Italian artist Gianluca Constantini, in an interview with Kronos, talked about the situation of the artists in Turkey today: "How can you be a real artist in this moment in Turkey without freedom of expression? It's really hard not to be a regime artist, when journalist, teachers, activists are in jail."
Italian artist and activist Gianluca Constantini is no stranger to Turkey. He followed Gezi demonstrations in Istanbul, he monitored the country@s politics closely. Most recently, he depicted Bahadır Odabaşı, the teenager who died by suicide over his father’s imprisonment in a post-coup purge. Constantini answered our questions about his art and activism.
When did you start drawing?
I started very young, at the end of high school, then I went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna and already around the second year I started publishing illustrations and comics. In truth, initially, the choice was also very economical, I come from a working-class family, and I had very little money and comics were the poorest art and the one that would have given me more opportunities. You just need a sheet of paper and some black ink and you are ready to go. In those years I began a very aesthetic and decorative, almost mystical research. Lately, I’ve been collecting a few things on my channel.
After about ten years, even if everything was going well, I was publishing and doing exhibitions, I began to feel a desire to leave the studio and tell the world, but to do this I had to revolutionize my way of drawing. I started to tell small facts from distant countries that attracted me, one of the first drawings was a journalist killed in the Philippines, Rowell Endrinal.
I began to publish these drawings on Indymedia, a no global counter information portal that in the 2000s worked a lot to convey a certain type of message. Then I focused on the great street protests and got in touch with people thanks to the birth of Twitter. So, I followed the demonstration in Istanbul, Gezi Park, and collaborated with activists, those of Occupy Wall Street, of Tahrir Square, those of Hong Kong. But then, little by little, I always got closer to the single person, to the person whose freedoms were and are taken away. From there on I got closer and closer to human rights.
What does graphic journalism mean to you?
Graphic Journalism is a language that allow you to be a story a teller who has the world as a subject. It is a mix of comics and journalism, a unique mix, which is done by informations, emotions and art. Graphic Journalism could be a book, like the one I did about Libya, realized with the Italian reporter Francesca Mannocchi. The book combines investigative reporting and powerful images, which are very often not allowed during investigation. They allow to analize the situation in Libya, which is not easy at all. It is a new way to present a reportage and to know what is happening in the real world.
As an artist, could you talk about the purpose of your drawings?
Initially, it helped me open my eyes. Investigating reality through drawing, I discovered and became aware of the world and its problems. I slowly entered into it. Art can be many things. What I really want to do is to make art that influences the system, that tries to change it or question it—art that interacts with the community, art that shares and does not impose. If the artist’s work is independent and open to others, people will start to look at the world through the artist’s eyes. In recent years, I mainly focused on human rights, and I hope that people who follow my images will start to get interested in the issues I deal with.
An artist must respond with what he can do: impose a new imagination, a new way of seeing and acting. As far as my personal experience is concerned, drawing is very powerful, hitting people who look at it like an arrow. Drawing is very different from taking a picture. With a drawing, you can describe reality but, even if you are as faithful as possible, it will be different. Even if you trace a photo, the result will be different from what the photographer wanted to say. Drawing is very subjective—it’s about the artist’s way of seeing; it’s about his or her memory. When you draw a portrait of a person, you look at them and then you look down at the paper. What you draw is already a memory.
When did you decide to form your ChannelDraw site, which deals with human rights, sports, political issues?
After 2 years of drawing and an archive that started to be not manageable, I decided to open a site which could be a something in between by a news portal and an artist portfolio.
So Channeldraw comes out, and it has the goal to map my everyday activities as an artist. I like the idea to be completely independent and this space is just mine. I have to say that in its first year of existence it gave me many reasons of being satisfied, reaching 150.000 pages viewed, a very high record for a site done by a single person. It became also a place for scholars who are working on many issues which are on my radar, such as Turkey.
Did any situation/event affect the decision to generate your site?
My decision came up because I really believe that we cannot depend on Social networks, we need to have infos directly from sites. It need free work, but it is really important. And they have to be there even if the post is not on your timeline. Site is important for activists, who can have drawings available for their campaigns, site is important for journalists, who could have a reference for their research and of course it’s important for the relatives, because they have material to share and they have the real perception that their beloved is not alone.
