Share Article   
Submit to Facebook

December 10, 2011

Interview with Övgü Gökçe, Project Coordinator of Diyarbakır Arts Center

Paal Bøe: My understanding is that the development of the cultural scene in Diyarbakır changed radically after the DEHAP gained power in 1999. It was the first time that a political party representing the Kurdish resistance movement took hold of a state institution wielding local power. And that this prepared the ground for a number of cultural projects as part of reasserting cultural heritage, and a new sense of belonging and decolonization in the city that was impossible before this. As I understand you started in 2002, is that right?


Övgü Gökçe: Yes, and the history of DSM is a very interesting one. To give you a general overview, Diyarbakır Sanat Merkezi (DSM) is a branch of Anadolu Kültür (AK), there is only one branch and that is in Diyarbakır at the moment. Anadolu Kültür is an organization which was established in 2002, based in Istanbul, which it still is, and which started working with arts and culture projects in the entire Anatolia with a priority to not only bring the arts – the national and international art scene – to a number of cities, but also to help discovering the local artistic and cultural endeavors and potentials of these cities and somehow form a bridge in between those cities and other parts of Turkey, and also to the international art scene.



History of the Center – current practices and challenges

ÖG: It’s really interesting that AK stepped into Diyarbakır just months after it was established and when it was still under extraordinary circumstances with more intense military power in the city, and it was probably the only and first arts and culture center which was established in Diyarbakır, coming from the outside. This coming from the outside part is important because due to the now 30 years of armed conflict, one has been very much defensive in terms of any approach from the outside, on behalf of the local and the indigenous identity of Diyarbakır, so there was some sort of, you know, distrust in the beginning for the DSM, but the first couple of years of the center proved to be extremely productive. There were so many writers’ talks, panel sessions, exhibitions, conferences, film screenings, local branches of nationalized film festivals, like the feminist film festival, or some others like the international literature base. And it also had a lot of workshops and seminars in writing, in contemporary art and particularly in film, during those first several years. Many people who currently work in the arts say that DSM was something like their first education spot. So it was a meeting point, and in some cases a training space, but also a sharing and bridging area where art from here, and artists from here, could present their works in Diyarbakır, but also elsewhere, as well as bringing in really good artistic activities. Many people, not only artists, but also people who are interested in social and cultural issues, found their way to the DSM.



PB: I recently read a text by Zeynep Gambetti[i], she quotes another writer, Ayşe Gül Altõnay, who also describes the development of the DSM, and she says that your initial aim was to de-emphasize the typical categories of separations between peoples like the typical “us and them”-perspectives and the othered cultures. A fundamental idea, she says, was to promote “all of us" instead. Would you say that this kind of cosmopolitanism, or this perspective, was a challenge to local people in terms of how they viewed the cultural project of Kurdish identity and belonging?


ÖG: Sometimes, yes, sometimes no, in the sense that I see the main actors of the Kurdish movement, at least some of them, as very open to the idea of cosmopolitanism, the same for the cultural political movement by the way. The Kurdish cultural movement is somehow a mirror or a reflecting area of the Kurdish political movement, because Kurdish political movement and its premises also change according to the conjuncture, so in a way sometimes it is very open to this idea of a more universalist, more solidarity-based and more relational culture. On the other hand, we feel our own necessity in terms of the know-how we bring in certain matters, particularly concerning the international scene, because everything here is very much localized, because the priorities are shaped in that way. Still, I do feel an openness towards that sort of universalism.

PB: It is perhaps a way of being able to lift forth Kurdish identity within a discourse that is not determined by the Turkish context, the discourse of otherness, perhaps that’s a point of being international, having an international perspective, to see that identity as part of a global heritage?


ÖG: Yes. And also, I personally and also institutionally think it is important to emphasize the fact that the Kurdish experience is not unique. I mean it is unique in its own, but there are so many experiences that are similar in the entire world, and that are expressed through arts and culture, and I find it very valuable to somehow draw attention to those other experiences, and that would only make the Kurdish experience feel better in the sense that we’re not alone. But of course as a people and as a movement that is constantly under repression, and constantly under pressure and force, this point is usually missed. Because the priorities of everyday life, and of everyday politics are always above an idealistic approach. So DSM’s challenge I think is being in a city currently and constantly going through a political and cultural transformation under extremely suppressive conditions and trying to maintain a balanced cultural politics and a cultural stance in the city, while making this bridging with local actors and outside actors. There are some practical aspects of this challenge, which is, that it is so unpredictable. I mean, you can decide on a cooperation and suddenly it can be cancelled, due to sudden political turmoil. For instance, when guerilla funerals come to the city, which I have witnessed several times, there is a huge political mourning announced and followed in the entire city, which means the closing down of every institution. You can’t foresee this. Or there might be a street fight with the police after current political events. Also because the cultural institutions working here are more NGO’s than arts and culture institutions, their priorities are more human rights based or immediate needs based. And that’s why you come to a point of questioning yourself as well, that’s part of the challenge of being here, because there are very immediate problems.


