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REFUGE IN A THORN SHELTER

Exhibition at Istanbul’s Depo on Turkish Guest Workers.

  • Jan 20 2022
  • Matt A. Hanson
    is a freelance journalist and art writer based in Istanbul. He has written for Artforum, Artnet News, ArtAsiaPacific, Hyperallergic, Tohu Magazine, and Zaman Collective, among many others. He is the founding editor of FictiveMag.com, an alternative concept magazine merging literary fiction and art criticism.

When fall turned to winter at the end of 2021, Istanbul’s Depo opened Thorn Shelter, an exhibition in alignment with its core values as an alternative space for independent cultural communities working in solidarity with politically-disadvantaged minorities. The space is a labor of love by philanthropist Osman Kavala, who remains unjustly jailed since 2017 despite increasing pressure from the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe among others, and mass petitioning from civil society groups in Turkey and around the world. Depo is housed within the tobacco warehouse that Kavala inherited from his family, who suffered expulsion from the Greek town of Kavala during the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Based in the Istanbul quarter of Tophane, Depo is situated near an immigration liaison office which examined Turkish workers before they left for Germany following the countries’ 1961 recruitment agreement. Although the formality of the agreement ended with the oil crisis of 1973, which irrevocably changed the global economy, the one-way population exchange that ensued between Anatolia and Europe had permanently altered the economic, cultural and political landscapes of both countries. 

As part of its commitment to historical memory and freedom of speech in confrontation with Turkey’s censorial media, Depo occasionally publishes an e-journal called Red Thread, which takes aim at far-right conservatism in society and government while including relevant art theory, cultural criticism and political commentary. In an article for the latest, fifth issue of Red Thread, Ahmet Ersoy wrote a piece titled “Neo-Ottomanism in the Age of Digital Media”, stating “Versions of instant reality […] within […] Capitalism, in order to catch us unawares, lure our senses with insidious strategies, and penetrate the depths of our souls.” His critique of Internet capitalism and the cultural amnesia of contemporary modernism aptly contextualizes Thorn Shelter, which opened in October ahead of the e-journal’s sixth issue.

In 1975, the Yugoslav Black Wave cinema auteur and documentarian Želimir Žilnik trained his lens on the common stairwell of a guest workers’ apartment building in Munich. Men, women and children took turns to step down and introduce themselves. If they followed the protocol, they stated their name and nationality, perhaps adding a few thoughts before walking out of the frame. A gray-haired man in a suit jacket said, in Turkish, that sometimes they were not satisfied with their jobs. “What’s more, the place where we sleep is bad,” he added, as a little girl followed him shyly, grasping the handrail. “I’m a second-grade student,” she told the camera. “My daddy is working here.” Titled Inventur – Metzstrasse 11 (1975), the film was made shortly after the oil crisis of 1973. Offering a glimpse into these workers’ lives, Žilnik’s work was an important inclusion in Thorn Shelter

The exhibition coincides with the 60th anniversary of the bilateral recruitment agreement between Turkey and West Germany, which declared that there would be a “systematic recruitment of Turkish workers to the Federal Republic”. A new chapter in cultural globalization had begun, not only in terms of Turkish-German affairs, but in the internationalization of the working class from the fringe to the center of European economics. In the wake of World War II, pre-unification Germany faced a vacuum of manpower as their domestic workforce had been overwhelmed by their wholesale militarization and defeat. Ottoman Turkey and premodern Germany were allies during the First World War. Although there was an alarming presence of fascist and even Aryan racism in Turkish governmental circles, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, welcomed German exiles, including Jews, during the rise of Nazism. Erich Auerbach, for example, not only helped to modernize education in Turkey, but also founded the discipline of comparative literature while taking refuge in Istanbul. After World War II, the tables turned. From 1961 to 1973, Germany became home to generations of people from Turkey, who were initially tolerated as “guest workers”. But they stayed, forming a multigenerational community as the country’s largest minority. 

In this context, the show Thorn Shelter paid homage to the historic and ongoing legacy of Turkey’s economic migrants through the works of the bi’bak project, the collective research project DiasporaTürk and cultural worker Özlem Sarıyıldız, as well as those of artist Cana Bilir-Meier and her aunt, the late poet Semra Ertan. 

Presented in the exhibition, bi’bak’s 25-minute film Sıla Yolu (2016–17) was riveting for communicating the difficulties that Turkish workers have faced in just getting to Germany since the 1960s. The footage shows a number of car accidents, roadside grave sites, and workers narrating their perilous journeys and overnight stays whilst on the road. Accompanying bi’bak’s two-part installation was a vintage television monitor, screening videos from the 1980s that people from Turkey had produced in Germany—an addition at Depo, titled Please Rewind (2019). One flickered with a documentary by a Turkish-content television channel called Türk-Kan, presenting it as “the strongest company in the video world”. On display were VHS tapes titled “DIreniş” [Resistance],  and “Gurbet Acısı” [Expatriate Pain]. 

Sıla Yolu and Please Rewind brought Thorn Shelter in conversation with In Situ: Photo Stories on Migration, an exhibition of photographs at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, which ran from June 19th to October 3rd 2021. Taken by Turkish guest workers after their arrival in Germany in the years between 1955 and 1989, the snapshots at In Situ thoroughly documented workers’ lives in Germany, from their bachelor dormitories to family outings when their wives and families joined them. But the Cologne exhibition did not recount the difficulties of traveling from Turkey to Germany. It is said that Yugoslavia was notoriously dangerous, and that many Turkish workers did not even roll down their car windows while passing through the region for fear of being seen. 
DiasporaTürk prepared an installation comprising workers’ passports. The Turkish ones stated the person’s profession and the colors of their face, eyes, and hair in Turkish and French. One man is documented as having facial features the color of buğday [wheat], chatain in French. Above his passport are images of men photographed wearing only their underwear, their naked flesh enumerated. Below the passport of a woman, DiasporaTürk had installed a text on a transparent placard that noted how the documents granted certain rights, while marking the individuals as workers. 

