‘Art is my weapon’: meet the Turkish artist taking on Erdoğan
It started, somewhat innocuously, with a tree……
Turkish artist Ekin Onat: ‘It’s the fear of losing my country and what it will become that I’m frightened of’
It started, somewhat innocuously, with a tree. Ekin Onat waves a hand across Gezi Park in central Istanbul, on a bright but quiet Saturday morning, pinpointing the recent history of protest that galvanised all but two of Turkey’s 81 provinces in the spring of 2013.
“A tree! Green space!” Nothing more radical than the environment, she says, walking me through the greenery hitched to the concrete slabs of Taksim Square. Peaceful demonstrations against government plans to bulldoze the park to build a shopping mall spiralled; mass revolt led to brutal police violence which left at least four people dead and more than 8,000 injured. The momentum of Occupy Gezi swept Turkey – and flipped Onat’s life for ever.
“Everything changed,” she says dramatically. “My life went from ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘we’. Now I think about us as a collective, as a people and history joined together.” Onat, 41, is a classically trained ballet-dancer-turned-artist with a history for making heavy political weather. A feminist current runs through her most provocative pieces – multimedia installations themed around sexual abuse, rape, child brides, women treated as second-class citizens – but her next project is set to be her most forceful yet. Onat is taking on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Over the course of six months, she has secretly gathered a 330-page internal police log detailing more than 2,000 cases of state-sanctioned violence against Turkish citizens over the last 11 months; she will be exposing every detail in a performance piece at this year’s Venice Biennale. Details are deliberately being kept on a need-to-know basis to avoid the very real threat of shutdown before the launch, but Onat’s headline-grabbing stunt will form part of Objection – the Pavilion of Humanity created by her and the artist Michal Cole that will transform a Venetian villa “to give an artistic home to women’s rights and freedom of speech”.
Objection – a video installation by Michal Cole.
Is she scared for her safety? “No! Who gives a fuck if I’m scared or not? It’s not me, it’s the fear of losing my country and what it will become that I’m frightened of. Look! Look around you” – she waves towards the crowds shopping on Istiklal Street, the brunchers headed towards Cihangir – “people are getting on with their lives, but there is tension under the surface. It is superficial calm.”
Onat is at pains to emphasise the crucial point in history in which Turkey has arrived (“it is a crisis; there has been an intellectual cleansing”). The country has been under a state of emergency following last summer’s mercilessly bloody attempted coup, but, of course, the numbers alone do the work: more than 130,000 dissidents – state officials, teachers, bureaucrats – have been sacked; more than 95,000 have been detained, with more than 47,000 arrested; more than 7,000 academics and 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been purged from their posts. On top of this, 149 media outlets have been shut down and 231 journalists imprisoned. When we meet, Onat is tying up loose ends, preparing for exile; her husband and two teenage children have already left the country.
“Every policeman in Turkey has the right to kill. Putting on that uniform dehumanises them – there is no empathy. I have always fought for women’s rights but now it feels like there is no time to separate. Now we are fighting for human rights,” she says.
Objection at The Pavilion of Humanity in Venice.
On Sunday, Turks go to the polls to vote in a referendum considered the most significant political development since the country was declared a republic in 1923. Eighteen constitutional amendments are being proposed to transform the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system. “If it is a yes, Erdoğan could be in power until 2029. It is shocking, and for women it is worse. They have been erasing our rights for years.” Later, in a cafe on the Asian side of the city, Onat introduces me to her friends, fellow artists who don’t dare speak out and communist activists who can barely keep quiet. “Marital rape, abortions, the right for men to marry 11-year-old children, domestic violence – we have fallen backwards as a country,” says Onat. “All religion is patriarchal,” adds actor Levent Üzümcü, who has nearly four million followers on Twitter and is repeatedly asked for selfies where we sit. “I’m an atheist and, before, we could live together, side by side. How will we live together now?”
A desperation tugs at the core of most of their conversations. The communists – and the men especially – chew the fat relentlessly; the artists are more resigned. Are they aware of the risk their friend is taking and of the impact her work will have? Tunç Tatoğlu, a party member who met Onat through the Occupy protests, laughs and asks how important art really is. Her determination is undimmed and she waves him off.
Onat was raised by a single mother – artist and university professor Tülin Onat – who at 74 is still busy at work, painting and pottering. We are introduced in her studio, converted from the flat Onat grew up in. “My mother struggled, working and raising me – and I could be wild,” says Ekin, with no disagreement from her mum, who rearranges trays of food in front of us. Is she worried for her daughter’s safety?
“I’m always worried for her. I’m her mother. But this is in our blood; my mother made decorative embroidery, it was domestic art back then. It is Ekin’s genes to create.” The pair talk every day and share a sense of wilful mischief and a steely sense of self. “My mother is an artist because it is a passion for her,” explains Onat. “Without it, she would die. Art is not my passion, it’s my mission. Art is my weapon.”
Objection by Ekin Onat and Michal Cole is at The Pavilion of Humanity, Campiello S Vidal, Venice, alongside the 57th Venice Biennale, from 11 May until 30 November 2017. Funds for the project can be pledged on Kickstarter.