Istanbul — formerly Constantinople — is an open-air museum. There’s art to behold everywhere. Centuries-old mosques with tapering minarets pierce an azure skyline. Sepia-tinted heritage buildings, historic hammams and quaint town houses pepper the cobblestoned streets of the Old Quarter reinforcing the city’s formidable cultural heritage.
Founded by the Thracians in the seventh century BC, the city of 16 million has always been a dynamic center point between the East and West. But today it is also undergoing a cultural renaissance with the launch of buzzing new art projects, biennials and art fairs promoting local artists and drawing hundreds from foreign shores. To further the goal of establishing Istanbul as a global artistic hub, a number of art galleries and museums are also opening across the city, featuring the work of young Turkish artists, as well as those from outside the country. The art on display ranges from traditional paintings and sculptures to digital installations and NFTs.
I begin my deep dive into this flourishing art scene with a four-day trail that takes me to some prominent art fairs, newly restored museums, hammams, and other engaging venues. I begin with a tour of the 17th edition of the Contemporary Istanbul Biennial, one of Middle East’s most successful biennials running consecutively for 17 years. Launched in 1987, this year’s edition (September 15 to 22) featured 558 artists showcasing 1476 artworks from 22 countries. Its venue is Tersane, a 24-hectare area located in the historical Ottoman-era shipyards on the picturesque shores of the Golden Horn.
“Istanbul and Anatolia are where the world’s civilization started,” Ali Gureli, art collector and chairman of the Contemporary Istanbul Foundation, which supports and develops contemporary art in Turkey, tells me. “After the devastating pandemic, Istanbul is ready to take centerstage again. The city has been like a big huge art studio in history, there’s always been art production here, but now, we’re seeing young artists coming from the Anatolian cities as well as the world. The city, which straddles both Anatolia and Europe, is ideally placed to host this emerging artistic culture,” Gureli says.
Stefan Stoyanov, a Bulgarian gallerist who showcased six artists at the fair this year, says he always feels excited to exhibit in the city. “Istanbul is like a melting point of so many cultures and traditions. Like a magnet, it draws the most artistic minds allowing for enriching dialogues to emerge between the creative community and a global audience.”
The sprawling Galataport is another of Istanbul’s megaprojects that attempts to balance both attracting tourism and creating spaces for artistic expression, the guide says. I soak in the $1.7 billion project showcasing boutiques, art galleries, cafes, and restaurants located along a promenade. Situated on the mouth of the Golden Horn, it connects the areas of Galata and Eminonu along the Sea of Marmara.
Art work at the Contemporary Istanbul art fair
I next visit the Cinili Hamam, that has opened to the public after a 12-year, multi-million dollar restoration. As one of the primary venues for the ongoing Istanbul Biennial, this important piece of Ottoman bath architecture, is hosting two large scale contemporary art installations. They are using sound as an art form, leveraging the hamam’s unique acoustic properties.
A museum located within will soon be open to the public, Koza Gureli Yazgan, the brain behind the project, informs. “It will showcases tiles and other historically important finds from the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman periods as well as a special display exploring the region’s hammam culture and traditions. Throughout history Istanbul has created art; it was a giant art workshop and we want to leverage the city’s unique heritage so that art can flourish not just in galleries but outside of traditional confines as well.”
Art work at the Contemporary Istanbul art fair
On the final day of my art trail, I cruise the glutinous Bosphorus river in a catamaran to the Mehmet Emin Agha Mansion, one of the fabled waterside summer houses of the Ottoman sultans. Famed Turkish artist Taner Ceylan’s exhibition — ‘Shhhh Pull Shovels Let Mehtab Wake Up’ — is on view here drawing international footfalls. The artist is exhibiting after 14 long years.
The sculpture ‘Istanbul’ by popular Tur artist Taner Ceylan at the Mehmet Emin Agha Mansion
The exhibition took four years to put together, Ceylan says. The show-stopper is the pristine white sculpture of “Istanbul” located on the waterfront that uses Afyon white marble in the shape of a male Greek-God like figure. It is an apt tribute to a city that beguiles and baffles in equal measure.