Held this year from 12-15 November, the 10th-anniversary edition of Contemporary Istanbul undoubtedly raised important questions as to the role of an art fair with a strong local presence and positioned within a country such as Turkey, where political developments have historically been linked to economic volatility. In the wake of the terribly saddening October bombings of a peace rally in Ankara, where more than a hundred civilians were killed, as well as the unexpected November election results, which favoured a conservative pro-Islamic government, there has been growing fear internally, as well as globally, about the potential that Turkey is isolating itself from Europe, the U.S. and members of NATO through a very autocratic government. This was not an easy time for any art fair to succeed in the region as this state of doubt and political unrest not only resulted in a weakened morale but also in the Turkish lira becoming very weak against the dollar and euro right before the elections.
Yet even despite the unpredictable environment, the atmosphere at this year’s Contemporary Istanbul exuded a certain calm-after-the-storm as an unprecedented 84,000 visitors, including foreign collectors, museum directors and institutional buyers, thronged into the fairgrounds. “Turkey has a difficult geography and there are many political as well as other frictions related to the art world but for our own purposes at CI, we will focus on our own target,” said CI’s founder Ali Gureli during the opening press conference. And focus on their target they did. Over the past 10 years, the fair has managed to grow its local appeal from a handful of only Turkish buyers, regional galleries and only nine galleries from Europe to 64 new foreign galleries focusing on a different country each year. Additionally, from an initial Dhs44,210,768 in 2006, the total value of exhibited works rose to Dhs253,207,125 in 2015 and this year 64 percent of works were sold, reported CI.
Gureli also signalled new important collaborations with the government’s trade, finance and culture departments in order to levy taxes on corporate collecting, incentivise institutional buying as well as the production and export of artworks from Turkey, all of which would highly benefit local and foreign participation in Turkey’s art market.
This year, CI’s focus was on Contemporary Tehran – a section that also inaugurated a highly strategic artistic and commercial collaboration between Turkey and its neighbour Iran, initiating an important cultural dialogue between the two nations. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) recently opened an exhibition entitled Farideh Lashai: Towards the Ineffable showcasing, in addition to a retrospective of the late Iranian Contemporary artist, the important collection of western works acquired by Iran’s former Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi. The exhibition is likely to mark a new era in the cultural and artistic outlook of Iran. Gureli emphasised that, as CI directors met with the director of TMOCA at the Venice Biennale this year, they began talks to collaborate and subsequently visit the country in order to get to know Iranian artists, collectors, gallery owners as well as museum directors.
A remarkably strong section of the Iranian galleries presented intricate acrylic and ink works by the prominent Aliakbar Sadeghi, including Picture of Picasso (2015) and Animal Hunt (2010), alongside other artists. The works were priced in the region of Dhs367,315 and owner Shirin Partovi Tavakolian seemed pleased with the attention the gallery received from foreign and local visitors. There was also a very moving tribute to the refugee crisis by artist Koorosh Shishegaran who made a painting based on the “lifeless body of a young child, stranded and fallen to the seas.” But here, the face of the child was positioned looking towards the viewer and not the sand, as was presented in the mainstream media. This was a brave and powerful reminder of the reality and urgency of the humanitarian crisis unfolding not only in Syria and Turkey but worldwide.
Popular with local collectors were works that made up part of the Mobarqa Family Collection presented in Istanbul for the first time by Assar Art Gallery. Presented here were beautiful pieces by Reza Derakshani and Abolghassem Saidi as well as unique photographic works and family portraits by Samirah Alikhanzadeh.
In addition to the participation of Iran, there were a number of regional galleries from Europe that had been showing with CI over the past few years and were pleased with the sales they had received. Carlos Duran, the owner of Galeria Senda from Spain, had decided to show very playful acrylic works by the young and promising emerging Spanish artist Yago Hortal along with Finnish photographer Ola Kolehmanien, who has been very popular with Turkish collectors. The price of the works ranged between Dhs7,346 to Dhs183,657.
One of Contemporary Istanbul’s strengths over the past few years has also been a focus on the editions market. These works by prominent artists from 20th-century art are highly popular with local Turkish collectors who may not easily have access to European galleries abroad or attend auctions to buy works in high demand. In this category, Galerie Lelong Paris exhibited works on paper by David Hockney and Joan Miro ranging between Dhs40,404 and Dhs198,350. Additionally, oil paintings by Lebanese Etel Adnan and a painting made with stitched fabric by Turkish artist Ramazan Bayrakoglu were exhibited alongside the bronze sculpture Lou in Antibes (2015) by Jaume Plensa that was the centre point of the foreign section of the fair.
A number of established Turkish galleries such as Rampa, Galeri Nev and the newly founded Karavil Contemporary were also placed in conversation with international galleries in this section. Rampa Galeri were exhibiting a range of impressive works on paper by realist painter Erinc Seymen alongside prominent Turkish female artists including Gulsun Karamustafa, Selma Gurbuz and Canan who had previously shown with Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2011 in an exhibition focusing on contemporary artists from Turkey. The value of works in the booth ranged from Dhs7,346 to Dhs77,136 and up. Another artist who participated at Fondation Louis Vuitton’s exhibition was Ihsan Oturmak, a young Kurdish painter who is now represented by Karavil Contemporary. He recently had a sold-out solo show in their London gallery as well as at the CI booth.
In the main section of the fair, major Turkish galleries such as Galeri Zilberman, Pi Artworks, Galeri X-ist, Galeri Sumer and the Empire Project and Dirimart were showcasing works by largely well-established and emerging Turkish Contemporary artists. A favourite with Turkish collectors, artist Mehmet Guleryuz, who recently had a retrospective at Istanbul Modern, presented an impressive painting entitled Homage to Titian’s Marsyas (2015) on sale through The Empire Project for Dhs697,898.
One of the most haunting works was a sculpture by Bahadir Baruter who in his curated Fatality show at X-ist gallery had created white fetus-like silicone bodies inside glass and resin containers creating a sensational three-dimensional effect. The booth was popular with Turkish collectors with the majority of works priced between Dhs33,058 to Dhs58,770 sold.
Among the highlights of the fair was a VIP visit to the privately-owned Elgiz Museum with Ayda Elgiz. Providing an intimate and realistic account of being a collector in Turkey, Ayda spoke with visitors through each stage of developing a private collection and of how to make it accessible to local audiences. A solo exhibition by the talented female artist Azade Koker alongside a sculpture exhibition showcasing a collection of young and emerging Turkish artists on the Elgiz Museum’s terrace in the financial district gave a wonderful glimpse as to how works by Turkish artists could be exhibited in a coherent and well-curated collection adjacent to internationally established artists such as Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and Cindy Sherman. As we have it, the Turkish art market offers a continual pendulum between local favouritism and international desire.