After the assasination of Hrant Dink, I’ve been seeking signs that saner heads have prevailed in Turkish society and the emerging generation has no time for nationalist fictions that deny the Armenian Genocide and only strain to see Turkey as a bastion of all things good.
Elif Shafak (check out her spiffy new website), who I’ve known for years, was my first tangible sign that the cold war between Turkey and truth was thawing. Her latest novel Bastard of Istanbul, which almost landed her in jail, was a major attempt at reconciling (or examining) the fictions and realities of Turkey’s past and present.
Art101‘s “Crossings” (January 2007) by Turkish artist Ipek Duben seemed to promise similar hope in what seemed to be an examination of refugees over the past century, one screen printed image poetically had the words “Farewell My Homeland” embroidered on it. But what I actually saw was a compact show (smaller than a Manhattan studio apartment) rife with a nationalist Turkish narrative that undermines her message of compassion and haunts the ghostly images.
In her artist statement, Duben explains, “Crossing begins with the flow of refugees into Turkey from the Balkan Wars of 1912, and covers events across the borders of India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Mexico, Gaza, Kosovo, Rwanda, Russia, Germany, Azerbaijan, Albania, and displacements in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, China and more.”
Why begin in 1912–what is significant about that date? Why does Duben omit Turkey’s own human rights catastrophes during the 20th C. that created massive waves of refugees, like the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide, the oppression of Kurds.
Why bring this up? Well, as Time Magazine insisted in a January 23, 2007 article “Editor’s [read Hrant Dink’s] Death Spotlights Turkish Nationalism.” Today, Turkish nationalist distortions are becoming mainstays in Turkey–and in my opinion, need to be challenged and not ignored.
Last year, I interviewed the Turkish American Professor, Muge Fatma Gocek, who explained to me that there seems to be two camps in Turkey regarding the Armenian Genocide. One faction tends to be native to Anatolia, has no objection to questioning the official story that no genocide occurred, and is eager to learn the truth. The second group is dominated by the descendants of displaced Muslims that entered Turkey in the early 20th C., is less likely to question official Turkish narratives, and prefers to harp on their own displacement as an unhealed wound. I couldn’t help but wonder if Duben fell into the second category and, as a result, was unable to shed her provincialism and connect to any universal truth–it is a shame since she obviously has an interesting aesthetic and an interest in speaking up for injustice.
In another glaring omission, Duben includes Azeris (which are cultural and linguistically related to Turks) refugees from the Azeri-Karabakh conflict (1991-1994) but then omits any mention of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians that faced pogroms and deportation in Azerbaijan.
Perhaps one day, Hrant Dink’s dream of a multicultural Turkey that includes a frank examination of its past will happen, but until then, I hope Duben (who obviously has an artistic ability to empathize) will reexamine the cultural bias that she grew up with and learn that art is successful when it illuminates truth and doesn’t obscure it.
Bottom image caption: Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan arriving at a border post after fleeing fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces (http://www.womenaid.org/images/womenwit.jpg).