Berlin-based artist calls for resilience in corona times

Turkey’s creative sector has been stifled by limitations on free speech and faltering finances. COVID-19 made it significantly worse, particularly with a harsh winter on the way.

A first look at some of Anke Eilergerhard’s cake-like works might lead the spectators to think they are watching a homage to the fluffy, rose-tinted and sugar-coated. At closer inspection, however, the thorns on the structures and the irony around the names kick in. The Berlin-based artist’s show at the heart of Istanbul is called “Resilience” - a homage to the survival of artists in particular and people in general to rise again after a crisis, including the pandemic.

“Resilience stands for the resurrection power of artists to rise again after every crisis. My exhibition here at the Anna Laudel Gallery is also a statement against the destructive power of the pandemic and an appeal to people to stand up again in these difficult times,” Eilergerhard told Duvar English in a written interview. It also extends a message of hope, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, “Besides all the very negative effects the pandemic has caused, it has shown us that the value of our lives depends on many small details that are taken for granted. Let us look closely, listen closely, taste closely, smell closely, and appreciate the little things,” says Eilergerhard. 

The sculptures, produced with a unique silicone material called pigmented polyorganosiloxan and porcelain, bring together everyday objects – cups and saucers with floral designs, golden-tipped sugar pots and cream puffs of silicon. “Polyorganosiloxan is the perfect plastic for me …because I can create very fragile-looking, tumbling and balancing works of art that are nevertheless very robust and resistant - against shocks, heat, light, and cold,” explains the artist. She might as well add that resistance should be in the toolkit of artists who have to endure cold shoulders, heated competition and now, the shock of the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced museums and art galleries – not to mention concert halls and theaters- to remain closed for a good part of 2020. For some, this was a final nail on the coffin. A report from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm, warned that 13% of museums around the world might never reopen.

Censorship and jail

The show at Anna Laudel Gallery opens at a time when the pandemic and its economic impacts require Turkey’s artists to be extra-resilient. But even before Covid-19 put its grim tone in 2020, Turkey’s creative sector has been under the shadow of a faltering economy and attacks on the freedom of expression for the last decade. Attempts to stifle artists’ expression of dissent through art was stepped up after the 2016 coup attempt. Statues in public places and galleries have taken a severe blow, both from censorious authorities and vandals who have hastened to destroy what they found “indecent.” Zehra Doğan, a Turkish-Kurdish journalist, was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail for drawing the 2015 leveling by Turkish security forces of Nusaybin, a town in southeastern Turkey. She was released Feb. 2019 after serving her sentence. Shortly after her release, one of her works – an installation depicting Nusaybin and Diyarbakir – was displayed at the Tate Modern. “It is a great honor, but an artist naturally wants to be able to display her works in her own land,” she told Euronews.

Outspoken musicians- from rapper Ezhel to  Zuhal Olcay, best described as Turkey’s Catherine Deneuve – came under fire for their lyrics. But the biggest victim of efforts to curb freedom of expression in 2020 proved to be Grup Yorum, a left-wing folk music collective. Two of its members, Helin Bölek and Ibrahim Gokcek, died this year while on a hunger strike to protest the government’s ban on their performances, constant raids to a cultural center where they gathered and court charges that linked them to a terrorist group. In August, members of the band were detained once more but released earlier this week.

Freemuse, an international non-governmental organization advocating for freedom of artistic expression and cultural diversity, ranks Turkey third in the world in terms of how many artists it imprisoned -  higher than Egypt (6), China (5) and Russia (4). “Throughout 2019, Freemuse documented 33 cases of artistic freedom violations in Turkey. This includes four detentions, three imprisonments and seven prosecutions. The Turkish government was the main violator of artistic freedom and primarily executed the violations under the rationales of counterterrorism and protecting the state,” its 2020 report says.

More hardships with COVID-19

COVID-19 pandemic further tested the resilience of the sector. Though the government initially pledged to help cultural institutions, the creative sector says the promise is largely unfulfilled. Many museums and galleries, forced to close in mid-March, have moved their activities online and some have reopened their doors in the summer. Many find it difficult to get back on their feet, particularly if there is a second wave.

“The already vulnerable situation of the [creative sector] due to its reliance on limited resources demands the urgent support of national and local governments, private sector actors, and individual donors in cooperation with the civil society,” says “The Uniting Power of Arts and Needs of the Cultural Field During the Pandemic, a policy paper penned by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). The paper says that there were 15,394 enterprises active in the cultural industry in 2017, whichgenerated 52,080 jobs, with a turnover of  TL14.6 billion and a value-added of  TL3.6 billion. “These figures attest to the pressing need for targeted measures not only for preserving the contribution of the cultural field to the national economy but also for the sustainability of the cultural field for both individuals and society,” it warns.

Private theaters, which have long been at odds with the government, have sounded the alarm in summer by holding moments of silence regularly. “We have become unable to meet the most basic needs,” lamented actors and theater workers, saying that they have now turned to other jobs, such as taxi driver or night watchmen. “We, private theaters, have not received a penny from the government,” declared “Let Our Theaters Live” initiative.

Musicians’ plight

Musicians followed in mid-September, in the wake of a ban of all concerts and festivals in Istanbul due to the pandemic. Gamze Taşçıer, a deputy from the opposition CHP, said almost 100 musicians in Turkey have committed suicide since the beginning of the pandemic in March, according to data from

the Musicians and Performers Union (Müzik-Sen). Müzik-Sen later qualified the statement saying that the number of deaths were “anecdotic” rather than based on concrete statistics, but confirmed that many musicians have been living in poverty and some had sold their musical instruments and taken other jobs. Many musicians have started online protests, using hashtags #saveourstages, #wemakeevents or #coderedrestart, where they have painted their profiles red in protests. 

Istanbul’s beautiful autumn is enhanced by great shows, such as “Resilience” or the new exhibitions in Arter- but for many of the members of the creative sector, it is a harsh fall, to be followed by an even colder winter.