Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 30 October 2010 12:01 UK

Modern art boom exposes Turkey's tensions

By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC News, Istanbul

The arts scene in Istanbul has seen a boom in the past decade, going from a handful of galleries to more than 200, but there may be a price to pay for this rapid change.

Istanbul street
Istanbul is celebrating is status as European capital of culture

The district of Tophane in Istanbul is famously diverse - Bohemian but also ultra-modern.

I pass a mosque, shiny new cash machines and funky boutiques, women in headscarves and a man pushing a cart of fresh pomegranates.

Tophane nobly bears the burden of all those cliches about Istanbul - one foot in the liberal, secular West, another in traditional, conservative Islam.

In the 1980s, these narrow streets and crumbling 19th Century buildings were occupied by immigrants from Asian Turkey - just across the Bosphorus. It also became a magnet for artists because of the cheap rents.

"I grew up near here," the artist Gulsun Karamustafa told me. "It was mixed, on the edge all the time, but everyone got on."

About a decade ago, Istanbul - and Tophane - started to change dramatically. Business boomed, the arts scene exploded and the old buildings were bought up and gentrified. Several were converted into art galleries, and today there are 10 major galleries in Tophane.

Gulsun is in her 60s and one of Turkey's star artists.

She exhibits all over the world. She began as a painter and now works mostly in video and film. She showed me her "leopard skin film" - about five women who meet secretly to indulge in their love of leopardskin clothes.

It is funny and sexy. Anything goes, I thought, in modern Istanbul.

Mob attack

But then Gulsun told me another story.

Artist Gulsun Karamustafa
Gulsun Karamustafa's work has been exhibited internationally

One evening in late September, some galleries in Tophane came together for a joint launch party.

Alcohol, which is forbidden under Islam, was served and the event was lively and loud.

Suddenly a group of "outsiders" - as Gulsun called them - appeared from nowhere, wielding batons, knives and pepper spray. There were about 30 men, who attacked the guests and broke gallery windows. Five people were taken to hospital.

"We have no idea who they were," Gulsun said. "No-one has been charged and the police are still investigating."

But why did it happen?

"They wanted to scare away the newcomers," she suggested carefully.

Bankers and business are the main patrons and collectors in this new arts boom

"They're resentful of Turkey's new affluence and Western ways," another friend said.

A few internet blogs and local papers buzzed with the theory that the attackers were Islamic extremists.

This is embarrassing for some in Istanbul. It is a showcase modern capital in so many ways, a flagship for European Turkey.

Global art

I wandered round the Istanbul Modern museum, which is a brief walk from Tophane. It was built five years ago by one of Turkey's wealthiest families, the Eczacibasis.

Visitors look at artwork at the  International Istanbul Biennale of Contemporary Art (file photo)
The Istanbul Biennial exhibition is about to enter its 12th year

It is privately funded, as are most of the arts. Bankers and business are the main patrons and collectors in this new arts boom.

And it is mainly Turkish modern art they are collecting, including the work of Gulsun Karamustafa.

At Istanbul Modern I watched one of her video installations: Memory of A Square.

It is bold and beautiful, with family life on one screen, the coups and clashes of modern Turkey on another.

Gulsun is currently working on a British Council project called My City, which is funded by the European Commission.

"We have no state support at all," she explained. "The support we get is from commissions worldwide and private sponsors."

She spends half her year working abroad and loves travelling. No wonder.

A few decades ago during a period of political instability, Gulsun was arrested and imprisoned.

Her passport was removed and she could not leave the country for 16 years.

Why? She was a free-spirited artist, her family were left-wing intellectuals.

Everything began to change for Gulsun - and for Istanbul - in the early 1990s.

The Istanbul Biennial Contemporary Art show, which is a major international event today, was in the vanguard. It is sponsored by the biggest arts patron of all - the KOC industrial conglomerate.

Gulsun has exhibited there three times.

I met the Turkish curator Necsmi Sonmez at the launch for the next Istanbul Biennial. He told me that the auction house Sotheby's has also jumped on the bandwagon.

It held its first Turkish contemporary art sale last year. At this year's sale, Fahr-el Nissa Zeid became Turkey's first artist to sell for more than $1m (£1.5m).

But how good is the art?

Necsmi Sonmez is supportive but critical.

Censorship is not the issue these days, he said, but the quality of the work is. He believes Turkey's artists are too wedded to "identity issues" and folklore.

And if banks and businesses are calling the shots, he asked, how truly independent are the artists?

Gulsun reassured me she feels no pressure from her patrons: "I talk about my own history. I don't know what is typical Turkish art. What I do is global art."

And that is ladies in leopard skin, two gay men in traditional dress embracing, women in burkas tied up or with barcodes on their naked backs.

The art I saw was provocative and brave. Too provocative for some, it seems. People are watching what happens in the galleries of Tophane carefully.

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