It’s a rare moment when geopolitics and the art world align. But at the inauguration of Istanbul’s art week – which included the debut of the international Art Beat Istanbul fair and the launch of the 12th edition of the Istanbul Biennial – it seemed as though the contemporary art scene had started mirroring the movements of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and begun embracing its Middle Eastern neighbours.
The origins of the transition, according to the curator of this year’s Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Fulya Erdemci, can be traced back to the very first Istanbul Biennale in 1987. “The impact of that event was huge,” says Erdemci. “For the first time we started drinking in the global discourse.” The survey jumpstarted what was then a non-existent art market, subsequently creating a Turkish network of both artists and emerging gallerists with the city of Istanbul at its centre. Today, nearly 24 years later, the country is home to over 250 galleries with a market worth an estimated €77m.
In the past Turkish collecting habits have tended to prize their own and the West’s artists above all other regions, explains Erdemici. The same applied to gallerists based here, who instead of looking east, turned mainly to local collectors as well as those from Europe and America to buy their works. Things began to change when the global economic crisis hit in 2008. “All of a sudden we started looking for capital in other places,” says Erdemici. “The Middle East was a natural region to look at. It was like a reviving our old Ottoman strategy.”
What ensued was a kind of cross pollination whereby Turkish galleries including X-ist, Dririmart and Pi Artworks went looking to sell their artists’ works in Middle East fairs such as Art Dubai. Some, like director Yesim Turanli of Pi Artworks, discovered a trove of Middle Eastern talents along the way. Both her Art Beat fair booth and newest gallery exhibit features the works of Egyptian German artist Susan Hefuna. “I wouldn’t have dared open with Susan’s show even a year ago,” says Turanli. Adding: “We now feel confident that it will be just a matter of time until she will be part of most local collections.”
William Lawrie, former Middle East expert at Christie’s Dubai branch and now co-owner of the Dubai-based Lawrie Shabibi gallery, agrees. “We are starting to see Turkish collectors who had never before shown any interest in the Middle Eastern arts scene purchasing works,” he says. Although still in the early stages, he sees these spending patterns as paving the way for a potentially robust relationship. In the hope of deepening these ties, Lawrie decided to exhibit the work of Iranian artist Shahpour Pouyan at the Art Beat fair. Interest in the piece was seen from day one. “We know it’s just the beginning for us here,” says Lawrie. “But if given the chance, we’ll keep on coming back to Turkey for more.”