Turkish artist ‘witch hunt’ deepens | Culture | Art, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW

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Five years after the coup by sections of the military against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the state is still cracking down on potential opponents.

Many politicians, writers, academics and artists have lost their jobs, are imprisoned or have fled into exile. Those who continue to express critical opinions about the status quo are routinely targeted by the Turkish state.

Levent Uzumcu is one of them. One of Turkey’s most famous actors has long been a thorn in the side of the government. As early as 2013, he was at the forefront of demonstrations against a construction project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park that sparked nationwide protests for more freedom and democratic rights. As a result, Uzumcu lost his job at the Istanbul State Theater after almost ten years.

Popular actor Levent Uzumcu is considered a thorn in the side of the Turkish government

Growing censorship and polarization

But he was not silent, even after the attempted coup in 2016, when anyone who voiced the slightest criticism of the regime was declared a traitor.

“After the coup attempt, more and more people were declared witches, as in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible,” said Uzumcu. “Actors were not hired, artists were prevented from doing their work.” Censorship was particularly severe in Anatolia, where Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has the strongest support.

The polarization that has swept through society and the art scene since then was already visible on the night of the coup: At that time, President Erdogan called on the civilian population to oppose the armed military who wanted to overthrow the government.

Several well-known singers and actors immediately tweeted that they would heed his call and take to the streets to protect democracy. Artists who did not comment on the coup were soon pointed with their fingers, and few dared to publicly express their criticism of the government’s reaction, such as the venerable master of the Turkish theater, Genco Erkal.

“I thought Taksim Square was not a meeting place,” he said, saying that Erdogan’s critics had often been driven from the square in the heart of the city, but that his cheering supporters could now freely gather there. “Where are your water cannons, your tear gas bombs?”

Police pushed protesters back during the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013.

Police cracked down on protesters during demonstrations in Gezi Park in 2013

Artists respond to social media

In the tense atmosphere of recent years, the COVID pandemic also served to pool the government’s efforts to neutralize the cultural sector, says Uzumcu.

“They said there was a pandemic and suddenly theaters, cinemas, exhibitions and film shoots were closed,” he said.

However, many did not believe that the shutdown was just a means of containing the pandemic. At the end of June, President Erdo─čan announced that the curfew would be lifted from July 1, but that the nocturnal music ban after midnight would remain in place.

The reactions on social media have been quick and violent. Under the hashtag # KusuraBak─▒yoruz or # WirNehmenEsUbel, thousands of people expressed their anger, including many artists and politicians.

Situation worsened by the pandemic

According to independent researcher and curator Eda Yigit, the pandemic has intensified the repression of those working in the cultural sector in Turkey.

“The pandemic means a deep cut and heavy losses for the cultural scene,” she said. “Many artists have slipped into a life below the poverty line, they are heavily in debt and depend on financial help from their families and partners.

Many haven’t even tried applying for the minimal state aid because they consider it charity money.

Close up of EdaYigit

Curator Eda Yigit sees many people working in the cultural sector on the verge of poverty

“The fact that these people are treated so worthlessly in the arts, that they have so little security and that no solutions are found to this problem, means that they are denied their basic rights as citizens,” said Yigit.

Country “needs art”

Artists who receive little or no state aid have started solidarity campaigns with which they help each other financially and generally through support networks.

“If a country wants to become more beautiful and develop, it needs art,” says actor Levent Uzumcu, who is annoyed when his colleagues shy away from taking a public position. He remains optimistic about the future of his country, which he believes will take great strides towards democracy and the rule of law.

The journalist and writer Barbaros Altug, on the other hand, is less optimistic. Also active during the Gezi protests, when they were brutally stopped by the police, he then moved to Berlin and wrote his first novel. But he moved back to Turkey.

Barbaros Altug with glasses.

Barbaros Altug’s novella “We’re fine here” is about Turkish exiles in Berlin

But then the AKP used the attempted coup in 2016 as an instrument of repression against intellectuals and members of the opposition. The writer finally turned his back on his country. Since then he has lived in Paris.

Exile is the theme in many of his writings. “This coup was basically a coup against us – that is, against everyone who demands freedom and equality,” he said. “Some were thrown into prison, others fled to all parts of the world, and still others could not leave the country even though they wanted to.”

A community in exile

From exile, he closely follows the situation in his home country. “There are artists who, despite everything, offer strong resistance. Turkey has a resilience that amazes everyone – and especially the fascist politicians. And it is strongest among artists and intellectuals,” he said.

Altug explains that the exiles have established their own community – from Zagreb to Berlin to Toronto.

“The homeland to which we belong is a country that lies in the past.” The author doesn’t think it will be the place he wants to be in his lifetime.

But the millions of people in Turkey and especially the younger generations must not lose hope, he says. The struggle for democracy and artistic freedom is still worth fighting.

This article has been translated from German.