Social Change Through Art and Projects in Turkey

November 4, 2016

“Although we cannot change the world, we can make a difference in people’s lives.” This was the message that visiting arts administrator Eylem Erturk had for listeners at her presentation, “Arts, Culture and Dialogue for Conflict Transformation and Diversity in Turkey,” on Tuesday, Nov. 1 in Shiffman. Erturk is part of Anadolu Kültür, an organization based in Istanbul that raises awareness on cultural values and heritage.

Erturk began her presentation by providing background information on the immense divisions and conflict in Turkey. There are currently changes happening in the government that put artists and activists at risk. Turkey has closed borders with Armenia, and since the 1980s there has been strife between government military forces and insurgents, who are against the totalitarian forces.

In the summer of 2015, there was a shift. Previously, the conflict had stewed in the mountains, but now it spilled into the city centers. There were many civilian deaths and destruction of cultural heritage. For months, towns had curfews. Due to the use of heavy weapons in Diyarbakir, many were killed or had to leave their homes.

Issues between the people and the government are not new. Freedom of expression has always been a source of discord in Turkey. The country has been governed by a conservative party since 2003, and nationwide protests broke out in 2013. Erturk said this was a most hopeful time for a person living in Turkey, where people of different ideologies and generations came together to protect freedoms. However, this period of interconnectedness did not last long. Citizens clashed with the police, who unleashed tear gas on the protestors.

Erturk provided an example of the government’s power: Just this weekend, she finally got an email saying that the Internet connection was back after it was shut down for seven days—a punishment that she said is doled out to the people quite frequently. The government will cut the connection for its people as a punishment for their protests.

Anadolu Kültür was established in 2002 with the goal of contributing to social change. The questions that arise are: How do we ensure that all of us are free to express opinions, create peace, and have freedom of expression?

Erturk explains that there is no perfect answer or solution available. They try to create projects that encourage people to learn from each other’s differences and spread the message of peace and freedom. For example, in 2015 The Film Fund was created, receiving 20 films per year that featured topics involving women, minorities, war, peace, ecology and LGBTQ rights.
In Turkey, refugees are not recognized as citizens. Erturk described another project Anadolu Kültür initiated for Syrian Culture Preservation. People made books and games for Syrian refugee children and placed them in community centers and schools to help kids be in touch with their heritage.

Erturk’s group has created several projects and exhibitions to further encourage healing. She declares, “Bringing people in from different cultures and backgrounds and have them create is a good way to discuss issues and recognize the other’s points of view.” One such project is called “Never again! Facing the past and apology,” which shows that governments can and should apologize to the country for oppressing their rights. Another project involved Turkish and European groups intermingling at a European school of politics. Young leaders from different political parties were brought together for discussion.

The program Erturk spotlighted the most is called “Project BAK.” It focused on revealing the cities through memory and involved young people between the ages of 18-28. Around 50 people from 10 different cities participated. Using photos and videos, they worked together to show stories from daily life and public spaces: gender, migration and whatever they see in their surroundings. The finished products, including short films and photo displays, are presented in a traveling exhibition.

“What did we achieve?” asks Erturk rhetorically, as the presentation comes to an end. “We created storytelling. We tried to make a program where photography, video and social sciences come together. Some sociologists, filmmakers and photographers came together to advise participants through the process. Young people benefit,” is her answer. When asked what happens to participants when the projects are completed, Erturk responded, “Spending a long time together was effective for them to listen to each other. Some changed their point of view, some went back to what they believe and stick with their beliefs more than before. Because developing and understanding is a long and slow process.”

The tricky part to understand, Erturk admits, is the overall effectiveness of the projects. “Who do we reach with the stories?” she ponders. “Do we only confirm ourselves, or do we really challenge ourselves with reaching new audiences? This is the most difficult part, but the one we must really be thinking on.”

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