Six hundred sixty-six women, dead. All of them victims of domestic abuse, all of them Turkish.
These are the latest numbers from Turkey’s Interior Ministry, based on the number of domestic violence-related deaths in Turkey – including so-called “honor killings” — since 2009. And if that sounds bad, here’s worse: those are the official figures. The number of women actually killed is probably much higher.
In addition, according to Hurriyet Daily, Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Şahin “previously said that in the third quarter of 2012, some 4489 women suffering from domestic violence were reported to have sought shelter in state institutions. She also mentioned that for the year 2011, a total of 4195 women had sought shelter.”
The shocking truth is, behind Turkey’s glorious vacation coasts and magical Byzantine ruins, behind the hot, chic Istanbul nightlife, and in the shadows of the Turkish contemporary art boom, lurk some dark and hideous secrets. This is one of them.
Lately, however, artists have begun to raise their voices against the epidemic of domestic abuse in Turkey, bringing the issue not only to the public eye in their own country, but abroad as well. So, too, has art dealer Moiz Zilberman, who has offered tremendous support to the cause, championing political artists (of which there are not many in the current Turkish art scene), women artists, and, accordingly, artists whose works address the very issue of sexual oppression, abuse, and women’s rights.
Now he is bringing the discussion to Art Basel Hong Kong, where his CDA Projects is exhibiting works by three Turkish women who focus on the horrors of domestic abuse: Ipek Duben (b. 1941), Nazil Eda Noyan (b.1974) and Zeren Goktan (b. 1975). All three have contributed to a project that, in the words of a press announcement, “invite[s] the audience to actively engage with the facts and emotions surrounding domestic violence.” (Zilberman, by the way, also represents the work of Sukran Moral, whose photographs, videos, and performances about women, sexuality, and abuse have led to death threats against her.)
Among these, Ipek Duben’s 2001 “Love Game” creates a casino setting, where feelings are played for, as domestic abusers are known to do: much of domestic violence involves a power game, after all, and one in which the women are often not only the losers, but the pieces. In Duben’s version, the stakes are equally high: Zilberman describes the work as a version in which “Russian roulette is played by betting on feelings and causes surrounding domestic violence.”
A web of metaphors also twines itself around Goktan’s “Counter,” in which nets hang against the wall, surrounded by beaded frames. Are they veils, suggesting the veiled faces of conservative Muslim women (who are most likely to be abused)? Are they shrouds, a mourning for the dead? Are they the nets that women find themselves trapped in once abuse begins, unable to break free from families, responsibilities, social expectations and traditions? Are the three– veils, shrouds, and nets of entrapment – all one and the same?
Intriguingly, Goktan engaged male prisoners to do the beading on these works – a craft that is traditionally performed by women, ordinarily, but which is also traditionally done by prisoners in Turkey. In this case, the beads form QR codes and spell out the words of love songs, in, explains the text to the exhibition, shroud patterns “inspired by Ancient Egyptian versions that protect and lead the dead to afterlife.”
But the QR codes in “Counter” do not only suggest women as commodity: scanned, they will bring you to a heart-rending memorial web site, anitsayac.com, which counts the number of women killed by domestic violence in Turkey, listing them each by name – one. After. The. Other. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you with literally nothing left to say.
None of this is easy art, and it is especially not easy art to show at a major art fair, where an
international audience is looking mostly for Names They Know and Paintings That Look Pretty On The Wall. Nor are works as large as “Love Game” simple to ship, let alone to sell.
But the aim seems largely to be bigger than this: to gain attention, to stimulate conversation, to bring to a larger public – and, let’s be honest here, a powerful one – the plight of Turkish women – and to do so outside the arm of the increasingly-censorious Turkish government. (See note, below.)
This is important. The people who attend fairs like Art Basel Hong Kong are among the world’s wealthiest, giving them no small political clout. International approval, particularly of a country eagerly seeking acceptance from the West and actively pursuing a reputation as a major global art and cultural center, matters.
And say what you will about the art world of late: the forgeries, the tax evasions, the money laundering, and all the rest: when it comes to human rights, to human dignity, to freedom, the art world – from artists to collectors to dealers to auction houses – comes forward. Be it benefit auctions for AIDS research, or auctions to assist the victims of hurricanes around the world, or art that speaks a truth no words can ever fully tell (think “Guernica”), it is here that change happens.
Maybe this moment, even a small gesture at an art fair in Hong Kong, can be another one.
UPDATE: Moiz Zilberman notes that the works have previously been shown in Turkey; nonetheless, political speech is increasingly coming under fire under the current administration, and political groups have been known to target the artists of such works – including Moral — in the past.