IZINSIZ, The hanged man on the billboard in Kabataş. 2021
The Middle East is very far from presenting a uniform political landscape, and censorship there is therefore very different and at a very different level of violence from one state to another. Despite everything, there are invariants, and the power of religion is the main one.
In Egypt, for example, the military could only overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood and regain power by joining forces with the Salafists. As I was able to see for myself in Cairo, they send one of them to visit each exhibition before it can get open to the public.
In Iran, the clerics have never relaxed their grip since they took power in 1979 and the gallery owners must sometimes call their artists to order when they propose works that do not submit to the strict criteria of the Shia clerics, thus the recent case of certain works by Abbas Shahsavar that his Azad Art gallery in Tehran had to refuse to exhibit in 2019.
In the Arabian Peninsula, the various monarchies brought to power during the Ottoman decolonization were only able to establish their legitimacy by associating themselves with powerful religious orders. It will take a lot of time and willpower for these pacts to be unraveled to the point of allowing local individual freedom to approach Western criteria. In the meantime, self-censorship is required there, including for non-Muslim foreigners who wish to exhibit there.
In Israel, individual and creative freedoms are incomparably better defended by law. However, the proportional voting system, terrorism, the permanent state of war and the imbalances in terms of birth rates fully benefit the small religious parties, which are becoming less and less small. These, very active, want to limit immigration to only Orthodox Jews to make the country a place where their religious rules will apply to everyone, including artists. They are already putting pressure on museums to remove certain anti-religious works. Their successes are limited, for now, as seen in the attempted censorship of a work by David Reeb at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art in Tel Aviv in January 2022.
In Turkey, reducing the influence of the military was only possible by bringing to power in 2002 a party close to the Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP. Its leader, Erdogan, can only hope today to retain power by associating himself in turn with the nationalist and militarist extreme right. In this context, free artistic expression is less and less possible and, as in Russia (Putin is Erdogan's model autocrat), the streets and social networks are the only spaces left for artists who wish to exhibit critical works.
The fate of the Turkish artist izinsiz is from this point of view emblematic of the methods of intimidation of the Turkish executive power, which, as in Russia, controls the justice system, the academy, and the national press.
CENSORS: TURKISH JUSTICE
Identified thanks to video surveillance cameras in Istanbul, izinsiz was first placed in police custody pending trial. While in custody, his past activities were inspected so that he could be tried simultaneously for two "crimes": one for drawing a human figure hanging from the crescent of the Turkish flag in the corner of the billboard in Kabataş, Istanbul, an "insult to the flag", and the other for having displayed on twitter 4 drawings, an "insult to the President".
Regarding the drawings posted on twitter, the judge decided to ask 3 professors from the Faculty of Fine Arts of Mimar Sinan University to carry out an expertise to determine whether these drawings had artistic value. By asking its peers to participate in the judgment by determining the artistic value of the work, the judge gives the choice to the academy: either it pledges allegiance to power and becomes facially responsible for the future imprisonment of the artist, or it places itself in the very dangerous position of opponent, and its 3 representatives in turn face prison. But the dean of the academy, although appointed by Erdogan, did not appoint any experts and it was therefore the judge himself who chose his own experts. They decided that 3 of the 4 incriminated drawings had no artistic value.
On June 15, 2022, izinsiz was sentenced to 1 year, 2 months and 27 days in prison. The prison sentence is suspended, with a probationary period of 5 years. By acting in this way, the Turkish power and "its" judges play skillfully: The artist who has already undergone a period of pre-trial detention until his judgment is now subject to a sentence which "suspended" execution weighs upon him like a sword of Damocles.