Protest art in real time

Turkish designers have been quick to adapt the key images of recent protests, and spreading the message of the Occupy Gezi movement, both online and on the streets

The Occupy Gezi movement started in Istanbul with the aim of preserving one of the very few green areas left in the city – only to turn into a group of nationwide anti-government protests, spreading to other Turkish cities such as Izmir and the capital Ankara.

This has ignited a flurry of creative production with a variety of posters, banners and artworks appearing on the streets and on social media.
Twitter was officially labelled as a “troublemaker” by Prime Minister Erdogan after the protests began as the platform was instrumental in distributing information for the protestors at a time when the traditional media practiced self-censorship. Stencils of the Twitter bird logo wearing a gas mask have appeared alongside ‘#occupygezi’, the most commonly used hashtag of the Gezi protests. The gas mask – now an everyday object for the Turkish protestors – is a reference to the large amounts of teargas used by the police.

Stencils of a defiant gas mask-wearing penguin, however, have been used to symbolise the media corruption in Turkey. Penguins are now associated with the self-censorship of the mainstream Turkish media after CNN Turk, a major news channel, broadcast a documentary on the birds while the civil protests and police violence were at their peak – instead of covering what was happening on the streets.

Indeed, Turkish police have been criticised by protestors due to their unprecedented use of teargas and the level of violence witnessed during the protests. Yet among the images circulated in social media which support the protestors and criticise the government or the police, humour dominates. For example, the text in one digital poster, placed over a photograph of an activist throwing back an active teargas canister to the riot police, reads ‘Mr. Officer You Dropped Something!’.

The #occupygezi street art also plays with familiar images of authority figures, in part a reflection of today’s globalism since they refer to international icons to convey their message. For example, a portrait of Erdogan replaces that of the British monarch in an adapted version of Jamie Reid’s iconic Sex Pistols cover. The word ‘Queen’ is changed to ‘Sultan’, a reference to the absolute monarchs of the Ottoman Empire, the ruling state of Turkey before the modern Republic. It is a testament to punk’s international legacy and its relevance today in the midst of public rebellion.

Another digital poster uses a portrait of Erdogan by the American photographer Platon and incorporates the phrase ‘Keep Calm And Be Çapulcu’. The Prime Minister had used the word “çapulcu” – which means looter – to describe the activists after the protests grew in magnitude on May 31. Following this, çapulcu was quickly adopted by the protestors who, with some irony, started to define themselves as such (the majority were from the well-educated urban middle class).

As the Gezi protests developed, artists, designers and other creatives also responded to the photographs circulating on social media, and some of these images now enjoy an iconic status as they have been used repeatedly in different media. The image of a policeman deploying pepper spray at a woman in a red dress rapidly became the most recognised symbol of the protests and was transposed to the city walls, streets and roads with stencils. Depicted in one such stencil graphic, the woman is shown considerably larger than the policeman – symbolising the growth of the resistance as the police violence became rougher.

Street artists have also adopted the image of a whirling dervish who performed in the occupied Gezi Park wearing a gas mask. A stencilled phrase ‘Come along!’ is added and references a poem attributed to Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose followers founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. The 13th-century poem makes a very powerful and moving statement in the context of the Occupy Gezi movement: “Come, come, whoever you are, come again. / Whether heathen, zoroastrian or idolatrous, come again, / Ours is not a caravan of despair, / Come again, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.”

Another image which rose to prominence during the protests was of a young woman who stood in front of a police water cannon, her arms open, exposing her torso. Her image became a symbol of non-violent resistance against police force and has been displayed on a variety of printed or digital posters about the protests, often alongside the hashtag #Diren GeziParki (‘Gezi Park Resist’). A striking feature of the Gezi protests has been the speed of the protestors in responding to the latest events. On June 17 a man stood still for more than seven hours straight in the middle of Taksim Square – a performance that ignited a number of ultra-pacifist demonstrations in different cities made up of people standing still in public spaces.

One particular image was circulated on social media the same night, just a couple of hours after he had started his passive protest. In a matter of hours Standing Man had become so recognised that this illustrator only needed to ensure a few key details were present: an untidy shirt, a backpack next to his feet, his hands in his pockets. The caption reads ‘Don’t stop Standing Man, we are with you’, and the hashtag below can be translated as #ResistStandingMan.

Another colourful, yet simple graphic [shown above], stating the demands of the protestors, also reflects the youthful energy of the activists. The design is clean – each demand is symbolised by a single visual, with distinct background colours – and the specifics of each demand are emphasised by an increase in font size of certain words. This helps to convey the message clearly by avoiding a wall of text.

These images, along with many others not represented here, are the visual and creative testimony of the Occupy Gezi movement. Whatever the outcome of the protests will be in the future, artists, designers and activists who responded rapidly – often humorously – to the events have certainly created a rich visual legacy for future generations. 1

Yaman Kayabali is a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex and currently interning at the Research Department of the V&A museum in London. This article was originally published as two posts on the V&A’s Posters blog, Our thanks to Yaman and V&A curator Catherine Flood for permission to reprint the posts here

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