How blunt can Turkish caricaturists be?


A dumbfounded Angela Merkel

In 2015, the cover of the Turkish satire magazine LeMan depicted the German chancellor with a puzzled look on her face, sitting next to the Turkish President Erdogan wearing a sultan's attire. She wonders, "Where in the world have I landed?" LeMan is one of Istanbul's three leading satire magazines. Turkey's Prime Minister Davutoglu once called it "immoral."


Imprisoned activists

The failed coup in July 2016 fundamentally changed Turkey. Since then, 150,000 people have suddenly lost their positions and 40,000 have been imprisoned - journalists, authors, activists. Many of them are held in detention awaiting a trial that's never held. The drawing shown above, by 66-year-old cartoonist Izel Rozental, dealt with this issue in August 2016.


Gülen is everywhere

Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gülen of plotting the attempted coup, and has since persecuted alleged members of the exiled cleric's movement. Cartoonist Yigit Özgür has caricatured the fact that many Turks believe Erdogan's exaggerated blanket accusations: One man says, "90 percent of all water melons are said to be Gülen followers." "Hmmm, could be," replies the other.


Critical voices unwanted

With 51.3 percent Yes votes, the constitutional referendum held in April broadened Erdogan's powers. During the demonstrations ahead of the referendum, the media was not allowed to freely cover supporters of the opposition's No - "Hayir" - position. This led Ipek Özsüslü to draw this cartoon in March. "Your resistance is calcified," says the plumber with a Hayir on his bottom.


The interests of the US

Among the works on show at the exhibition "Schluss mit Lustig" (Get Serious), Erdogan is not the only one targeted by Turkish cartoonists. This drawing criticizes Trump's "Muslim travel ban." Referring to US soldiers, the child asks, "When will we finally expell them, papa?" The father darkly replies, "When our oil is all used up."


Sex = taboo

As one of the rare female cartoonists in Turkey, Ramize Erer addresses feminist topics and breaks taboos surrounding sex. She depicts explicit female sexuality, often offending the country's conservatives. One of her recurring characters is the busty, men-devouring "bad girl." Sexuality is one of the biggest taboos in Turkey.


The state of the world

Artist Mehmet Cagcag shows his views of the current state of the planet with this drawing: Dynamite is attached to world clocks, and from Baghdad to Athens, from Berlin to France, international cities are ticking bombs. The cartoonist does not reveal when and if they'll actually explode.


Third Bosphorus Bridge

With his drawing from 2014, Murat Basol reacts to the then-being-built third bridge over the Bosphorus. Unlike Erdogan, the cartoonist does not see the bridge linking the Asian and European sides of Istanbul as a demonstration of Turkey's progress, but rather as a polluting construction project that will lead to more traffic and exhaust fumes.


Searching for free spaces

Free spaces are no longer available everywhere in Turkey; one has to look for them and even fight for them. That's the idea transmitted by Zeynep Özatalay's cartoon. The authors, musicians and painters depicted in this drawing succeed in pushing back the void. The cartoon was published in the newspaper BirGün, an open critic of Erdogan's party, the AKP.

Would Erdogan rather be compared to Hitler or an animal? An exhibition of Turkish caricatures in Germany shows where the boundaries of free speech are in Turkey a year after the failed coup attempt.

It's ok to portray Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a Hitler mustache, but not as an animal. That would simply be too belittling, says Sabine Küper-Busch, who lives in Istanbul and curated the exhibition "Schluss mit Lustig - Aktuelle Satire aus der Türkei" (Get serious - current satire from Turkey).

Politics | 02.06.2017

Even a caricature depicting two sheep saying they no longer want to be watched over by Shepherd Erdogan would also be considered unacceptable in Turkey. A particular cartoon bearing that image has already been the subject of a legal investigation - even though the Hitler comparison didn't ruffle any official feathers.

The image of Erdogan as the former Nazi dictator, which was a cover of the caricature magazine "LeMan," is on show from July 20 through August 27 at the Caricatura Gallery in Kassel, along with 70 other works by 50 prominent Turkish cartoonists.

Karikaturen aus der Türkei

It may be hard to predict which comparisons will disturb Erdogan

Two films are also part of the exhibition, as are two empty canvases which are to be filled over the course of the show. 

The boundaries of freedom of expression

What's interesting is that a number of the works had been published in Turkey before they came to central Germany - without negative consequences for the artists.

Visitors to the exhibition get an impression of how far caricaturists in Turkey can go with their drawings of Erdogan - although that fine line has also been moving since the coup attempt in July 2016.

For the Kassel exhibition, the texts on the drawings have been translated into German, and guided tours are offered in both German and Turkish to explain the deeper meaning behind the works.

Read: Germany revokes lese majeste law

Socially critical caricatures

Ramize Erer

Ramize Erer is pictured in January at the International Comic Festival in Angoulême

The caricatures not only focus on Erdogan, but also criticize Turkish society as a whole. They also touch on women's issues, sexual taboos, the refugee crisis and even US President Donald Trump.

Caricaturist Ramize Erer, who lives in both Istanbul and Paris, concedes that many of her colleagues are currently subjecting themselves to self-censorship. "Everyone considers very carefully what they're going to draw," she said.

Related Subjects

These days, cartoonists only rarely dare to touch on political issues, since numerous investigations into claims of offending the president have been launched.

One cartoonist is also among the 160 journalists currently in prison in Turkey, commented curator Küper-Busch. Even though there is no official censorship, the threat of an investigation is very real, she added.

Last year, for example, two caricaturists from the satirical magazine Penguen were subjected to hefty fines for offending Erdogan.

Karikaturen aus der Türkei - Tan Cemal Genç

Artist Tan Cemal Genç has dedicated his small yellow figure to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack

Read: Frankfurt shows solidarity for journalist Deniz Yucel

Social media a refuge

For these reasons, caricaturist Tan Cemal Genç publishes his work mainly on social media platforms, which he says the authorities are less in tune to.

But in the long run, Genç hopes the situation will improve. "Frustration with the government is growing," he said. This frustration may not be noticed outside of Turkey, but the government is very afraid of drawing attention from abroad, he added.

bb/kbm/eg (dpa, epd)