Greek-Turkish relations get cultural boost via German mediation

THESSALONIKI – A major joint modern art exhibition by Greek and Turkish artists, which has just opened here, was brought about with German mediation in a bid to boost the neighboring countries’ fragile political relations through culture. The show was commissioned by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the inventor of aspirin, which has more than 700 Turks and 100 Greeks on its German payrolls. The thinking behind the event is: «We all belong to one big society and must acknowledge and accept our differences and our similarities – that’s my approach,» the show’s curator Inge Baecker told AFP. The touring exhibition, titled «Greece-Turkey: Meeting Point Art,» has already been shown at Bayer’s headquarters in Leverkusen and in Istanbul, in the presence of the Turkish culture minister and the Greek Orthodox patriarch, and is currently making its final stop at the Macedonian Museum of Modern Art in the northern city of Thessaloniki until December 9. «I tried to find similarities in the way artists from both countries treated specific themes, such as history, women’s rights, society,» explained Baecker, who runs a gallery in Cologne, Germany. Displacement is only one of many common features in the two nations’ fraught history, highlighted by Guelsuen Karamustafa, one of Turkey’s best-known artists. «When we crossed the border, we hid all our valuables in the vests of our children,» reads the inscription on the floor below three vests suspended on silver threads from the ceiling, with costume jewelry, letters and film negatives knitted into them. «People often overlook that bad things can also happen to nations other than their own,» Baecker told AFP. «Many Greeks, for example, still repress the thought that not only Greeks, but Turks, too, lost their homes in the two countries’ war in the 1920s,» she told AFP. The loss of female identity in a predominantly patriarchal society, as well the weight of family and tradition in daily life, are other common themes running through the works of the 16 artists featured in the show, eight from each country. They include household names on the international art circuit, such as Greece’s Costas Tsoklis and Turkey’s Adnan Coker. But similarities apart, the exhibition also reveals telling differences in the two nations’ psyche. «Viewed from the background of their great, imperial capital Istanbul, Turks see things in a wider context,» Baecker said. «Greeks, shaped by a century-long struggle to break free from Turkish domination, hark back to their ancient culture, but that’s often not enough,» said Baecker, explaining the narrower, more embittered attitude she traces in the work of modern Greek artists. Attachment to their classical heritage, as expressed in Greeks’ enthusiasm for staging last August’s Olympic Games in Athens, even put some extra obstacles in the show’s way. «It was just so difficult to find financial backers. Most companies said the Games drained them of cash for sponsorship,» the Thessaloniki museum’s director Xanthippi Skarpia-Heupel told AFP. Initial plans to stage the exhibition in Athens during the Games were dropped due to a lack of adequate space. But in hindsight, Thessaloniki seemed a better location. The city is a symbol of coexistence itself. Founded by ancient Greeks 2,300 years ago, Greeks, Turks and Jews coexisted in the vibrant port for centuries. Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, was born there in 1881 when the city was part of the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire.