Babak Roshaninejad

Young Turks

After a successful debut, Turkey’s newest art fair is back for its second edition

With globally-acclaimed institutions such as Istanbul Modern and Contemporary Istanbul, among others, Turkey has been  especially in recent years  creating quite a buzz as an ever-growing and important hub for contemporary art in the region. In 2013, the country’s vibrant and sprawling metropolis of Istanbul saw the addition of yet another institution that has been further helping to cement the city’s status as a cultural hotspot: ArtInternational. Having held its inaugural edition at the scenic Haliç Congress Centre on the Bosphorus, the fair will return between the 26th and the 28th of September this year to present an eclectic mix of art from galleries both in Turkey and from around the world, and act as a bridge between the Turkish art community and the global art community at large. To find out more about the sights and spectacles at this year’s edition of the fair, I chatted with its Director, Dyala Nusseibeh.

 

Tell me a bit about the mandate of the fair – what are its aims, and why was it founded? I’m especially curious to know, given the existence of Contemporary Istanbul, which has been the city’s sort of ‘flagship’ art fair for quite a while, as well as the presence of the Istanbul Biennial

[The Biennial] was actually one of the things that drew our attention; having received a lot of international recognition, it’s one of the reasons we started looking at Istanbul. Another [reason] was the number of Turkish galleries that started to [participate in] international art fairs, and the number of Turkish collectors present at international fairs such as Art Basel. I came to Istanbul a few years ago and did some research based on these kinds of factors, and whilst here, was really struck by the quality of cultural philanthropy, and the fact that a lot of the contemporary art spaces are funded by either private wealth or corporations. I was also aware of the growth of grassroots and nonprofit organisations. There’s a very vibrant art scene here. There were other fairs here as well at the time, but there didn’t seem to be anything that was ‘top-end’, that focused on quality of presentation, and so on … We wanted to collaborate with, say, 10 or 12 Turkish galleries that had really interesting programmes and that could stand well alongside international galleries – that’s how we would differentiate ourselves from other fairs here: by focusing on quality over quantity. We have just under 80 galleries [participating] this year, and last year we had 64.

Taner Ceylan

Taner Ceylan – Cyparissus (courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery)

We also had a lot of support from collectors, gallerists, artists … there were a lot of people who really wanted this kind of a fair here in Istanbul … Turkey, economically, has been doing really well, and there are a growing number of collectors – not just the very established ones that have been collecting for decades, but also new [ones] with disposable income that are starting to build up collections … There was [also] a lot of attention from the international gallerists who’d started to meet [these collectors], and who wanted a platform here in Turkey to connect further with them.

In a way, one of the things the fair does is connect international galleries with the Turkish art community, and this has a wider remit than just [linking] galleries and collectors. One of the things we’re really pleased about this year is that Paul Kasmin Gallery from New York has decided to participate in the fair, showing the [works of] the internationally celebrated Turkish artist Taner Ceylan, whom they represent, and whose works haven’t been shown here for a while; that’s just an example of an exchange between the Turkish community and this global art community, and how they [can] come together in a positive way at a fair.

It’s really interesting you mention that, because it relates to one of my other questions – I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the galleries are based in Europe, and I was wondering if the focus of the fair is more on the relationship between Turkish art and European art, and galleries in Turkey with those in Europe. How do they come together? I mean, in the first edition of the fair, how did you see these two mix?

I think there’s a natural kind of ‘ease’ between Turkey and Europe; it’s only a four-hour flight [from Istanbul] to 50 countries, which makes it an international hub – but of course half of these are in Europe. There are a lot of Turkish artists studying in Europe – be it in Berlin, the UK, etc. – and equally, there’s this sort of love affair in Europe for Turkey … it inspires and energises people in a positive way. We had Galerie Gabriel Rolt from Amsterdam participating in the Fair last year with a work by Conrad Shawcross that was specific to Istanbul and the Bosphorus … so, it’s not that we were necessarily creating a space for [these things] to happen, because they were already happening; we’re just creating a platform that will be seen by other people.

Kezban Arca Batibeki

Kezban Arca Batıbeki – Nest (courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery)

In terms of where we’re going, it’s about the radius around Istanbul – the fact that it’s close to, for example, Russia, the Middle East, etc. … we’re really interested in bringing more galleries [from these regions]. Last year, in terms of collectors, we had really strong groups present from the Middle East, and this year we have new [ones] coming across from Russia, and you also have East Asia. I think, naturally, Europe was the starting point, and we’ll see how things go forward.

How was the first edition received? What was the general response?

We were really pleased, because all the collectors here had such positive feedback for us; they were happy to see something of an international standard in Istanbul. Many of the participating gallerists loved it too. For example, Stefan Andersson from Sweden’s Galleri Andersson/Sandström commented on how much he enjoyed meeting Turkish collectors, especially the newer ones, who asked questions about artists they hadn’t been familiar with and who engaged with their works … that’s the kind of dialogue that all the gallerists appreciate. It wasn’t [about] the natural frenzy of some of the other art fairs; there were people coming back, taking their time, looking at the works, and thinking about them.

