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  • Oct 24, 2017

Right-wing Attacks on Koç Collection Exhibition

Images posted to social-media of RON MUECK‘s sculpture Man Under Cardigan (1998) in the fireplace of the Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (left), in the Üsküdar neighborhood of Istanbul’s Asian side, and photographs of security guards restraining protesters who attacked the sculpture (right). Images via T24, Diken.

On October 21, a group of men raided the Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district to protest an exhibition of contemporary art from businessman Ömer Koç’s collection. The group had been incensed by images of the hyperrealistic sculpture, Man Under Cardigan (1998), by Australian artist Ron Mueck, which depicts a cowering naked figure hiding under a wool garment.

In the exhibition, titled “Doors Open to Those Who Knock” and curated by Melih Fereli and Karoly Aliotti, the sculpture was placed inside a fireplace decorated with İznik tiles—which protesters had mistaken for either a mihrab, the semicircular niche in a mosque that faces Mecca, or a minbar, the pulpit in a mosque where the imam delivers a sermon.

The group was protesters was purportedly led by Mahmut Alan, a former head of the right-wing nationalist Great Union Party (BBP) from Bolu province. Alan claimed he picked up the sculpture and threw it several meters. One security guard was assaulted by the group before others intervened and removed the men. The protesters continued to shout slogans: “Is this secularism?” “This country has come to this because of you!” “You can’t show this here!”

Visitors to the exhibition reportedly applauded the expulsion of the men, chanting, “If you don’t want to see this, don’t come here!” Alan was taken by the police, and later released. A second attack was attempted the following day, but was quickly suppressed by security guards.

Ironically, Alan later made a 15-minute Facebook Live post in which he repeatedly holds up his phone to the camera to show close-ups that he had taken of the figure’s genitals while ranting about how offended he was by the artwork’s nudity. Earlier on Facebook, Alan had declared that the artwork was a sign of the country’s impotency due to the influence of Jews, whom he called the number one enemy of Islam—mixing the anti-Semitism, nationalism and religiosity that fuels much of the right-wing discourse in Turkey today.

A statement by Koç Holdings said, “Trying to create a perception that sacred values are being targeted with this exhibition has no basis,” and “Koç Holding has utmost respect to freedom of beliefs and the divinity of all beliefs.” The statement also noted that the building has always been a private residence, not a religious building, and that the fireplace faces southwest, not the direction of the Kaaba, in Mecca, which is toward the southeast from Istanbul. Nevertheless, Islamist newspapers continue to circulate images of the fireplace in the hunting lodge, claiming that it is mihrab, in a spurious campaign against the Koç family and its companies, which is the largest conglomerate in Turkey. One of these propaganda outlets also suggested the Istanbul Biennial itself—whose primary funder is Koç Holdings—should also be a target of attack.

Along with misrecognizing the structure under which the figure was placed, the angered Islamists seem to have no historical knowledge about Abdülmecid II (1868–1944) himself, and his own relationship to art, as many social media users immediately noted. Though Abdülmecid II was only caliph for 15 months, between November 1922 and March 1924, before the caliphate was abolished by the national assembly of the newly formed Republic of Turkey, Abdülmecid II was a painter. He is known for his figurative depictions of women, including of his first wife Şehsuvar Hanım reading Goethe's Faust, and for scenes of the Ottoman harem in Topkapı Palace—which includes depictions of nudity. In 2013, a 1899 painting by Abdülmecid II, titled Women in the Courtyard, sold at an Istanbul auction for TRY 1.6 million (then approximately USD 800,000). The canvas depicts semi-nude women and eunuchs around a pool. Despite the complexities of Ottoman history, it is now routinely the case in Turkey that conservative politicians and nationalist-religious activists portray the Ottoman Empire and its leaders as a hardline regime of conservative Sunni-Turkic rule, which they aim to reintroduce into the country.

The provocations against the Koç Collection exhibition “Doors Open to Those Who Knock” is just the latest incident in which right-wing nationalists have targeted contemporary art events. On November 3, 2016, members of the Erbakan Foundation raided the Contemporary Istanbul art fair to demand the removal of a sculpture by Ali Elmacı that depicted Sultan Abdulhamid II in a comic fashion, painted onto the sculpture of a two-headed woman wearing a bikini. Previously, art galleries in Istanbul have also been subjected to raids by conservative groups angered by the mingling of men and women, consumption of alcohol, as well as the content of artworks.

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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