Connecting the historical with the contemporary, Özlem Sarıyıldız’s multichannel interview video Welcomed to Germany? (2018) is a gripping work which seamlessly interweaves nine testimonies from Turkish citizens in Germany today, such as a professor who signed the Academics for Peace petition. “I lost my job” she said, as her voice was interchanged with a young man traumatized by state violence. “Then Suruç explosion happened. I survived by pure luck.” Their overlapping voices create a common narrative of forced exile, compelled not by Germany's need for workers, as in the past, but by the insufferable state of Turkish politics.  
Beyond then and now, or here and there, is the late Semra Ertan, who penned her poem “Meine Name ist Ausländer” [My Name is Foreigner] in Turkish and German in 1971, one year before setting her body aflame in Hamburg to protest the racism that she experienced as a Turkish guest worker in Germany.Meine Name ist Ausländer, / Ich arbeite hier,” [My name is Foreigner, / I work here,] she wrote.Meine Arbeit ist schwer, Meine Arbeit ist schmutzig.” [My work is heavy, my work is dirty.] Ihre eigene Stimme (Her Own Voice) (2016), an audio installation and a 70-page transcription, resounded with the voice of Ertan reciting three of her poems, set to an homage of music by composer Enjott Schneider, “Oktett für Semra Ertan” (1982). The poignant work was paired with a seven-minute film Semra Ertan (2013) by her niece, the artist Cana Bilir-Meier, dramatizing the news coverage of Ertan’s suicide and its traumatic repercussions both within their Turkish family and as it rippled across German society.

Thorn Shelter is, by its title and especially in the context of Ertan’s refreshed legacy, about Germany as a prickly place of refuge for migrant workers flung into the mire of a country traumatized by the undead horrors of denazification. The lives of Turkish “guest workers” and their cultural legacy reveal how that nightmare of racism never ended. It is a truth that echoes in the horror of unforgettable far-right attacks like those at Rostock in 1992, and Halle in 2019. In 2021, MIT Press published a book by art historian Peter Chametzky titled “Turks, Jews and Other Germans in Contemporary Art”, which reflected on the years between 2000 to 2005, when 800,000 residents of Germany became German citizens. In solidarity, contemporary Jewish-German artist Esther Dischereit wrote an operetta that was translated into Turkish by Saliha Yeniyol, honoring the Turkish victims of violence perpetrated by the National Socialist Underground between 2000 and 2007. As Chametzky’s book makes clear, Turks are the largest minority in Germany, and have effectively taken the place of Jews in the postwar era in terms of racial stigmatization. 

In her ongoing oral history study Listen Carefully (2021), Özlem Sarıyıldız presented a video featuring edited interviews with three working-class Turkish women reflecting on their experiences moving to Germany in the late-20th century. One woman remembered buying her first black-and-white television set. She watched a Muhammad Ali fight at three o’clock in the morning before work, because there was nothing else to see then, when German networks were yet to air Turkish programs. 

“People in Turkey think it’s easy to make a living in Germany,” said a grey-haired woman in Listen Carefully. “Some of them exaggerate and lie. ‘I sit all day and push buttons. The machines work and when the shift ends I leave.’ That wasn’t the case at all.” Sarıyıldız had also captured immigrants’ struggles from Turkey to today’s Germany in Welcomed to Germany?. Among the simultaneously-interwoven interviews, a voice says “I wanted to return to Turkey, because Turkey was a blissful place in the 2000s. I felt there would be changes.” Another voice later warns: “It’s madness to go abroad without knowing anyone.” 

For contemporary artists and leaders in the cultural sector in general, working between Germany and Turkey can feel amnesic, at a loss for an accurate means of representing their history. The divide is riven with class issues. Because the majority of Turkish guest workers in Germany were, naturally, working-class, they were generally divorced from the opportunities and aspirations of the international, European art world. In Turkey, it was arguably only by the 1990s when contemporary art had revealed a face comparable to that of today, after the elitism of Francophile art history was transformed by local street galleries and art school grads. 

Turkey’s 1990s contemporary art scene happened concurrently with the emergence of the children of Turkish guest workers in Germany, who were then graduating from art schools. Among them was a son of Turkish guest workers, Nasan Tur, born in Offenbach am Main in 1974. Tur didn’t receive his German citizenship until 2000, which he integrated into the critical, working-class reflexivity of his art practice. His contemporary in Turkey is Halil Altındere, whose prolific oeuvre is studded with working-class Turkish aesthetics. 
But while the cultural impacts of the history of Turkish guest workers are obvious in Germany, where Turkish families remain visible minorities and where artists are comparably freer to express their views on Turkish history and politics, Turkey suffers from an unresolved and remote absence in its heartland of Anatolia, and an ongoing compulsion toward outmigration from its core of Istanbul which is, itself, as traumatic as the tragedies that have compelled artists and workers to forego their birthright to national citizenship and move. 

Thorn Shelter traced that chronology of mass outmigration from Turkey to Germany, highlighting its most significant points with each installation: from the political refugees of today’s Turkey in the videos of Sarıyıldız to the passport identification of first-time immigrants by DiasporaTürk, their highway route across Europe and the home entertainment culture they created by bi’bak, the housing issues they faced in the filmmaking of Žilnik, and finally, the suicidal activism of Ertan, poet laureate of Turkish guest workers, whose niece, the artist Bilir-Meier, strives to keep her memory and voice alive.

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