Turkey lurches right
After the political manipulation which shaped Turkey’s recent anti-democratic referendum, feminist artist Ekin Onat explains why she faces exile. Ekin’s project “Objection” at The Pavilion of Humanity during the Venice Biennale exposes political lies and police brutality in her home country. The project started with a tree, and the protests 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. 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.
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 latest 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.
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. 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.
On April 2017, Turks went to the polls to vote in a referendum undermined by state interference which passsed with barely more than 50%. Eighteen constitutional amendments will 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. Marital rape, abortions, the right for men to marry 11-year-old children, domestic violence – we have fallen backwards as a country,” says Onat.