PB: How do you deal with that? I mean you have been living under this stress for quite a while and have obviously gained a lot of experience. I think this is extremely interesting and it probably proves why there should be an arts center like yours. How do you try to create new strategies to predict or somehow intervene in these things happening? Do you have any ways of dealing with this?


ÖG: I think the best, at least I feel the best way to deal with this is through communication. When you need to decide for something, you can bring in an exhibition, you can be writing a project and trying to find local partners for this, and you can have an activity planned for the next day and the next day everything can be cancelled in the city. So what do you do? For all these questions I think the best way is to go and talk to people, talk to institutions, talk to people who could be in your place, talk to people who are in a more politically radical position or in a less political position than you – just share; share your ideas, share your doubts, share your questions. I mean I think the best way to survive under such conditions is through solidarity, and I think although people and institutions may have defenses or some sort of reservation for other people or institutions, for some events that happened in the past and are maybe not applicable today, solidarity is still possible. You know some problems take time to change or recuperate themselves. Even if there are those sorts of reservations between institutions, human relationships, one to one, personal relationships are very highly valued in this city. Maybe in Istanbul this sort of communicative methods might not have worked, but on a personal level, people can develop trust to each other through everyday interaction. I think this also involves the institutions aspect. DSM was transforming its position or its methodology in 2011 as I came to work here; it was going through a reorganization where it was turned into a projects office, which planned long-term and deeper projects of cooperation in the city. So instead of presenting yourself as the center of your work, you open yourself as a person and also as an institution and try to develop ideas in reaction and conversation with them.


Don’t Tell Us Fairytales – performances with women in Diyarbakır and Trabzon

PB: This reminds me of your ongoing project Don’t tell us fairy tales, performances with women in Diyarbakır/ Trabzon. To pick up the line from the earlier question of how to use art under such difficult circumstances – to create solidarity and a sense of continuity and belonging; cultural renewal perhaps, and a flexible, interactive ambiance – could you tell me a little bit about this project?


ÖG: I think this project is a very good example of how you react to sudden changes in the conjuncture. What actually happened in this project was that it had to be transformed and right now it has not been implemented the way it was composed. Initially it was designed by an actress who works in Trabzon state theater in cooperation with Anadolu Kültür. The idea was initially to have two groups of totally amateur women, in both cities, contacted by local women’s organizations, going through a drama workshop in a parallel way and then combining these two groups, and practice this really naive and simple play together in a Diyarbakır.


PB: Was it a written play before it was put into life?


ÖG: Yes, it was a ready play, very naive, and the whole idea is about women speaking out, voicing their unhappiness about the way fairytales are written, they in a way come up and say no to the roles written in the fairytales for women – the princess, whatever, Snow White, all the male dominated discourses in the fairy tales. And of course, by bringing together women from Trabzon and Diyarbakır, particularly for people in the Black Sea region some of who have a lot of prejudice for Kurds and people from the South-East region, it was going to create a likeness through the experience of being women – because being a woman is a common experience, whether in the Black Sea or in the South-East, it doesn’t matter; both are somehow suppressed by men etc. etc. So it was a very naive idea.


PB: An ironic play in that sense?


ÖG: Yes, and the point was that they could touch each other and realize their common problems, their common concerns, and there were local partners in the women organizations in both cities who would contact these amateur women for these drama workshops. So, that was the original plan – we wanted to work with the women organizations. However, after the June elections, the political tension increased enormously. The project was financed by the Swedish Consulate, however, during the summer, the Trabzon branch said that they can’t take part in the project in Diyarbakir, due to the political tension.


PB: What was the reason for that? What was the tension you’re talking about?


ÖG: Because the guerilla forces and the military started fighting with each other and the government’s political attitude became more and more aggressive. The more Turkish soldiers died, the more Turkish nationalist groups got aggravated. In many aspects there is a really very strong nationalist sensitivity in some of the Black Sea cities, and so they didn’t want to get into this because they thought it would probably create problems for them in their own city, in the place they stand.


PB: It would be a bad stamp for them?


ÖG: Yes, and this is not something new, in a way we were not extremely surprised because we were informed about a lot of similar stories, experienced particularly when relating these municipalities, Diyarbakır and Rize, Trabzon... municipalities. There were co-operation plans between these municipalities in the past couple of years, but they were all cancelled due to second thoughts by the Black Sea municipalities, there are at least two or three examples of this.


