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March 8, 2013 7:37 pm
A new art fair in Istanbul will be radically different from the usual model. At its core will be 60 units run by individual artists, and although the city has become known for cutting-edge contemporary, the specialisms showcased at All Arts Istanbul will be historic techniques such as calligraphy, paper-marbling, illumination and miniatures.
There will also be some 30 commercial galleries selling works that span classical times to the present day, most devoted to antiquities, antiques and traditional arts. In addition, private collectors such as Oner Kocabeyoglu, owner of a feted cache of modern Turkish painters, will put on displays of their treasures.
The fair is the brainchild of Ali Gureli, who also oversees Contemporary Istanbul, the contemporary art fair now in its eighth year. Gureli was aware of the absence of a high-profile marketplace for traditional and Islamic arts. “We saw that there was a big need for a platform ... there are very few galleries in the region which exhibit [traditional] art.”
Gureli’s project is an effort to diversify from an increasingly competitive contemporary market. Next September, Sandy Angus, Art HK co-founder (now Art Basel Hong Kong) and of London’s newest fair, Art13, will launch yet another event, Istanbul Art International – whose artistic director Stephane Ackermann was previously with Contemporary Istanbul. Gureli meanwhile plans to announce the launch of two new fairs at Art Dubai this month: one, devoted to emerging galleries, will coincide with All Arts Istanbul in 2014; the other will run later that year and concentrate on digital media.
It’s far from certain that the city can sustain all this activity. Although Contemporary Istanbul’s foundations remain solid, Art Beat, a contemporary fair which opened to coincide with the Istanbul Biennial in September 2011, has disappeared from the scene. Sotheby’s annual contemporary Turkish sale last April sold just 40 per cent of lots, while Bonhams chose not to repeat its 2011 foray into contemporary Turkish art at all.
The real buoyancy in the Turkish market still lies in its local base. (The Istanbul auction house Antik A.S. boasts the top-selling contemporary Turkish work, a painting by Erol Akyavas for $1.54m.) And buyers from the Gulf and Iran are more likely to look kindly on Turkish offerings than their peers in the US and northern Europe – it’s no coincidence that Christie’s wraps modern and contemporary Turkish art up with its Arab and Iranian sales in Dubai.
It is this territory that Gureli hopes to capture. “Our core audience will be collectors from the region,” he says. “They will be mainly local [Turkish] but we are also trying to promote ourselves in the Gulf.” As far as the antiques dealers are concerned, the majority of buyers will have to be home-based as Turkey’s export rules prevent items more than 100 years old from leaving the country. Gureli says that work registered with the Ministry of Culture as not being of museum quality falls outside the ban but one leading antiques dealer, who asked not to be named, said she was unfamiliar with such exemptions.
Sara Plumbly, head of Islamic Art at Christie’s, has observed the strengthening market among Turkish buyers for Ottoman art. “With every sale, there are one or two new Turkish buyers who are entering the market. There’s a real feeling that they are buying back their heritage.” Plumbly perceives particular enthusiasm for Iznik pottery, calligraphy and items made from tombak, a gilt-copper metal used for Ottoman armour. Living artists who practise such time-honoured techniques have often slipped under the radar of collectors. “There have been efforts to promote [such work] but they have not been very effective,” explains Dr Nurhan Atasoy. Scholar in residence at the Turkish Cultural Foundation, which specialises in the promotion of traditional Turkish arts, she is one of a number of academics on the advisory board of All Arts Istanbul.
Although the list of exhibitors has yet to be finalised, visitors can expect a sumptuous display of arts and crafts whose origins stretch back centuries. From Istanbul-based Fuat Baser, for example, come exquisite flowers hand-painted on paper according to the Ebru marbling technique, whose roots reach back to 15th-century Persia. The princes, maidens and warriors painted with exceptional precision by miniature artist Taner Alakus are the proud heirs of the artist’s eagle-eyed Ottoman ancestors.
For this year only, the fair will host the artists for free. “Next year, we hope they will be happy to pay,” says Gureli. He estimates running costs this year at TL1m. Currently in discussions with “two major banks” about the possibility of sponsorship, he hopes that the eventual corporate patron will provide TL200,000. Gureli is also in discussion with local auction house Antik A.S. over the possibility of hosting a sale there. Such a move is controversial with dealers. One Ottoman antiques gallery, which asked not to be named, said it had refused to participate as a result. “Fairs are supposed to promote galleries. Auction houses just want to sell art,” she said.
Given that the Turkish government has done little so far to support the country’s contemporary scene, it is significant that All Arts Istanbul has won its approval. “The ministry of foreign affairs has promoted the fair through Turkish embassies in 40 countries across the region,” says Gureli. Such enthusiasm is laudable but also provokes a frisson of anxiety given that prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been cracking down on artists who are considered threatening. In 2011, Erdogan encouraged the destruction of “Monument to Humanity”, a public contemporary sculpture by Mehmet Aksoy which commented on the relations between Turkey and Armenia. Let’s hope the love of tradition is not a mask for a distaste for the new.
All Arts Istanbul runs April 18-21. allartsistanbul.com
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