Nearly 90 years after its transformation from provincial market town to capital city, Ankara, to most foreign tourists, still remains in the cultural shadow of Turkey’s snazzy, onetime Ottoman capital, Istanbul. Yet as Turkey reconsiders everything from the role of the military to the role of Islamic beliefs, a revaluation of Ankara’s role in the country’s modern art scene is also gaining pace.
Better known for bureaucracy than bohemia – its chief attraction remains the mausoleum of Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – Ankara, a city of some 4.6 million people, has long suffered from the insecurity of an artistic understudy.
Back in the 1990s, its artists fled for the more liberal climes of Istanbul, noted Sera Sade, the director of Siyah Beyaz, the city’s oldest contemporary art gallery, founded in 1984. But now, that is beginning to change.
Since 2010, a number of new galleries have opened in the Turkish capital – not to mention, the Cer Modern, a mega-modern-art museum with public-private financing – with both local and international artists clamoring to exhibit their work. Several local universities also boast strong fine arts departments with students eager to put their skills to work. There is even an underground city newspaper.
“It seems to me in the last two years art has become more trendy [in Ankara],” commented Sade. Turkey’s economic boom explains much of that transformation, she continued. “People are collecting [art] as an investment.”
At 8.5 percent, Turkey scored the world’s second fastest economic growth rate (after China) in 2011, and the greater access to wealth has provided fresh vigor for its artistic productivity. International art dealers have responded in turn. Sotheby’s in late April brought in over $2.3 million from its auction of 88 Turkish art works from the 1950s to the present.
But, even amidst a booming economy, exhibiting contemporary art in Ankara is not the most lucrative endeavor, admitted Sade. Key to the early survival of Siyah Beyaz was that the family already owned the building where the gallery was housed. To cover some of the gallery’s operational costs, they offer weekly jazz and blues performances in a downstairs bar.
Still, by comparison with Istanbul, where the price for centrally located real estate soared by 110 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to one survey, Ankara offers a cheap bet for galleries and studios, artists say. Along with a smaller population – official data puts Istanbul’s population at over 13.62 million, one of Europe’s largest urban centers – it also offers greater chances for quiet reflection, others say.
“In Istanbul, there are 20 galleries sharing the same cake,” said Sade. “In Ankara, there are five.” That lack, to many figures in Ankara’s art scene, is seen as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
“I can’t be alone in Istanbul," commented Ali Kotan, a prominent Ankara-based painter who opened a studio in the city, his hometown, in 1983. "Here, I can be alone.”
Kotan travels to Istanbul about twice a month to market his work and open exhibitions, and acknowledges its creative energy. But the fruits that his solitude in Ankara affords him are displayed all around his studio in the capital city. A nearly completed series of paintings – haunting, bleeding black shapes on white canvas, called by friends his “white series” – reflects his time in prison after Turkey’s 1980 military coup and experience of torture.
Kotan, in his early 50s, may be trying to come to terms with the pain of Turkey’s past, but some young artists are trying to look beyond that and into the future.
For now, Turkey’s contemporary art “identity is imposed by the [outside] art market,” one artist complained during a discussion in the city’s Torun Gallery, a former tea room. “It is a condition to sell.”
In the past, European art markets, such as Paris, were seen as a lifeline for Turkish artists, who flocked to the French capital to study in an environment more tolerant of creative expression, and with stronger academic traditions in the fine arts.
But 30-something painter Engin Sari, an Ankara native, strongly disagrees with gallery owner Sade’s assertion that contemporary art in Turkey today is “the same … as in London and Paris.”
Turkey needs to develop a “new” theory of contemporary art that includes a “real identity” for the country itself; not one “imposed” by the West, he said.
To pursue that aim, Sari, who eschews the term of nationalist, says he plans to stay in Ankara and combine a career in art with an academic position at a local university.
But whatever theory on Turkish contemporary art he and his fellow artists devise, look for this Anatolian steppe city to be at its center. Said Sari: "I can contribute more here because of the particular fabric of the city.”
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.