I think the art scene today is incredible, actually, because there’s so much energy, so much enthusiasm – from the museum-quality shows that get put on through to the really young artists coming out with interesting works. I’m constantly having a wonderful time when I’m here

In terms of the wider art community, everyone really enjoyed it, and we have a lot of people – visitors and participants from last year – coming back. We thought it all went really well for a first edition.

Fantastic. Aside from those in Turkey, there are three galleries coming from nearby Tehran, Baku, and Jeddah – Assar, Gazelli Art House, and Athr. Can you tell me a bit about some of the art we can expect to see from them?

Assar is actually a very important Iranian gallery [that has] been going for a long time. I used to work at the Saatchi Gallery a while ago during the time of the Unveiled exhibition, and one of the artists we showed at the time, whom I’ve always loved because he’s very … I guess you’d say … painterly, was Ahmad Morshedloo –

– Yes, I know him.

Oh, you do?

Yes, I met him in Tehran a couple years ago.

Ahmad Morshedloo

Ahmad Morshedloo – Untitled (from the Negative Space series; courtesy the artist and Assar Art Gallery)

What was he like?

He’s a really, really nice guy, very down to earth, very serious about his work. He can be a bit reserved, but as you get to know him, he opens up. I love his work, and I really enjoy his company …

Interesting. So Assar is bringing some of his work … Athr is focusing on its Saudi artists. They’re showing some of the really well-known ones, of course, like the superstar Ahmed Mater, who is always really good to show. They’re also bringing a younger artist, Arwa Al Neami, who will display her Piece of Paradise photographs of the Ottoman domes of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, [and works by] Nasser Al Salem. I think you probably know quite a few of these artists yourself …

Gazelli Art House is an interesting one, because they tend to show a sort of mix. [Mila Askarova] set up initially in Baku in 2003, and then came to London a couple of years ago. [She] still keeps a gallery space in Baku (it closed but then reopened in 2012), whilst focusing on the gallery in London. She’s showing Aziz & Cucher’s very cool video installation about these buildings in Beirut that sort of collapse and [rise again]; it looks at Beirut as this city that’s always under siege politically but always regenerating itself. She’s also showing Aron Demetz and Charlotte Colbert, so it’s a bit of a mix. In a way, that’s kind of what we like about what the galleries are showing. You’ve got, for example, Lisson Gallery bringing Wael Shawky and Ai Wei Wei, whilst Tina Kim Gallery is bringing Ghada Amer and Gimhongsok, amongst other artists. With everything that’s happening in the region, politically, it’s quite refreshing to also look at the region culturally, to see what artists [therein] are doing and to think about things from that angle.

Huseyin Bahri Alptekin

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin – Durres de Melancholie (courtesy the artist and RAMPA Istanbul)

How would you describe Istanbul’s contemporary art scene today? What and who are some of your favourite Turkish galleries and artists? 

I think the art scene today is incredible, actually, because there’s so much energy, so much enthusiasm – from the museum-quality shows that get put on through to the really young artists coming out with interesting works. I’m constantly having a wonderful time when I’m here.

Some of my favourite galleries, if I had to say, would probably be RAMPA Istanbul and Pi Artworks, because they’re on our selection committee and we’ve been working with them from the get-go. With RAMPA last year, we had a wonderful installation by Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin on the Pier, which consisted of these mattresses on the ground. That was really fun, because it kind of made the fair [into] more of a kind of social space.

This year, for the first time, we have Galeri Nev participating from Ankara, and they’re doing a solo show for Necla Rüzgar, [which] I think is going to be a really interesting one for people to see. Pi Artworks will show Susan Hefuna, who is of course a very well-known and appreciated artist, but [they will also be showing the works of] Volkan Aslan, whom they did a show for recently in their new London space, and a Swedish artist, Maria Friberg. It’s not just Turkish artists they’re presenting – they’re kind of opening it up and being quite confident about the mix. Galeri Zilberman is [also] mixing it up with Walid Siti – whose works I love – together with some of their Turkish artists. Emre Hüner, who will be presented by Rodeo, is another really good [artist] that’s going to be showing at the fair – I really like Emre’s work.

Necla Ruzgar

Necla Rüzgar – Other Forms of Perception II (courtesy the artist and Galeri Nev)

What are you most excited about for this year’s edition of the fair? What, in particular, would you advise fairgoers to look out for? 

We have Videos on Stage this year – again curated by Başak Senova, who is phenomenal – and I think that’s definitely something to advise people to go and check out. Equally, the Alternatives section is really strong, and adds a [very] important dynamic to the fair. We have a fantastic artistic director, Stephane Ackermann, who has been hard at work putting together these additional elements. Lale Müldür will also be doing these performances, all of which gives visitors a little bit of a connection to the city and the artists here.

For the other highlights – I don’t want to prioritise – but I can also point to By the Waterside, our outdoor sculpture area, where we’ll be showing eight sculptures by the pier. It [will be] quite enjoyable, after the frenzy of the fair, to step outside and look at [them]. Ultimately however, a fair is all about the galleries, and I love all their presentations; they have put a great deal of time into this. I am sure people will really enjoy seeing them all.

Cover image: Babak Roshaninejad – Untitled (courtesy Assar Art Gallery).

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).