Boğaziçi University's resistance through art

At a time when repression makes street protests nearly impossible in Turkey, it is heartening to see students of Istanbul's prestigious public university Boğaziçi finding creative ways to further their cause while creating beauty in the process. Unfortunately, those who are anxious to crush dissent often turn against art as well.

Young people gather on the grass under beautiful nineteenth-century stone buildings. The cold winter air blows off the Bosphorus, just a stone’s throw away, as oil tankers slush silently down the strait. Yet there’s a festival air. People are admiring artworks hanging from trees and stairs or displayed from easels, listening to a choral performance, painting each other’s faces, and dressing up in masks and bright colors. 
 
The scene sounds idyllic, but it comes from one of Turkey’s most intense protests of recent years. On Jan. 4, the protests kicked off when hundreds of students gathered at Istanbul’s prestigious public university Boğaziçi to protest the appointment of a new rector. Mr. Bulu, a former AKP parliamentary candidate, was appointed directly to his new post by Turkey’s president. While Boğaziçi has been run since 2016 by an unelected rector, students and the university faculty see Bulu’s appointment as an even more pernicious threat to academic freedom. Bulu is not a Boğaziçi professor (and has been accused of plagiarizing large sections of his master’s thesis) and the fear for many is that his appointment represents the final stage in the ruling party’s plan to bring Boğaziçi to heel, sacrificing educational quality to cronyism.
 
Three weeks ago I wrote about the witty spirit exhibited by the Boğaziçi students. (I must admit that I have taught part-time literature classes there, so I have been lucky enough to witness first-hand the brilliance of the students at Boğaziçi and I may be admittedly biased on this issue.) As they faced police barricades, tear gas, police violence, and middle-of-the-night raids on their homes, the students protested peacefully and using copious jokes, memes, pranks, and songs. 
 
Now as we reach the end of January, the movement at Boğaziçi continues to evolve. The professors have instituted a daily vigil, come sun or snow, in which they don their academic regalia and turn their back on the rector’s building in protest. Meanwhile, the students continue to sharpen their wits. 
 
The most interesting development out of this movement is the way the students are mobilizing art. The scene I painted at the beginning of this column occurred earlier this week. After making a call for artists to support the protests with original work, a collective calling itself BOUN Sanat Direnişi (Boğaziçi Art Resistance) successfully collected 400 pieces from 150 different artists. These came from Boğaziçi students, alumni, students at other schools, and supporters from as far afield as Australia. They included painting, illustrations, sculptures, performances, comics, and more. On January 22 the Art Resistance collective gathered up the artworks that they could physically collect and displayed them across Boğaziçi’s beautiful South Campus. The day began with a festive march down to the main quad, after which students and professors wandered the open-air gallery. The day was capped off with various performances, a workshop on gender inequality in short stories, and a DJ set. There was also a frisby event titled, cheekily, “You’re flying, Melih.” 
 
Because of COVID-19 restrictions that keep anyone who is not a student or employee of Boğaziçi off the campus, not to mention the intense police presence in the area, the collective designed the exhibit from the start to be both physical and digital. The Instagram account @bounsergi offers photographs and videos showing many of the submissions. My understanding is that a more formal digital gallery is also in the works.  
 
Most of the works are from Boğaziçi students. Meryem Aydın submitted a piece titled “Self Sculptures.” The digital photographs show the artist’s face and shoulders painted with many of the words that have been thrown around since the beginning of the protests: handcuffs, terrorist, democracy, academia, struggle, appointee. Mehmet Galip Salt’s work “Umbridge” is an analog photograph of Boğaziçi’s entrance with acrylic paint used on top. The black paint hovers in menacing swirls above the letters of sign spelling out Boğaziçi, as if reminding the viewer that this site has been forever marred by violence against students. 
 
A more tongue-in-cheek piece featured on BOUNsergi’s Instagram page is a cartoon-like illustration with the words “Boğaziçi wants a rector who listens to dreampop.” This is a reference to Bulu’s recent comment that he is a fan of Metallica, which led to a number of humorous memes and performances on the part of the students. This piece seems to imagine what it would be like to have a rector who does not try to be relatable by referring to what was in vogue when he was a PhD student on campus in the 1990s, but rather tries to understand the tastes and preferences of students today.
 
Perhaps the most powerful piece among the artworks submitted is an engraving by Gamze Merve Çukurcu. Her “Nesneler” (Objects) shows police lined up in perfectly symmetrical rows while abstract lines and boxes with hard angles spread out around them. In her artist’s statement, she discusses the relationship between power, institutional structures, and systematicity. The work attempts to show how social order, architecture, and geometry can work in tandem. The piece brings to mind Theodor Adorno, the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher who famously detected fascism even in the design of modern window handles and other everyday objects.           
 
There are also submissions from across the world. Some of the most moving pieces are from alumni, such as Mr. Rıza Oğuz Bozkurt who graduated from Boğaziçi in 1967 when it was still Robert College. Another piece comes from a former art teacher at the university.  
 
At a time when repression makes street protests nearly impossible, it is heartening to see students finding creative ways to further their cause while creating beauty in the process. Unfortunately, those who are anxious to crush dissent often turn against art as well. On the night of Jan. 22, the collective organizing the exhibition decided to leave 5 works up for the rector to enjoy. These works have since disappeared. Some students suspect the undercover police of confiscating them. Students are now demanding that Melih Bulu return their art.  
 

February 14, 2021 Take me to the moon!