PB: What happened to your project then?


ÖG: Of course we didn’t want to cancel this project because particularly in Diyarbakır there are many women’s organizations, and women’s movements are very strong here, and all the women’s organizations we talked to here were very excited to have drama workshops for amateur women, because usually, the classes and workshops they offer to these people are either English, computer training or sewing, right? More “women’s things”. Most of the women who attend these centers come from low-profile neighborhoods and some of them have a lot of children so they have very little time to work in these things, and the initial reason for us to work with women’s organizations in both cities was to achieve a trust. Because those women would never come to an art center, because what is an art center to them? But the municipalities’ women centers have a very well earned trust because they have psychological support, they have health support, children support, a lot of social mechanisms, so we wanted to work with them partly because people in Diyarbakır have a lot of trust in the municipalities. So it was a good idea, and it would also be fruitful to our own cooperations with the women organizations. Instead of working with independent women, we wanted to learn alternative ways to work with the women’s organizations. So these are the reasons why we did not want to cancel the project. The idea of transforming the project came from the owner of the project’s idea, Dilek Güven. She suggested and we agreed somehow to keep the drama workshops for amateur women in Diyarbakır, and not cancel it even though the Trabzon step was cancelled, and transform our workshop to something not totally amateurish, but like half-professional. The cast would be 4-6 actresses from Trabzon, and 4-6 from Diyarbakır who have parallel practices, and these actresses would come together to perform the play.


Because of the project’s amateur workshop part got smaller, we could work only with one women’s organization and we started with 30 women. We just finished our five week drama workshop with women in Diyarbakır, which was extremely fun and exciting, and they all wanted to have more workshops. For me this part of the project is the most exciting. Because for many of these women, they sit for the first time in front of other people other women and someone really asks them what they like, what they deserve, what they dream of, and they talk about it so openly and open-heartedly that maybe they had never had the opportunity to do so. And during the improvisation during the drama workshop, it was amazing to see what they would come up with. Some of these women are covered and have five children. They come just for two hours while their children are at school and their husband at work, so they come, they do this acting, they go back home. Some of them were illiterate. They are from different generations – there is a girl 17-18 years old, who is in the beginning of everything, who has so many passions, and there is a woman 60 years old, and it’s good to see that they also interact with each other, because you know in terms of the generational relations, particularly in the eastern, feudal, much more conservative cultures, there’s only one way to communicate with the elders. But in the drama workshop, younger people come across with people who are usually higher up in the hierarchy – but here they are on the same level! So this is also an interesting thing. This was one of the things we really wanted, but we didn’t know if it would work or not, but it worked.


PB: Not only perhaps being the first time they can talk to each other, talk to someone about their issues, it is also a matter of representation, right? I mean, it’s shown to an audience as well isn’t it?


ÖG:  Ideally, yes. But this was the first time we were doing something like this, so we really didn’t know what would come out of it, and whether the women themselves would be on stage at some point.


PB: That’s why you wanted to invite actors to stage the play, right, like a second stage of it?


ÖG: At this stage the play and the workshop are going a bit separately, but after the Bayram [the closing celebration of Eid al-Adha], we will have a meeting in which we will give them a little participants’ diploma. And we want to make it an informal gathering, we’ll bring some food, and we will drink tea, and we will discuss the fact that many of them want to make a play, and we will try to make a little, 15 minute play to be presented along with the other play, the professional play. I’m very curious, I know some of them really want to do it, and we’ll see what will come out of it. Some of the women organizations we’re working with say that this is probably the first amateur drama workshop with only women in Diyarbakır. There have been many workshops for children, and also half professional drama groups springing out of the universities, however, this is the first one with people from the neighborhoods, and only with women. It’s quite new and something to develop. But we really want to give the initiative to them; how much to do, what to do.


PB: This sounds like one of your more successful projects in terms of engaging the community, like we talked about initially, how you do that generally and also in terms of coping with the problems and obstacles that add to that. Do you have other similar projects? I know you have a short film festival in cooperation with the Diyarbakır Cinema Club. Do you also have contemporary art exhibitions?


