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BIPR | An Artist in a Time of Authoritarianism
An Artist in a Time of Authoritarianism

November 13, 2023 - 18:30

Gaye Su Akyol - Sebnem Altunkaya

Event Recap

On November 13th, SAIS Professor Lisel Hintz hosted a panel discussion on authoritarianism and art in Turkey with Sebnem Altunkaya, PhD Candidate and research fellow at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Johannes Gutenberg University-Mainz, Germany, and Gaye Su Akyol, a Turkish Rock musician and multi-media artist from Istanbul, Turkey. The discussion focused on different types of oppression in the art(s) spaces in Turkey and how artists can navigate this environment.

Professor Hintz researches the intersection of various forms of culture and politics in Turkey. Questions she investigates include: What tools do governments have to try to silence voices of the opposition as expressed through cultural products? In what ways can artists and others use music, films, and other forms of cultural expression to push back against government policies and to sustain opposition momentum?

As also a member of the Anthropology of Music research group at JGU, Sebnem Altunkaya conducts ethnographic research on Anatolian Psychedelic Rock Music. She is concerned with the questions of how music can serve as personal, political and artistic expression and how interaction between musicians and audience can contribute to strong subcultural movement(s). Gaye Su Akyol is a singer-songwriter, producer who creates music that is an overlap of psychedelia, surf-rock, and Anatolian rock. She is also a painter. Her debut album, Develerle Yasiyorum, was released in 2014. Her various artworks are often an expression of intersectional critique of Turkish people face in everyday life. Women, LGBTQ and other minority issues are the main focus for her.

Akyol pointed out that authoritarianism is on the rise all around the world. As she positions herself against authoritarianism both in her own home country and the world, she is often depicted as a rebel, as strange as that feels for her. For her, it is just about basic human rights. She states that the unfortunate political realities of the present day can only be fought against through solidarity and organized movement. To reflect on these issues, she aims to create an alternative reality, where other political norms matter. Gaye uses symbols as a way of creating this own counter reality, as she called it. Inspired by artists that showed her that there are other realities that can be the real reality, she realized that change begins with dreaming for her, dreaming of other possibilities, other people, and other universes.

In May 2023, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the elections again in Turkey with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002. As Erdogan has been at the helm of Turkish politics for more than twenty years, many social scientists have been talking about increasing authoritarianism in the country. The literature often addresses reforms in the judiciary, manipulation in elections, arrests of journalists and recent increase on cancelling concerts. One significant social movement that was mentioned during the discussion was Gezi Park protests. After Gezi movement, the art and music sector started to shrink, and a lot of bands went underground pointed out Sebnem Altunkaya. Groups of people who feel close to these bands and that belong to a certain subculture, feel oppressed. The space of the arts is almost non existing in that sense. Turkish government was failing to acknowledge the concerns of its people.

Gaye stated that the government is using the exact opposite language, like a post-truth situation, and overtly lying (quoted Gaye Su Akyol). Gaye Su Akyol and her audience construct another language together. Lyrics and messages can resonate with multiple audiences. The connection between artists and audience seems to be created out of the need to communicate. Gaye's audience knows what to expect when they come to concerts. Researcher Sebnem Altunkaya said ; "metaphors and symbolic hints give people hope, people feel a sense of belonging in a country where they feel alienated, there's room for dreaming. When the musician is under the threat of losing the scene, going to jail, that of course also effects the audience. Once the artist is afraid, so is the audience." Overall, the event highlighted the importance or artistic expression especially during the time of oppression and authoritarianism.

An Artist in a Time of Authoritarianism

Supported by the Associazione di cultura e di studio italo-americana Luciano Finelli Friends of the Johns Hopkins University
hosted by Professor Lisel Hintz

Gaye Su Akyol
Turkish Rock Musician and Artist
Sebnem Altunkaya
M.A., Department of Social and Cultural Anthtropology, Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany

Gaye Su Akyol is an Istanbul-based musician and artist. Born in 1985, she has a background in social anthropology.

In her work she redefines the concepts of power, desire, change and rebellion, along with tight-knit solidarity with women, queer and outcast communities. She rebels against societal gender roles, patriarchy, censorship and oppression and creates a universe of imagination, in which she constructs her own "counter-reality" against the stifling realities dictated by the power. Without alienating herself from the land where she was born, she questions its representations, defines new symbols, and while struggling with the complexities and political chaos of the concrete world, she chases after the practice of transforming a conservative world through collective dreaming.

Akyol has created her own unique language, taking the contrasts of traditional Anatolian music, classical Turkish music, psychedelia, surf rock and post-punk and combining them with her futuristic approach. In 2014, GSA released her first album "Develerle Yasiyorum" (I Live With Camels), written and composed entirely by herself. Aykol defines her music as "universal in concept, local in spirit". She has expanded her audience through numerous concerts and festivals in Turkey, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, with her first international album, "Hologram Imparatorlugu" (Hologram Empire) released in 2016, by both the German-based record label Glitterbeat and Dunganga Records, a label co-founded by Gaye Su Akyol and Ali Güçlü Simsek. She has received rave reviews for her music and creations from major media publications such as The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, Pitchfork and The Wire. In her third long play, "Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir" (Consistent Fantasy is Reality), released in 2018, a record which she names "a practice of dreaming", she not only writes and composes the entire album, but also takes on the role of producer in the stages of production, arrangement and recording, and art director of the visual aspect of the record. With this album, she became the first musician from Turkey to be featured on the cover of Songlines, one of the top music magazines in England and was awarded the "Best Artist" title in 2019.

With the same album, she remained at #1 on the Transglobal World Music Chart Europe for several months. Akyol released her EP "Yort Savul: Isyan Manifestosu" (Manifesto of Rebellion), which she fully produced in 2020. She released her latest album "Anadolu Ejderi" ("Anatolian Dragon") at the end of 2022, and the album's world tour continues. Following her single, released by Sub Pop in August 2023, she toured the United States in September for the first time.

Sebnem Altunkaya is a research fellow and PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthtropology (ifeas) of the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz. After completing her BA degree in North American Studies in Turkey with an interdisciplinary focus on different subjects (including political science, philosophy and sociology), she moved to Germany in 2017. She completed her Master's degree in the same subject at Georg-August University, Göttingen in 2020. She is currently doing research in the anthropology of music and her dissertation project deals with a cultural and political understanding of Anatolian Psychedelic Rock music from Turkey since the 1960s. She is a member of the Anthropology of Music Research Group at ifeas, where she is investigating personal and political expression through music and how the dimensions of musical movements (cultural symbols, lyrical expression, concert environments and stage personas) contribute to meaning making and the collective understanding of identity. She has recently worked as a production coordinator and academic consultant for an Anatolian Rock documentary project with the France 3 ViaStella channel.
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