Di­vi­sions on dis­play in at­tack on Turk­ish art walk

Lo­cal toughs tar­get an ex­hibit in Is­tan­bul, an­gered by pa­trons im­bib­ing al­co­hol.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Bor­zou Dara­gahi re­port­ing from Is­tan­bul, Turkey dara­gahi@latimes.com

It was meant to be a cel­e­bra­tion of high art and the bo­hemian spirit of a city that has been des­ig­nated by the Euro­pean Union as a Euro­pean Cul­tural Cap­i­tal of 2010. In­stead, a con­tro­ver­sial art ex­hibit last week turned into a vi­o­lent neigh­bor­hood melee that made na­tional news.

As art lovers drank san­gria out of plas­tic cups and con­tem­plated icon­o­clas­tic pieces of art that de­con­structed Turkey’s 20th cen­tury his­tory, a group of lo­cal toughs in the cen­tral Is­tan­bul neigh­bor­hood of To­phane at­tacked them with pep­per gas and frozen or­anges. For an hour, they smashed win­dows and in­jured dozens, in­clud­ing vis­it­ing for­eign­ers.

None of the art­work was dam­aged, and the gal­leries quickly re­opened. But the riot re­mains the talk of the town, and the vic­tims are sched­uled to meet Mon­day with a lawyer to con­sider pos­si­ble le­gal ac­tion.

“We were so happy be­cause for the first time an art event was crowded,” said Derya Demir, the 30-yearold owner of the Non Gallery, where the chaos erupted Tues­day. “There was no warn­ing at all.” The gallery was one of sev­eral par­tic­i­pat­ing in the To­phane Art Work, a weeks-long pre­sen­ta­tion of new work by un­der­ground lo­cal artists amid height­ened in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary Mid­dle East art.

The in­ci­dent high­lighted class and so­cial cleav­ages be­tween Turkey’s Euro­pean-ori­ented wealthy ur­ban elite and re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives with strong roots in the coun­try’s ru­ral Ana­to­lia re­gion. It was also a case of ur­ban fric­tion in a rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing district where work­ing-class peo­ple are be­ing driven out by wealth­ier and highly ed­u­cated ar­rivals.

Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, whose po­lit­i­cal party is rooted in Turkey’s Is­lamic move­ments, weighed in, down­play­ing the at­tack. “Such in­ci­dents oc­cur ev­ery­where in the world,” he said. “There is no rea­son to ex­ag­ger­ate those in­ci­dents.”

Some res­i­dents blamed the gallery own­ers and guests for drink­ing al­co­hol in pub­lic in vi­o­la­tion of Is­lamic law. In cen­tral Is­tan­bul, pock­ets of con­ser­va­tive Is­lam co­ex­ist with free­wheel­ing out­door cafes, bars and dance clubs. But res­i­dents com­plained that the gallery own­ers were push­ing the en­ve­lope by al­low­ing pa­trons to drink out­side in a res­i­den­tial area that has long been home to ob­ser­vant Mus­lim fam­i­lies.

“The gal­leries’ ex­is­tence here is a good thing,” said Mehmet Sahin, a 35-year-old gro­cery store owner. “But the gallery peo­ple are pro­vok­ing peo­ple.”

Demir dis­missed such crit­i­cism. She said she re­frained from serv­ing guests bot­tles of beer or glasses of wine and de­lib­er­ately served al­co­holic drinks in plas­tic cups out of sen­si­tiv­ity for the neigh­bor­hood’s val­ues. Yet even af­ter po­lice ar­rived, as­sailants con­tin­ued to pur­sue the trau­ma­tized guests.

They even struck an 80year-old man, Demir said, the grand­fa­ther of an artist’s as­sis­tant. He had come to see the art­works, which in­cluded a statue of Ke­mal Ataturk, founder of the Turk­ish re­pub­lic, de­picted as a fallen an­gel.

The gallery owner said she sees the at­tack as part of a sys­tem­atic ef­fort by a small group of neigh­bor­hood toughs to in­tim­i­date those who don’t share their val­ues. She and oth­ers said that over the sum­mer some res­i­dents had warned in In­ter­net post­ings that they would wreak havoc dur­ing the art walk.

Some an­a­lysts and Turk­ish me­dia at­trib­uted the vi­o­lence to a fear of ris­ing rents push­ing old-timers out of the neigh­bor­hood. But some note that most of the peo­ple liv­ing in the ten­e­ments are from fam­i­lies that squat­ted homes once be­long­ing to mid­dle-class Greeks de­ported from Is­tan­bul in a wave of “eth­nic cleans­ing” in 1964.

“Who is a lo­cal is a big ques­tion,” said Sinem Yoruk, owner of an­other nearby gallery that came un­der at­tack.

But even some in­tel­lec­tu­als who were at the open­ing and had to dodge the pro­jec­tiles found them­selves sym­pa­thiz­ing a bit with the as­sailants.

“The at­tack­ers were the un­der­dogs,” said Cen­giz Ak­tar, a news­pa­per colum­nist and so­cial sci­en­tist at Bahce­se­hir Uni­ver­sity in Is­tan­bul, who is friends with the gallery owner. “This area will be gen­tri­fied. The slums will be cleared. These guys will have to leave, and they know it and are up­set about it.”


Bor­zou Dara­gahi

Vis­i­tors at the Non Gallery in Is­tan­bul’s To­phane neigh­bor­hood, an area un­der­go­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion as ur­ban, Euro­pean-ori­ented elites move in amid con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims. Hood­lums at­tacked event pa­trons with pep­per gas and frozen fruit.

EX­HIBIT: A sculp­ture at the Non Gallery de­picts Ke­mal Ataturk, founder of mod­ern Turkey, as a fallen an­gel. The gal­leries re­opened quickly af­ter the at­tack.

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