which runs through Sunday night.

Elmacı’s sculpture I Can’t Reciprocate Your Feelings Osman III (2016) is a wooden female figure—with two heads, one of them with a knife in her teeth—wearing a bikini and standing on top of a coffee table. Her legs are painted with roses and on her abdomen is a bust of a man wearing a leopard-print fez emerging from behind rose bushes. Abdulhamid II is depicted with his tongue out, touching his nose.

Ayşegül Sönmez, on her blog Sanat Atak (“Art Attack”), chronicled the events. A group of about 20 men, who claimed to be members of the Islamic-nationalist Erbakan Foundation, confronted the artist about his depiction of the sultan. Security and the police were called. Apparently this caused a wave of panic among fair-goers and gallerists. The group grew angry, and according to the artist, he removed his sculpture in order not to further escalate events. Contemporary Istanbul chairman Ali Güreli returned the sculpture to the booth later and said in a statement the artwork would remain on view until the closing of the fair.

The Erbakan Foundation is named for the former prime minister of Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan (1926–2011), whose fusion of nationalism and Islam produced an ideology known as “Millî Görüş” (“National Vision”) that has inspired several generations of Islamist politicians, including members of the current ruling party. The members who raided Contemporary Istanbul took a group photograph of themselves waving flags outside of the convention center. None of the assailants were arrested.

Members of the Erbakan Foundation outside the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center before they raided Contemporary Istanbul art fair on the evening November 3 to object to the depiction of Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II. They circulated the image on social media under the hashtag #AbdülhamidHanaSaygısızlıkYapma.

As the rule of law has eroded dramatically in Turkey in the last two years, and particularly after the attempted military coup on July 15 when a state of emergency was declared, Islamist groups and individuals have felt increasingly emboldened to commit violent acts in public. In September, a man kicked a woman in the face on an Istanbul bus because she was wearing shorts that he didn’t find appropriate. Police arrested him and released him without charges, twice.

The attack on Contemporary Istanbul incident comes just a month after an Istanbul art gallery opening in the Tophane neighborhood was attacked by conservative neighbors who apparently objected to the consumption of alcohol and the mixing of men and women in a social environment. Art galleries in parts of the Beyoğlu district, especially around the Tophane neighborhood, have been threatened and assaulted multiple times since 2010 when three gallery openings were raided.

UPDATE: November 4
On Friday, facing threats and harrassment, Elmacı decided not to exhibit his sculpture at the fair again. Members of the Erbakan Foundation announced that they would continue to attack any artworks they don't approve of.

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HG Master is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific. 

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