Sitting in front of a steaming mug of sweet tea in the cosy heart of Arthere, with rain pattering down outside and a warm kitten purring on my lap, it’s easy to see how the space has become a second home to so many. Omar Berakdar, the smiley, wild-haired Syrian photographer who founded the art centre in 2014, potters about as we talk, getting up to chat to an artist, stopping to take a call, laughing as a kitten launches itself into the chair swing beside us, adroitly clinging to the swaying fabric.
Inside the space
Arthere is a unique community- driven cultural hub in Kadikoy, a five-minute stroll from the Bosphorus on the Asian side of Istanbul in Turkey. Having left Syria in 2012 with his wife and young son, Berakdar, who trained as a chemist before he began working in photography and digital art, witnessed the struggles faced by Syrian artists in Istanbul, many of whom are forced to take on multiple, low-skilled jobs to make ends meet. He soon realised there was an urgent need for studio space, materials and support.
“The idea at the beginning was to open a co-working studio where everyone could work together, and we provide the space,” he recalls. “People came to work here and there were some staying here for the first two years and slowly this has developed. We’re an art centre, residency, community. We hold workshops and exhibitions. We work in a lot of directions.”
Arthere is unique – it is neither a gallery nor a formal collective, but an exhibition space that is entirely community-run and maintained on a volunteer basis by the artists who use it. They open and close, clean and make coffee, help to hang each other’s works and ensure that even though there are no paid staff, everything runs like clockwork.
“I hope I can employ people to run the place, but for now, we can’t afford it,” explains Berakdar. “We don’t give salaries. It’s not a collective, but it depends on the artists’ solidarity.”
Arthere is designed to meet diverse needs. The large ground-floor space is used as a cafe, workspace, library and exhibition venue. Two cats and a dozen kittens sprawl on the wooden tables beside mismatched lamps, and the walls are covered with artworks that change every few weeks in a cycle of temporary exhibitions. Workshops in diverse skill sets, from bookbinding to painting, are held in the same space, along with experimental concerts, often featuring musicians from different cultural backgrounds.
Downstairs, a small garden can be used by artists doing sculpture or woodwork and a tiny basement room doubles up as a darkroom and a recording studio. Up a rickety flight of wooden stairs, two low-ceilinged rooms serve as studio space. Tables are covered with paints and canvases, and in a corner, half of a tailor’s dummy wears a lampshade around her neck at a rakish angle. A 3D printer and a small humidity-controlled archive room complete the facilities.
Offering support to artists
Although it doesn’t cater exclusively to Syrians, over the past four years, this centre has become the nucleus at the heart of a community of Syrian artists in Istanbul, many of whom knew each other before the conflict in Syria. In the seven years since it began, dozens have ended up in Istanbul, many of them uncertain how long they will be able to remain in Turkey and where they will end up next.
Aladdin Alhassoun, who has known about Arthere for years but become much more involved since moving into a small studio above the venue this summer, says that many of the artists he studied with at university in Damascus have reconnected through the space.
“At Arthere, you can find space to think and to really deal with an artistic project… I think there is a new approach to showing art that is very interesting,” he says. “There are lots of small details that are very organic, which exist here and help artists to do what they are doing, but that wouldn’t exist anywhere else.”
Alhassoun supplements the meagre income from his artwork by helping to document the testimonies of former Syrian detainees through beautiful but nightmarish black-and-white illustrations. His own work is markedly different, consisting of colourful abstracts in watercolour and acrylic. He recently exhibited his work at the centre alongside a series of intricate abstract drawings by Zia Foley, who is from Canadia and has been living in Istanbul for more than five years, and who was exhibiting her work for the first time.
Berakdar, who uses his background as a chemist to make ends meet, puts much of his energy into finding ways for the artists who come to Arthere to sustain themselves financially. “We’re always trying to be realistic and pragmatic in a business sense. If an artist doesn’t sell his artwork, if he doesn’t give art lessons, if he doesn’t get paid, he’s not going to survive,” he says. “Unfortunately, the sales are not as good as they should be. Especially since the coup attempt, the foreigners are coming less, and they are the ones who buy the most.”
He tries to match artists with local institutions and companies, as well as selling their works through exhibitions at Arthere. Many of donate a portion of the profits to keep the space running. “The artists who are here, work together to make an exhibition. If it sells, they will give 30 per cent to the place. If they want. If they are in deep trouble we say, ‘Keep the 30 per cent.’ If they’re selling well, they might give more,” he explains.
Building bridges between cultures
As well as providing facilities for local creatives, the centre runs two residency programmes. One is aimed at international artists who can pay a monthly fee to live nearby and work in the studio space. The other, which is supported by the Roberto Cimetta Fund, allows 12 artists each year to spend a month at Arthere working on a project. These residencies are provided free of charge to refugee artists who have been in Turkey for less than seven years.
“We cover their accommodation, pay for their materials and they have the support of the space. For example, one of our artists wanted to learn tattooing, so we provided the instructor and covered the cost, so he could learn how to make tattoos and earn money,” says the founder of the centre. “The idea is that if an artist can do something creative that can make him some money, he doesn’t have to work in a restaurant or stop working on his art.”
Another essential aspect of Arthere is its ability to build bridges between Syrian and Turkish people. Berakdar believes that by contributing to the local community, the space is helping to dispel some of the prejudices against Syrian refugees. He shares much of the day-to-day management of the space with Gulsun Oyku Dogan, a petite Turkish artist with a pixie haircut and colourful tattoos, who creates detailed illustrations with a strong feminist message.
She plays an essential role in helping to set up collaborations with local organisations. She says that through the space, she has met lots of Syrian artists and has begun to understand the hardships they face as refugees. “You wonder how they can manage, but they have to. There’s no other option,” she says. “I made lots of friends. Most of them have left for Europe. Lots of people have left because they felt like they couldn’t move forwards. Because of the political situation, there are always handicaps. When they want to travel inside Turkey, for example, they aren’t given permission.”
The precarious situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey means that many artists move on after a few months or years. Pages, a popular bookshop and cultural space run by Syrian publisher Samer Alkadri, closed down earlier this year after he was invited to a conference in the Netherlands by the Prince Claus Fund and was unexpecte
Alkadri set up the bookshop as a meeting place where Syrians could browse the collection of books – 60 per cent Arabic and 40 per cent Turkish, French, German and other languages – and attend concerts and storytelling events. “It was a multicultural space – that was the idea. In our bookstore and at our events you could always find 10 or 12, sometimes 15 different nationalities,” he says.
The publisher initially attempted to keep Pages Istanbul running from abroad, but the store was losing thousands of dollars a month. Now granted refugee status in the Netherlands, along with his wife and two daughters, he has started again from the ground up, opening new branches of Pages in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. As he hoped, they are helping to build bridges between people from different communities.
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“When we opened Pages in Amsterdam, there was one Syrian guy who came and met a Dutch lady and now they’re in love. They met for the first time at the store,” he says. “This has happened many times.”
He hopes that the bookstores in the Netherlands will eventually become viable businesses able to turn a profit without the need for external funding. “I don’t believe in projects that have to take money from donors or NGOs to continue, because when they stop the money, the project will end,” he says. “We don’t reject any support, but in the end, we should be able to stand alone.”
Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, Arthere is proving that collaboration can work wonders. “We all work together to apply for funds to run things,” says Berakdar. “That’s what brings good for all of us.”
For more information about Arthere go to www.arthereistanbul.com