Q&A: A Conversation with Bedri Baykam

Bedri Baykam is a Turkish artist and political activist for the Republican People’s Part (CHP). He was a candidate for the presidency of his party in October 2003. This interview was conducted by Adele Rossouw.

Q: You have been a prominent artist from a very young age. Why did you decide to enter politics?

A: It started with my father [Dr. Suphi Baykam]. He was a famous politician in the fifties and the sixties, and I lived through the very important things he went through. This seed of political experience stayed in me and lived with me. [Then] after I came back in 1987 from living in the United States and Paris, the first thing I saw was that Turkey was going downhill towards Islamic fundamentalism. I wanted to start warning society against [this] danger. As an artist, I don’t do politics because I have extra time. I don’t do it because it’s fun. I do politics because it’s unavoidable. As an artist and writer and thinker, I need to live in a free society.

(Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

Q: What were the “seeds of fundamentalism” you recognized upon your return to Turkey in 1987?

A: The Iranian prime minister visited Turkey right after I came back in 1987, but I read that he refused to visit the mausoleum of [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk in Ankara. I thought that the Turkish government would send him right back to Teheran on the first plane. But instead the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Özal, said it was no problem. I panicked because a government that gave the right to a visitor to make such an open offense towards the creator of the secular Turkish republic could do anything inside the country from that moment on. On that day, I stopped being a caring intellectual and became an activist.

Q: Prime Minister Erdogan of the AK Parti draws significant support from non-secular Turks. He won a great victory in the last election. What does this mean for Turkey?

A: Erdogan is a very self-centered man who does not try to develop democracy in the country. There’s growing pressure in most of Turkey to conform to Islamic laws, including not selling alcohol or donning the veil. The government has the power to ban films or theater pieces or exhibitions. The press is also losing all of its freedom—there are only about four opposition papers left—and is at times forced to fire its writers on the government’s demand. Some of my journalist friends are in jail and have been there for three or four years.

Q: But Turkey is often praised in the West as a successful Islamic democracy.

A: Theoretically, it is one. It has free elections and a plural party parliamentary system. It has an “independent” press and a spirit of free enterprise. People can dress as they want and can drink alcohol. Tourism is alive, and the country attracts foreign investments.

But in reality, it is not. The country doesn’t have a bright future. Turkey drifts more away from democracy and freedom and human rights every day. The government also tries to enact middle-of-the-road policies in every critical field, from the Kurdish question to the Armenian issue, so its policies shift all the time. The masses that are not AKP voters are being pushed aside. A real model would not simply give the illusion of being a free society.

Q: You have been a candidate for the presidency of the CHP party. What policies would you have enacted if you had won elected office?

A: I would have made the party much more open to women and youth. I would have designed a more democratic constitution in which candidates are elected by members of the party instead of nominated by the president. I would have led a Turkey where culture and education and science were the main facets of society, giving full freedom to any religious groups but enforcing a clear separation between religion and politics.

Q: You have been described as one of the pioneers of multi-media and photo-painting oriented political art. What does the concept of “political art” mean to you?

A: To me, it is art that has a political goal but that does not forget that it is above all a work of contemporary art. [It can be a way of] immortalizing some shameful moments of Turkish politics. I make [viewers of my work] face undemocratic atrocities lived in Turkey. I make them experience the bravery of those past generations.

Q: Does the political value of this type of art detract from its artistic one?

A: No, I think they complete each other. The artistic experience of aesthetic pleasure melts with the [political] information coming from the show, which you might agree with or contest. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to make shows like this in Turkey. The artistic and intellectual freedoms of expression are decreasing at a shameful speed in this country.

Adele Rossouw ’13 is an Economics major in Trumbull College. Contact her at adele.rossouw@yale.edu.