Visitors attend a musical performance | Berfin Altinisik
Visitors attend a musical performance | Berfin Altinisik

The 2022 Istanbul Biennale which is coming to an end today, was a long time in the making, having been delayed by the pandemic. That it was pulled off at all was a tribute to the organisers and the curators whose collective vision guided the event.

This vision, as one of the curators David Teh stated at the press conference announcing the biennale’s opening, was that of “an art world focused on ‘problem solving’”, where many were concerned with, in his words, “the way we occupy the planet.”

The meaning was deliberately broad. It was fitting that these remarks were made in what used to be a medicinal garden. I was introduced to this event by an old student and my cousin, Salima Hashmi, who jointly instigated my participation at the pre-biennale.

The curators’ sense of urgency and desire to destabilise the given ‘order’ of things was emphasised in the Poetry Channel event held at the Nostalji cafe in Istanbul, of which I was a part. The event brought together poetry as a medium of resistance, and connected the two nation’s arguably greatest poets — Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Nazim Hikmet.

The 2022 Istanbul Biennale, which is concluding today, featured a programme on the pre-eminent Pakistani and Turkish poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Nazim Hikmet. Shahnaz Rouse who participated in the session, writes about her impressions of the overall event and what it was trying to do…

Hashmi and Amar Kanwar introduced Faiz to an audience not previously familiar with his work. In his opening remarks, Amar Kanwar, one of curators at the biennale, sought to disrupt the notion of the ‘great’ poet. He spoke about poetry as a journey, its meaning never fixed but expansive and, like story-telling, interactive.

Hashmi, who followed his remarks, read two of Faiz’s letters from prison — one fittingly about day break, another about the difference between pain and unhappiness. She also read the poems Zindan ke ek sham [A Prison Nightfall] and Lahoo ka suragh [In Search of Vanished Blood]. Read in Urdu and then translation, they found a receptive audience.

The writer (far left) with Salima Hashmi (4th left) outside Cafe Nostalji in Istanbul  |Berfin Altinisik
The writer (far left) with Salima Hashmi (4th left) outside Cafe Nostalji in Istanbul |Berfin Altinisik

As a social scientist, I spoke about the similarities between Hikmet and Faiz’s life histories, and their commitment to a different vision of art, home and internationalism. In this context, I emphasised their founding role in the Afro-Asian Writers’ Congress.

While this reading and conversation was held in a cafe announcing the launch of the Poetry Channel, it involved the translation and dissemination of Faiz’s poems in public places, as well as an on-going project of writing of poetry as a form of public speech that disrupts existing practices.

I read this event as also an opening to a different kind of dialogue between Turkiye and Pakistan, beyond bus lines and infrastructure, one that establishes people-to-people ties over the more recent statist ones.

While the biennale was expansive in its offerings, aside from the Poetry Channel project, two others that left a lasting impression were the Dumpling Post and the Disobedience Archive.

Dumpling Post | Amar Kanwar
Dumpling Post | Amar Kanwar

The first focused on food as a collective endeavour, as a ruse to reinvigorate dissent and evade state repression. Like the Poetry Channel project, this too had a public face: the Hrant Dink Foundation that underwrote this gathering, also launched a news magazine, Manti Postasi (Dumpling Post). Its very first article reminded readers of the persecution of the Hrant Dink Foundation — the foundation was set up in the memory of an assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist and monitors hate speech and promotes human rights in Turkiye — and the determination to not only keep memory alive, but to build solidarity through a coming together around cooking and eating.

Using food as a way to evade authorities — after all, who can object to people eating together — Kanwar, who had an active hand in this project stated: “Anyone who becomes familiar with the Dink Foundation will soon realise that they are very resilient and can never be silenced. They will speak in one way or the other, no matter what. If you stop them in one way, they will find another... And keep on finding newer and newer ways to think, express and communicate.”

In other words, what the Dumpling Post represents is memory as a practice in the present. In the newspaper issue of the Dumpling Post, one of the writers remarked on the ubiquitous character of dumplings — their promiscuous refusal to be confined and, in the words of one contributor to the paper, producing, “permeable borders, mutable food.” Cultural exchange at its best.

The Disobedience Archive was yet another collaborative project. What struck me immediately was its venue: located in what used to be a Greek school, now shuttered while the building’s fate is being decided. It too was a reminder of a time when Greeks and Turks co-existed, not yet divided until modern nation-states drew their physical boundaries and identities.

A hammam restored
A hammam restored

The structure of the exhibit inside spoke to the “violence of modernity”, to use political scientist and anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani’s phrase. A multiplicity of computer screens — I did not count how many there were — told the stories of people’s struggles in Asia, Africa and the Americas and their repression at the hands of the state and also their fellow countryfolks.

The exhibit was brutal in its clarity and pictorial depictions, forcing the viewer to confront the scale of suffering and its systematic nature. As an object lesson in the human capacity for inflicting pain, in its very relentlessness, it also reminded us of human courage and the will to continue, in a similar vein but in a different register to the Dumpling Post, or the letters Hashmi read.

Overseeing this set of screens, on the walls were images of Ataturk and other Turkish national figures, some of whom are admired for their secularism but who also initiated a militarism that has underwritten Turkish democracy since its infancy and which poets like Hikmet and the founders of the Hrant Dink Foundation sought to re-channel and refine.

My focus here has been on projects that were counter-hegemonic. The biennale as a whole was diverse and aided in attracting tourists to the city, and no doubt served as an alibi for the current Turkish state’s claims of tolerance and openness to the world. This despite the fact that the state’s financial contribution to this event was sorely lacking.

The restoration and opening of one of the iconic hammams [baths] in Istanbul and the art installation in another, while stunningly beautiful instances of early architecture and utilising public space, simultaneously played into what some have called “a tourist gaze”, a re-Orientalising of space and place. Such Orientalising was even more evident at the very first programme after the press event that introduced the biennale to the public: this was a musical performance where the performers dressed in cliched ‘authentic’ dress.

My point is that biennales are, in many ways, the offspring of the ‘world fairs’ of the colonial era. They spring from the very forces that the curators of this most recent Istanbul biennale sought to disrupt and destabilise.

In a world where, increasingly, art can become a cliche and be domesticated, it is the projects I have described here, where the “composting” the curators wrote about in their vision statement, had meaning and disruptive potential. That there were others I did not frequent is certainly plausible but these stood out among the ones I did visit because of their orientation past the biennale itself, and their refusal of closure.

The writer is Professor of Sociology at Sarah Lawrence College in the US. She has just embarked on a project examining the histories and transnationalism of poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 20th, 2022

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