Erecting Change in Turkey

May 22, 2015

A story making the rounds in Turkey in recent weeks relates to the unveiling, in the Black Sea city of Amasya, of an odd selfie-taking statue of an Ottoman prince. The statue's creation, and near-immediate vandalism, has prompted the Turkish Daily Tattler to publish photos of similarly strange artwork in cities throughout Turkey. 

Selfie fun in Amasya

This phenomenon of provincial Turkish municipalities erecting odd statues is hardly new. Neither is the practice of making fun of them. There's a Tumblr page about this that has been up for several years carrying photographs of these odd creations. And here's another very good site about local statues that's been up for a while--the comments beneath the pictures on the site are pretty hilarious, and the photos below are mostly taken from there.  

Compared to most of these other statues, the selfie statue of Amasya is, I think, actually pretty clever.

Soccer playing crocodiles in Bursa

Many of the statues are quite simple--representations of fruits, nuts, or other commodities that are grown or produced in a particular area. Others are more abstract, and appear to be efforts to represent principles like democracy or human rights. Still other statues are downright bizarre, and don't seem to have any concrete (ha!) connection to the places in which they were erected. 

 Municipal statues in Turkey: a sampler

I know I'm probably reading too much into this, but it's worth pointing out that, until a short time ago in Turkey, almost every statue everywhere was of one person: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This was certainly the case when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s. Other than the occasional Ottoman historical figure, or maybe a Turkish writer or artist in front of a house-museum, there were hardly any non-Atatürk statues to be found in most forms of public space. Most of these statues, like the portraits of Turkey's founder that are still ubiquitous in the country's public buildings, were stern, disapproving, and designed to instill, I think, a sense of fear and obedience in the people viewing them. 

A reminder of who's in charge


So should we really see it as a coincidence that absurd little renderings of fruit, cartoon characters, or other objects would proliferate at a time when the more rigidly ideological Kemalism of an earlier era in Turkey is now on the defensive? I'm not arguing that the people behind these statues have been consciously trying to diminish Ataturk's legacy or anything like that--though I bet some people see it that way. However, I do think that, in earlier decades, the choice of what or who to put up on a pedestal was seen as a much more serious--and political--decision than is the case today. In the 1960s or 1970s, authorities in Turkey were still intently focused upon reinforcing Kemalist authority and ideology in the public square so putting up something more lighthearted was not, I reckon, as much of an option back then.

A smiling tooth, wearing shoes, in Konya

While the statues that we see now might look silly or just plain weird, I think that there actually is some meaning behind them. Some folks, I imagine, would probably prefer to see something more whimsical in their traffic circles, as opposed to the more nakedly ideological forms of public art that were dominant in Turkey until the 1990s. 

Giant cat w/fishing pole
and headband, Ankara

Ideological relaxation in Turkey has therefore been, I think, the major factor behind this proliferation in this sort of kitchy public art. Whereas forty years ago maybe no one would have had the guts to suggest anything other than yet another Ataturk statue for a particular location, today people feel more comfortable putting up something else instead. And if their ideas are not always very good ones, maybe at least we can take into account the fact that, up until relatively recently, no one in Turkey had to think very hard about what kind of statue they were going to put up. 

This Audrey-esque artichoke
graces the Istanbul district of Bayrampa

So maybe we should see this proliferation of silly statues as an issue that has parallels with the politics of de-Kemalization in Turkey more generally. In both cases, I think, individuals are struggling with the question of how to replace something that has always been automatic--whether you're talking about statues or ideology. 

After all, it's one thing to find faults in and move away from stricter forms of a certain ideology. It's another job entirely, however, to figure out what you're going to replace that ideology with. 

109 libraries can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge

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