Social networks are of course a tool to spread material, and I’m using all of them, but there is always a safe place that cannot be censored by anyone.
Your drawings on different subjects on your site attract attention. So, what could be explained by the power of the drawing?
Drawings that are more attractive are the ones connected to human rights, social and political issues. The power is coming from the intersection that they have with reality: I mean, people is actually using them, they are tools for real campaigns. So they enter into reality.
In Italy, I supported Patrick Zaki’s freedom campaign: he is an Egyptian student who was attending a special course in Bologna and who was imprisoned without a clear reason when he came back to his parents for holidays. My drawing became a tool to reach attention on his case. Common people organized events and performance using them. A 30 meters poster was hanged in the main square of Bologna and they builded kites using his image drawn. His portrait became a clue on his case and luckily now Patrick is safe at home. You can see all the details here.
How did your interest in Turkey begin?
It started as an orientalist fascination… in the beginning I was completely absorbed by decorative arts and Turkey was one of my favorite source of inspiration. Turkish Calligraphy and miniature were my favorite ones, and I started to be a common host in Istanbul. I realized with Elettra Stamboulis a book dedicated to Osman Hamdi Bey called The Turtle Tamer of Istanbul. I met some Turkish authors like Mehmet Çagçag, Tuncay Akgün and Ramize Erer and I published some short stories on LeMan.
Then in 2013 Occupy Gezi movement started and I realized drawings which were used by activists. That movement was a special fire, it showed the best of that period movement. Things eventually went bad and you feel the duty to be on the side of the people you love, so I did. I was drawing very intensively about Turkey in that period.
In one of your interviews, you mention that some of the work you did in Turkey in 2016 was censored. How do you evaluate “freedom of expression” in Turkey?
After the so failed coup in 2016 I was warned by an activist that my blog and my profile were censored in Turkey. The day after another activist send me a link from where I could download the proceedings of the trial, which I didn’t know at all it was held, during which I was accused of terrorism from the Turkish Government because of a drawing, a portrait of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In this portrait on his face there was a bloody flag. To be honest, this portrait was done years before the coup, during Occupy Gezi and the portrait was connected to the facts of Cizre. So it had nothing to do with the coup.
From that moment on I couldn’t come anymore in Turkey, and I’m really sad about it, but I didn’t stop to draw about Turkey and human rights. When someone has not rights to raise the voice, who have to chance to, have the duty to speak.
Some months ago I was invited in Zurich to show these drawings
In the most popular section on your site, the sentence “Adalet mülkün temelidir” is listed first. As someone who deals with violations of rights, how do you evaluate the place of the concept of justice in Turkey?
The section you are speaking of is one of the more viewed ones: “Adalet mülkün temelidir” is always in this hit parade. It is really interesting that is so watched. The drawing was done because the wife of this lawyer asked for it.
I think that after all this allegations, arrests, people in prison, the idea of Justice in Turkey is really under trial. Numbers are speaking. I drawn for The Arrested Lawyers a series that are showing tortures in Sanliurfa that caused 50s victims. Reading some of these enquires can help to understand that law is not fair in Turkey.
What do you think are the major violations of rights in Turkey?
Freedom of expression and information, freedom of movement, freedom of identity (ethnic sexual..) and the right of express a proper democracy are denied. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea there are the same problems, but Turkey was an exemplum in Asia Minor for many years. So there was a step backward. I think that it is not easy to feel free in Turkey in this moment, if you want to express yourself and be an active citizen.
People have been receiving the sad news of young people in Turkey lately. You also drew Bahadır Odabaşı. As an activist, how do you see the situation of young people in Turkey?
Being a youngster would be not easy in this moment, it’s not easy in Europe, it’s not easy in many countries. the idea to go away for realizing yourself is frustrating and many clever, creative and skillful Turkish young people have to migrate to other countries to be free to be themselves. This is a depriving migration. If you loose your brains, you loose your blood.
Some years ago I gave a workshop in Mimar Sinan Academy, and I remember pupils fool of interest, ideas and imagination, as artist have to be. How can you be a real artist in this moment in Turkey without freedom of expression? It’s really hard not to be a regime artist, when journalist, teachers, activists are in jail.