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Jan 07 2019

Turkey "turned into a place where it became impossible to breathe" - self-exiled artist

A self-exiled Turkish artist and feminist, Özgül Arslan, said Turkey turned into a place where it became impossible to breathe, in an interview with Index on Censorship, a publishing organisation for freedom of expression.

“It turned into a place where it became impossible to breathe. It is meaningless to live in a country where the government is constantly uttering threats. It makes our lives, our humanity and our minds lose their worth,” Arslan said.

Since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government began a crackdown to silence any dissident voices. The number of arrestees continues growing day by day. In addition to more than 100,000 judges, police officers, journalists, academics and teachers, along with other public servants were linked to the Islamist Gülen movement that Ankara blames for orchestrating the failed coup.

"Those who speak up against the government are arrested with police raids in the middle of the night and kept in jail for months without an indictment. They otherwise lose their jobs" Arslan said. "Either you have to keep silent, or you have to leave. Think a President who threatens half of the population with the other half that elected him."

Artists, academics, musicians, journalist and several opponents fleed to abroad. In the post-coup period, Arslan, and many others living in Turkey, learned how to remain silent for their own safety, according to the organisation. 

"Every dissenting, marginal opinion is being finger-pointed as a target by the government. Artists are being discredited. Either their artistic works are censored, or artists themselves exercise self-censorship," Arslan stressed.

Arslan said she started to express her thoughts using the art. With its metaphors and hidden messages, art became Arslan's voice. 

"As an artist, I chose to express my relationship with the present and my questioning through my work. Even though I can’t really tell if there was a defining moment, there has always been a latent political content in all my artistic works," Arslan said.

Arslan left the country as the government intensified its oppression and the crackdown against the dissidents, according to the organisation. She was also concerned for her daughter since the social and educational systems were also damaged in Turkey. 

"Turkey has turned its back to science. Entire curriculum was changed. Many qualified teachers were dismissed. The country is rapidly verging to Dark ages in the hands of a government looking to raise a 'religious and rancorous' generation. Also, the number of sexual attacks and violence against children and women is very high," she said.

She didn’t want to raise her daughter in such environment, so she and her husband moved to London in 2016.

Arslan, who has done exhibitions both in Turkey and abroad, spoke to Leah Asmelash from Index on Censorship about censorship of the arts in Turkey, how her beliefs affect her work and upcoming projects.

"I preferred to move where I could work more freely and keep developing my art without exercising self-censorship or sitting back and watching everything."