“Kostantiniyye” Sculpture Removed in Istanbul
By HG Masters
In the latest public dispute over an artwork in Turkey, a sculpture by Ahmet Güneştekin of the word “Kostantiniyye” was removed from outside an Istanbul shopping mall following angry reactions stoked online and threats of violence from a small group of protesters. The work is made of large block letters, some covered in vertical bands of smaller laser-cut symbols. It had been installed in front of the A Plus mall in Ataköy, near Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, on December 22, where the artist was having a private exhibition of the works acquired by the shopping mall’s owner Nihat Delibalta. An opening took place at 6pm, on what was the artist’s 50th birthday. By 11pm, a small crowd of approximately ten people angered by the Ottoman-era name for the city had gathered outside the mall. Unable or unwilling protect the sculpture and exhibition, officials from the local municipality covered the outdoor work to appease the Islamist protesters. The work was removed from outside the mall on December 24.
The incident has spawned days of television, newspaper and social-media discussion in Turkey, where the country’s history is subject to much debate and frequently distorted by religious and nationalist agendas. “Kostantiniyye” was one of the Turkish-language names for the city used during the Ottoman Empire since was captured from its Byzantine rulers in 1453. Only in the 1930s, after the Turkish language reforms of 1928, did the government of Turkey exclusively use the Turkish name for the city. The name “Istanbul,” however, is also derived from the Greek phrase “eis tin polin,” meaning “into the city.” Güneştekin’s exhibition at the A Plus mall was entitled “Journey to the Eternal” and made reference to the city’s many layers of history, including a sculpture called Million Stone (2015) that specifically refers to a fragment of the 4th century CE Byzantine archway through which all roads entered the city.
The protest of Güneştekin’s work was incited on social-media by Alper Tan, the head of a small pro-government television station, Kanal A. He tweeted on the evening of December 22: “In front of the A Plus mall in Ataköy KOSTANTİYYE [sic] was written in big letters. What does it mean at a time when society’s sensitivities are so high?” The subtext of Alp’s tweet refers to the government propaganda being circulated by compliant media outlets like Kanal A that the many recent incidents of terrorism have been orchestrated by the government’s rival factions backed by western countries that are supposedly also trying to destabilize Turkey. An Islamist television network Akit TV covered the protests outside the mall, further fanning the outrage. Yet Güneştekin’s opening had also been attended by a member of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Mehmet Emin Ekmen, representing the southeastern Kurdish-majority city of Batman where Güneştekin was born. The MP had posed with the artist and had posted pictures of the sculptures on Twitter with accompanying praise for the artist and without any objections.
Societal tensions are running high in Turkey, following a suicide attack by Kurdish militants on police in central Istanbul on December 10, the assassination of the Russian ambassador by a police officer at a photo exhibit in Ankara on December 19, and the deaths of more than 15 Turkish soldiers in Syria in a battle with ISIS fighters for the town of al-Bab. In recent years, Islamist groups have been increasingly emboldened to threaten cultural events, such as the mob that stormed the Contemporary Istanbul art fair in November, demanding the removal of a sculpture by Ali Elmacı featuring the face of a late Ottoman sultan painted on the sculpture of a woman wearing a bikini. Güneştekin, who is Kurdish, told the Kurdish-media outlet Rudaw, “Some extremist people protested against me and the sculpture, saying that ‘here is Istanbul, not Byzantium’ and they wanted to lynch me and my art,” he said. “Istanbul was called Kostantiniyye from 1453 to 1930. Clearly, those who protested do not know the history.”
H.G. Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.
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