ISTANBUL — A museum that opened in Turkey this month became the talk of the art scene — for the wrong reason.
The Odunpazari Modern Museum in Eskisehir, a city 120 miles southeast of Istanbul, is an attention-grabbing piece of architecture: a series of wooden boxes piled on each other. But the building attracted less attention than one of the works inside: “Vav,” a simple painting of an Arabic letter.
The artist? Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president.
He painted it on canvas last year as part of the building’s groundbreaking, and it had been hung on a wall in time for the president’s return to open the museum on Sept. 7.
“The problem is it’s disrespectful to other artists who they’re exhibiting there,” said Asli Cavusoglu, an Istanbul artist who has exhibited at the New Museum in New York. It was like a businessman donating to a museum and then showing their drawings in it, she added. The museum declined to comment.
For much of this decade, Turkey’s art scene has been depressed by a faltering economy and a crackdown on free speech, especially after a failed coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan in July 2016. Since then, tens of thousands have been arrested on suspicion of supporting the coup, with many more fired or suspended from their jobs. There have been numerous mass trials.
Although the Istanbul Biennial had been rising in international prominence, the traveling caravan of the art world mostly stayed away after 2016. This month, however, collectors, curators and journalists were back in force in Istanbul, lured by a string of high-profile openings. The influx gave the impression that the scene was stepping out of the darkness, filled with new vibrancy.
But the furor around Mr. Erdogan’s painting showed that politics still cast a shadow. There were plenty of political works on show in Istanbul, with artists making points about the state of the country, if not commenting on Mr. Erdogan himself. But in interviews, many artists said they were self-censoring to avoid angering the government and its conservative supporters. None felt able to speak openly about the president.
This year’s Biennial, which opened on Sept. 14, features works by more than 50 artists. Overseen by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French curator, and running through Nov. 10, this year’s edition is titled “The Seventh Continent” after the vast mass of waste plastic floating in the oceans.
Louisa Buck, an art critic who reviewed the Biennial for BBC radio, said the artists were “reining in quite a lot” on political comment, compared with previous editions. The environmental theme was “problematic,” she added, and was conveniently distant from “human rights, freedom of speech and all the things that are actually taking place in Turkey at the moment.”
But the relatively nonpolitical focus certainly relieved the organizers. Bulent Eczacibasi, the chairman of the foundation behind the Biennial, said in an interview that his first thought was, “Phew!,” when he heard the theme. (It was chosen by Mr. Bourriaud, who in turn had been selected by an international advisory board, free of interference, Mr. Eczacibasi said.)
“It was a relief, as I felt the people in Ankara wouldn’t have any objections,” he said, referring to the seat of Turkey’s government.
But politics reared its head, nonetheless. At an opening event for the Biennial, a group staged a protest in support of Osman Kavala, a businessman and chairman of Depo, an art space, who has been in prison for almost two years, accused of trying to overthrow the government.
Arter is housed in an impressive glass cube, covered in a cream and brown diamond lattice. The museum is being marketed as the new home of Turkish contemporary art, and its shows, across seven exhibition spaces, will mainly draw on the collection of the Vehbi Koc Foundation, run by one of Turkey’s richest families. Arter will commission works, too, to help fuel the scene, a spokeswoman for the museum said.
The opening exhibitions at Arter showed all sides of that mission. One was dedicated to abstract sculptures and architectural interventions by the artist Ayse Erkmen, who has taped rocks to the floor and brought the strip lights out of the ceiling, hanging them low in the gallery so that visitors have to duck under and weave around them.
Another show, “What Time Is It?,” is a group exhibition filled with gently political works that engage with Turkey’s history. The exhibition takes its name from a 2008 piece by Cengiz Cekil: 48 newspapers, painted black to obscure everything except the words “Saat kac?” — “What time is it?” in Turkish.
A further work, by Hale Tenger, from 1995, features a full-size guard’s cabin, surrounded by barbed wire. It is bucolic inside the cabin, with pretty landscape postcards pinned up, and a radio playing old Turkish pop music. Outside, the impression is much more threatening.
Omer Koc, a director of the Vehbi Koc Foundation, said in an interview at his art-filled home that Arter was crucial to educate people in Istanbul about contemporary art. Entry would be free to people under 24 for that reason, he said.
“Uncensored art is indispensable to real democracies,” he added. “Even conceptual art.”
Arter is only the first of several major art spaces that have opened or are planned in Istanbul. A huge building for Istanbul Modern, a stalwart of the city’s art scene, has been designed by Renzo Piano and is under construction on the waterfront, expected to open in 2021. A revamped fine arts museum — the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University — is also on the way.
Several prominent Turkish artists said that those developments, especially the opening of Arter, had contributed to a more optimistic feeling about the city’s art scene. “There’s a change in the mood,” Cevdet Erek, an artist who makes sound installations and who has exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, said in an email. “Lately it feels like there’s a general excitement.”
Halil Altindere, a conceptual artist who has works in this year’s Venice Biennale, said that artists had become more introverted since 2016. But that had benefited their art, he added. “There’s a concentration of energy that’s been loading for years, and that potential is now being shown,” Mr. Altindere said.
Mr. Altindere opened a solo show at the Yapi Kredi Culture Center in Istanbul last week called “Abrakadabra” (running through Nov. 3), that includes hyper-realist silicone sculptures of people typically seen but ignored on Istiklal Street, the main shopping thoroughfare that runs along one side of the museum. One sculpture is of a man illegally selling handbags, another is a masked protester.
Mr. Altindere denied the work had a political message. “You find protesters on the street,” he said. “Political incidents come and go,” he added, dismissing the topic as uninteresting.
Some other artists were more open. Iz Oztat said in an interview, “My work is political as much as autocensorship allows.” Ms. Oztat, 38, makes videos and sculptures, and was showing work at Arter and at Pi Artworks, a private Istanbul gallery. The Pi exhibition, “Suspended,” features a video of a woman being bound in cloth, so that her mouth and eyes disappear from view, then hung from a bondage contraption, in a comment on freedom of expression being suspended in the public sphere.
Even in making that work, Ms. Oztat said that she had considered how much flesh she could show in the video, among other issues. “It’s like finding the limits of what can be made visible at this moment,” she added.
But she was fed up with being asked about politics and with everyone assuming that her works were a commentary on Turkey, she said, a sentiment echoed by several other artists.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re not allowed space to work with form and explore,” Ms. Oztat added.
Jade Turanli, director of Pi Artworks, said the gallery had displayed “18+” signs for sexually explicit exhibitions last year to try to avoid trouble from conservative audiences. “Probably nothing will happen if I didn’t put it up,” she said of the warnings, but she added that she had thought it the sensible thing to do at the time.
She had decided not to use such a sign for Ms. Oztat’s show, she said, but then made a face and added that she might rethink this the following week. That would be after the openings had finished and the global art world’s caravan had departed.
Ms. Oztat agreed that the Biennial would have an effect. “These two weeks, everyone will be more optimistic,” she said.
“Then the international crowd leaves,” she added. “Then we are left to ourselves.”