An Artful Stand for Turkey

Gülay Schorr

“Resistanbul,” an art installation centered on a dilapidated house in New Jersey, stood in solidarity with Istanbul during its recent tumult.

A few weekends ago, just across the Hudson River and only a block up from the Whole Foods in Edgewater, New Jersey, a tweenage girl slunk into the weedy yard behind a derelict white stucco house and began spray-painting graffiti, denouncing the current prime minister of Turkey. In sloppy, orange block letters, she scrawled, erdø gone!

The girl’s father stood nearby, watching with a mixture of pride and trepidation. “When did you get radicalized?” he asked. Then he answered his own question. “When you realized you could paint on the house.”

No punishments ensued as the father, Stuart Schorr—a 47-year-old Jaguar Land Rover communications executive—had invited the young vandal in. He was also with his Turkish wife, Gülay, the owner of the house, which on its other sides was concurrently being plastered with gently dissenting images by a dozen Turkish and American artists for an installation they had titled “Resistanbul.”

The girl’s potential delinquency was further offset by the fact that the house was being back-hoed into oblivion in two days to make room for the airy, modern abode the Schorrs are building on the site.

Gülay, a self-described “emerging freelance artist,” has lived in America for 20 years but is still very attached to her roots in Istanbul, where she was raised in a proudly secular Muslim household. She and her daughter, Azra, return every summer. (“Our daughter is a Jurk,” Stuart joked. “A Jewish Turk.”) But Gülay, along with many of her compatriots, has been dismayed by the increasingly authoritarian administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister.

When the regime recently responded violently to peaceful protesters occupying Istanbul’s Gezi Park—challenging the government’s attempt to seize the green space and build a military inspired shopping mall—the Schorrs knew they wanted to do something to express their concern and show their solidarity with the opposition.

They attended a protest in Manhattan, where they ran into Doran Ertek, an industrial designer and a childhood friend of Gülay’s from Istanbul, whom she hadn’t seen in 16 years. “She goes, ‘Why don’t we use this house?’?” Doran said, still holding the rope he had lashed himself to the house with while painting from the roof. “But we boiled it up together. Otherwise, if someone didn’t donate the walls, I’m not going to break the law and go paint somewhere. I’m patriotic,” he said, swigging a Turkish-brewed Efes beer, “but not that much.”

All three of Doran’s paintings featured the iconic Turkish political cartoon character Avni, a bumbling, buck-toothed savant in the Alfred E. Neuman mode. In one, Avni passes flowers to a police officer who responds with a blast of tear gas.

Ayse Wilson, a 42-year-old Turkish-American painter from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had covered a wall with tulips, the national flower of Turkey. “I usually paint people,” she said, aligning her stencil, “but I’m beginning to see these tulips as people forming a crowd. The more we make, the bigger the crowd’s going to get.”

Between the second-floor windows, from which hung a Turkish and an American flag, Necdet Yilmaz, a Turkish artist living in New York, perched on an extension ladder, spray-painting a leafy tree wearing a gas mask. “I’m a nature lover,” he explained. But his tree also represented dissent, facing down the government’s creeping repression. “They say destroying one tree is not important. Then a second tree is not important. Then thousands of trees…”

The most haunting image was by Murat Yilmaz, a Turkish graphic designer. Using Gülay as a translator, he described himself as a “part-time resistance member,” who had just arrived from Istanbul. The victim of “a few tear-gas canisters” while protesting in Gezi the previous week, Yilmaz had painted a tree trunk that sprouted a green crown shaped like a gas-masked protestor; its roots grew fractally and irrepressibly into a flock of scattering birds.

Young Azra Schorr was heading to Istanbul with her mother the following week, and despite the Erdogan government’s ominous warnings about a coming crackdown, she wasn’t nervous about returning to what she considered her second home. But she found it “kind of sad” that all of the artwork would be destroyed when the house was razed. “Maybe we could keep a few pieces and put them in the garage,” she suggested. Gülay, studying Yilmaz’s delicate painting on the house’s galvanized-steel side entrance, clearly agreed. “It’s a shitty door,” she said, “but I’m going to have to save it.” Plagued for years by the city’s permit process, Stuart rolled his eyes. “If I even hear the words, don’t knock it down…”

The work’s temporary nature was intrinsic to the entire installation, so there was little true melancholy for the house’s imminent demolition. But as the afternoon ended, news began to arrive that the Turkish riot police were rolling toward Gezi Park, intending to carry out Erdogan’s orders to disperse the protestors. The day’s ebullience dimmed but was not vanquished. See more photos of “Resistanbul” at gulayschorr.com.