Contemporary art 

ÖG: Contemporary art was probably something DSM brought into not only Diyarbakir but the entire region for the first time, during the last ten years. This is already a difficult area in terms of its relation with the public etc. Being an artist from this area and this region makes this at least twice as difficult, in the sense that there is a supposed identity being projected to those artists. They’re either criticized for doing political work, or they are extremely expected to do political work, which always in the end is something restrictive for their own artistic development, you know what I mean? So they have to be alert for many things. There are a few very good contemporary artists from Diyarbakır who are having solo and group exhibitions in Turkey and internationally. We’re working with one of them, Şener Özmen in current contemporary arts meetings with young artists from Diyarbakır. These meetings had the aim to understand the current status of these young artists who have not been producing for some time – their problems, their reading of recent history of contemporary art in Diyarbakır. Something we are planning as well is an artist catalog edition. There isn’t any written information on Kurdish contemporary artists, except one or two exhibition catalogs. We want to make a catalog in which every single artist from the region will get a place in the catalog, which will be something really valuable, because they usually disappear after contributing to one or two exhibitions.


Lîs publishing house

Another exciting, future project for me, is the comparative literature days, that we would like to organize with Lîs Publishing House. Lîs is one of the most respected and productive publishing houses which publish books in Kurdish, and it’s an independent organization that was founded 6-7 years ago. Most of the people at Lîs are school teachers, but they just put some money together and started this publishing house, and in such a short time, they published more than 100 books, novels and poetry, some of them written originally in Kurdish by Kurdish authors, in Kurmancî, and some are translated from the world classics into Kurdish. They have translations of Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Elliot, Walt Whitman, they’re working on something by William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and we want to cooperate with them. There have been many literary events in the region, but comparative literature as an area is quite unknown, and we would like to bring together different languages, Kurdish, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, by focusing on the region, bringing them together in terms of certain thematic and textual analyses and presentations. That will also draw interrelations between the neighboring languages and countries having similar stories.

Human rights and cinema

ÖG: And last but not the least, we are planning the grandest project the DSM has ever done, which is a fifteen months’ project in human rights and cinema in Diyarbakır. It’s like a pilot project which entails constant collaboration and different stages in these 15 months. The last stage is a human rights film festival, but before that we have cooperations with all NGO’s and institutions who work in the rights’ movements, children’s, women’s rights, human rights, handicapped rights, LGBT rights, etc. And we have activities in each of their expertise, which will involve the community in certain themes such as poverty, language rights, etc. A main motivation behind this was to incorporate alternative ways of using arts in human rights activities. We applied for funding for this project.


PB: Will it work do you think? Is film a particularly good medium to use in Diyarbakır? Is the public interested in cinema, so that’s why it’s an ideal forum, or will you use multi-disciplinary approaches?


ÖG: Yes, well, the central medium is cinema, but we will use other media as well. We have photography, exhibitions, for each activity we have a different focus, and I think it will work to the extent that we, once more, communicate this better with the public, it’s so interesting that in Diyarbakır, while there have been so many activities over the past years, we witness and observe some sort of a problem about audience development and participation. There is a great potential of an audience that is actually far more qualified than the audience in Istanbul and many cities in Turkey in some respects. People have a much more well grounded intellectual basis founded in the city’s political history. You can find literature audiences in this city, which I’ve never seen in Izmir or Istanbul. However it’s very arbitrary how they react to the events and the organizations. Some events are packed with people. But at some of them, they just don’t come. It’s very wavy. One of the things we really want to do in this project is to reach people through the expertise of the collaborating institutions. For instance, DSM has more access to the teachers, the writers, the artists in this city, whereas these women organizations I was telling you about have more access to women’s activists etc. Of course there are some crossovers between them, but every institution has a priority based public interaction, so it’s interesting. Diyarbakır needs a more collaborative and more comprehensive approach to audience interaction, you know what I mean? Because many times you put a lot of efforts, money, timing into a very good activity and then you see that people just don’t come. And another time you just show one film and people are waiting at the doors, it’s packed – it’s really hard to tell in advance. Everything in Diyarbakir is wavy, there is no way to do a perfect pre-planning.


PB: Because everyone’s under pressure, it’s perhaps also easy to see one’s own interests first. One’s own priorities first, and then the idea of cooperation comes next? Sectors that obviously have a lot in common or a common interest don’t see that so easily, it sounds a bit like it...


ÖG: Sometimes, yes. And also it’s very interesting to see that the public here is not very much consistent in the things they choose as well. Sometimes there is negative reaction to popular activities that come from the outside, other times they’re really popular. There is no simple way of defining the identity formation in this city. I think the general Turkish conflict of identity in terms of bringing together the West and East is somehow repeated here as well.


PB: It’s very complex then, I guess, and there are many identities as well in Diyarbakır?I mean, the question of representation – we very often hear about Diyarbakır as the Kurdish capital, which in a sense of course it is, but also it consists of many different groups in need of representation. Do you only work in terms of Kurdish culture and heritage?


