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Censorship Claims at Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

December 30, 2011
A panel discussion at the İstanbul Museum of Modern Art earlier this week turned into a debate on censorship and the state of contemporary art in Turkey after the museum decided not to include an artist’s work in a recent auction.  The museum is privately funded by the Eczacıbaşı Group, a prominent Turkish industrial group of companies founded by the Eczacıbaşı family, which provided the initial investment and project management finance as well as the core collection of paintings.


Rumeysa Kiger reports for the Istanbul news source  Today’s Zaman:

Earlier in the month, the museum had removed a work by Bubi Hayon (David Hayon) from its program for an invitation-only auction night titled “Gala Modern,” to which several artists had been invited to donate works of art or objects to in an effort to raise money for the museum’s educational programs. The piece was a wooden chair with a chamber pot for its seat. In response, Hayon issued a press release, arguing that the museum’s decision amounted to censorship. The museum, on the other hand, claimed that it had the right to choose which works of art to include in the event and that Hayon’s contribution had not met the proper criteria.

Artist Bubi Hayon’s work, “Oturak,” was removed from İstanbul Modern’s auction night Gala Modern.”

Artists announced on Monday through social networking sites that they had decided to devote the [aforementioned] panel discussion to such issues as transparency and private and public institutions as well as artists’ rights. The panel was initially organized as part of the museum’s ongoing exhibition “Dream and Reality,” a chronicle of the works of female artists from Turkey since the 1900s. But discussion at the event, attended by more than 80 members of the art scene took on a life of its own after panelist Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz announced that she would be withdrawing her work from the show in response to İstanbul Modern’s actions. The audience then raised questions and voiced concerns about an array of problems related to several forms of censorship dominating the current art world in Turkey, a lack of organization among artists and problems caused due to the fact that all major cultural institutions in the country are backed by various corporate entities and the lack of transparency in their activities.

The Istanbul-based  Today’s Zaman published one of the first English-language articles on this conflict. They go on to explain that Türkyılmaz has been joined by seven other artists – Ceren Öyküt, Gözde İlkin, Güneş Terkol, İnci Furni, Ekin Saçlıoğlu, Neriman Polat, Leyla Gediz  and the artist collective, AtılKunst, who have all requested that the museum remove their works from the exhibition in protest.


Hrag Vartanian from Hyperalllergic also reports:

There are claims of censorship in Istanbul as eight artists and an artist collective have made a joint decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Modern museum’s ongoing Reality and Dream exhibition, which chronicles the works of female artists from Turkey since the 1900s. The controversy began when artist Bubi Hayon’s work was rejected during a charity auction for the Turkish museum then during a panel discussion at the museum earlier this week artist Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz announced that she would be withdrawing her work from the show in response to museum’s actions. The debate has since snowballed into a discussion about the role of contemporary art in Turkey and the problems associated with the fact that all major cultural institutions in the country are backed by corporate entities that lack transparency.  […]

Hürriyet Daily News reports that on December 27 a number of artists entered Istanbul Modern with a protest banner that read “There is censorship in this museum.” The reporter also spoke to the artist who gave a context for the claims of censorship:

“First Istanbul Modern requested a work, without telling me any concept. They told me that they wanted to exhibit the work during the gala night and then make the work a part of the exclusive catalogue,” Bubi (David Hayon) told the Hürriyet Daily News.

The artist says the museum informed him he free to create what he wanted:

Upon this request Hayon created a large seat with a bed pan in the middle of it.

“With this work I have criticized the general museum idea which came from 1900s,” said Hayon, adding that he criticized the “sacred” idea of visiting a museum. “My aim was not to be political.”

However, things did not go as Hayon planned. The museum refused to collect the work and did not exhibit it. “It is not important whether they like it. There is something more important than that,” Hayon said.

The approach was more like a censorship process, according to Hayon. “The work was found contradictious and inconvenient.”

The International Association of Art Critics’s Turkish division and the strangely named Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association are supporting Istanbul Modern’s position and they have offered their definition of censorship, which they claim can only be called as such if a third party, such as a government, a local authority, a ministry, a municipality or the police, were involved.

This debate comes at a time when Turkey is proving to be a growing presence in the international art scene with a burgeoning gallery scene, growing museum culture and contemporary art auctions that have attracted the attention of secondary market watchers.


The artists currently boycotting the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art have started a  petition online  in Turkish/English, asking the institution to apologize to artist Bubi Hayon and the art community as a whole:

We observe that, Turkish branch of International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association (UNESCO AIAP) along with many artists who had chosen silence and mannerlessness, simply consider the behaviors of the market actors who take the “sensitivity” of the political and administrative powers, conservative bodies who has recently developed a passion for art collectorship as a threat and their interference with the artworks, as “the nature of commerce”. […]

We consider the whole course starting with the first moment of acceptance of the invitation, the creation of such an artwork, submission and the withdrawal and press release following to the applied fearless censorship, as Bubi Hayon’s “artistical existence, activity, production”, applaud “oturak” which, surely will gain “value” day by day, for underlining an issue with serious lack of awareness in Turkish art society, and declare that until an apology is made, we are not any longer interested in participating to any artistic platform organized by Istanbul Modern, at where may be some other time, the same “Oturak” (stool) is to be exhibited, by the same or a different chief curator and with it’s “submitted context untouched”.

Our guiding free spirit is awareness of our existence and surely is R. Mutt’s “Fountain.”



More details around this case forthcoming.  As of now the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art plans to go ahead with the exhibition Reality and Dream, without the works of the artists that have pulled out in protest. We thank the artists involved and their supporters for drawing our attention to this conflict and we will continue to report on the case.


We were informed earlier today (December 31) that the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art has released a public statement in response to the artists’ protest. The statement can be read here.

The week of January 16, just before the exhibition Reality and Dream ended, the museum erased and removed the works of the artists who had originally protested the exclusion of Bubi Hayon (David Hayon) by also asking their works to be taken down in solidarity. Istanbul Modern delegates also responded to the group that initiated the  online petition calling for a boycott of the museum: they claimed that these artists had never been invited to the debates around the exhibition – debates which actually took place on the museum premises and at other venues.  The museum again emphasized that this should have never been called “censorship” in the first place. The group of protesting artist insist they had been indeed invited in the exhibition and to the talks.

We have also been informed that the artists who participated in this the boycott and protest action have started to organize and are discussing plans to start their own union. ArtLeaks will continue to report on the mobilization in the art scene in Istanbul following this case.


Atil Kunst's work being removed

Ceren Oykut's wall paintings being erased


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