Last week in Istanbul, residents and visitors alike experienced a jolt of optimism and excitement when the city, a flash point for political protests and violent attacks, embraced its inaugural Art Week. Organized by a group of collectors, business moguls, and cultural institutions, the compilation of major fairs—including the 15th Biennial and the 12th Contemporary Istanbul and smaller satellite events—drew hundreds of international curators, journalists, gallerists, and collectors to town for what the event’s facilitators conceived as a celebratory occasion.
“September is making us very hopeful,” said Bengu Bef, the director of Mixer, an independent art space that recently shuttered its locale near Istiklal Street, the once lively area stricken by suicide bombings last year. Mixer, which took a booth at the Contemporary Istanbul fair, just opened a new space in Karaköy with four other galleries. “After the bombings, the whole atmosphere in the city has changed. We were pessimistic. Now we’re hopeful that if we come together we can make the art scene grow.” He wasn’t the only one to find positivity in light of the current moment: As a beaming Kamiar Maleki, heir of the Iranian collectors and the new director of Contemporary Istanbul, mused at the fair’s opening gala, “Any turbulent times in politics, creativity is at its highest.”
Here, we look at highlights from the packed program.
Ai Weiwei visited Syrian refugee camps in 2016 to create “Odyssey,” a wallpaper design and series of vases printed with motifs depicting scenes of mass migration. The work was presented at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, along with his “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (2016).
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On view at the Pera Museum as part of the Biennial, Turkish artist Gözde Ilkin embroidered scenes of domestic life on silk panels, in which the characters’s faces have been erased.
Thirty-five-year-old Volkan Arslan’s video triptych at Istanbul Modern, commissioned by Berlin-based duo Elmgreen and Dragset for the Biennial, featured images of two women living on the same boat, separated by an image of the Bosphorus. “Our circle of freedom is getting smaller, because of censorship and of the political, economic, and social situation,” the artist explained. “No one wants to go to jail, so you start to self-censure.”
At the Contemporary Istanbul fair, the Victoria Miro Gallery veered toward monochromatic abstraction with a dot silkscreen by Yayoi Kusama, prints by Idris Khan, and a tapestry by Grayson Perry.
Leila Heller Gallery presented glass-and-acrylic sculptures by Dustin Yellin and large photographs by Reza Aramesh that depicted refugees posing inside Versailles.
Some of the Turkish galleries showed emerging artists, reflecting a strong, thoughtful local practice directly engaged with the country’s realities. At Krank Art Gallery, Gunes Terkol stitched feminist symbols onto thin, white flags that were hung as a banner on a wall.
At Galerist, artist Nil Yalter repeated blurred vintage prints of immigrants on a tall scroll, with a red neon sign that read, “EXILE IS A HARD JOB.”