ÖG: I think in Diyarbakırfor an organization like us it is important to fill in the blanks. DSM always had an amount of people meeting at the DSM. Particularly the people in the cinema club. Independent people and students who meet at the center. On the one hand they have great sympathy and identification with the Kurdish political movement in the sense that they know it represents them, but on the other hand, sometimes they feel a little pressured by this Kurdish power as well in the sense that it restricts them, their identity, whereas they want to be open to other possibilities. For instance, to be more concrete – some of the film-makers here just want to make personal films, some of them just want to make minimalist films or avant-garde films and experimental films. Sometimes I see this not only in filmmakers, but also in contemporary artists as well and artists in general. On the one hand they know that they can’t ignore the political sphere that surrounds them because their entire life is composed of that sphere. I mean I’ve always been interested in Kurdish politics, but I experience myself that looking at Kurdish politics from Istanbul, and living in its practice are two enormously different things, and I have very mixed feelings about it you know? I mean, on the one hand, I have a great idea of solidarity with the Kurdish political movement, on the other hand I sometimes really see the dangers or the threats that await these organizations themselves. And this is something shared by some of the Diyarbakir citizens. On the one hand they are very open, and they go through and they really feel the urgent need of representing these political issues, on the other hand, they want to be independent and free thinking like this.


Energies of an unpredictable city

PB: So the political situation creates an artificial need for cultural representation, whereas what’s needed is perhaps a climate for cooperation and free expression, and that complex is perhaps very difficult to solve?


ÖG: Yes, it is very difficult because of what you just said, and with which I could totally agree, but there might be points at which I stop and say, well no – the priority is politics. That’s why I think for a person, an artist, an organization or someone like me who moved here from Istanbul, there are always two aspects of the situation: On the one hand, this is a very promising city. It is a constant energy because the political situation creates this energy – energy to oppose, energy to produce, energy to present an alternative to what exists. And that’s very inspiring for an artist and an organization. But on the other hand, there is a constant repression of this energy, there are some blocks for something new, not only from the outside and the Turkish state, but also from the inner political circle or the Kurdish movement itself. There are always reservations you know, always ‘buts’, so it always becomes something like a hindrance for artists as well so both these energies, the productive and the destructive exist at the same time, actually it’s very tiring – it’s very tiring for individuals, it’s very tiring for organizations, I can tell you that. It’s very tense. But on the other hand it’s very promising as well. I mean the creative energy I feel here, I never felt in Istanbul. I’m not saying the creative potential, but the energy – that energy has to turn into a potential. And of course there is a “lack” of know-how here. There is a “lack” of organizational know-how, of institutional know-how. I’m putting lack in quotation marks here, because we’re comparing it to the western world. I’m not expecting the organizations of Diyarbakırto have a westernized, systematized...


PB: That shouldn’t be an ideal anyway, should it?


ÖG: I’m always open to possible alternative systems. At times they may represent an ideal, but it’s very rare that there do. Because alternative systems also necessitate some sort of know-how about the existing system, you know what I mean? On the one hand there is a wonderful amount of qualified people, on the other hand you can hardly find one person to coordinate a project…


PB: There seems to be a huge potential, and a future for organizations such as yours?


ÖG: And a huge danger as well – next year you might find out that you are no more necessary in this city. Because necessity and demand from artists and people is not something stable. It changes from period to period, and I think everything is dependent on whether there will be peace or not at the end of the day. At time of peace and at time of war we should keep on producing, but at the end of the day, whether this situation will go worse, whether it will turn into a more peaceful direction, enormously affects what we are doing.


PB: Do you think art can influence the ability to find solutions to the conflict?


ÖG: I honestly don’t think art can bring solutions – I think art can be the transformative force once the process starts. When I go and watch a Kurdish performance here without knowing any Kurdish I feel that it’s really extremely important that these people living here are watching a play in their own language, which has never happened. I think, even if we’re not in the process of making peace at the moment, when that moment comes, before that moment comes and after that moment comes, art is always central in terms of communicating.


PB: But perhaps communication is also a means to the end of creating peace in the end as well, I mean...?


ÖG: Of course! I mean I might sound a little bit depressive here...


PB: That wasn’t my point...


ÖG: Of course at the end I do believe that everywhere, not only in the Kurdish context, but in similar conflicts anywhere, language, arts and culture and sharing in these areas is extremely important, but it doesn’t have any decisive power. So we will keep on with what we are doing, and hope for the best and be prepared for the worst...







[i] In Kamran Asdar Ali and Martina Rieker (eds), Re-exploring The Urban: Comparative Citiscapes in the Middle East and South Asia, Karachi, Oxford University Press

Add comment

Security code