Resistance and Art: the Gezi Protests in Turkey 

Written by Deniz Koçak

On May 28th of 2013, activists in Turkey planned a peaceful sit-in in order to protect Taksim Square’s Gezi Park which the government planned to demolish. They were standing against the government’s choice to cut down the trees in the park in order to “construct a replica of 19th century Ottoman Barracks which would serve as a luxury residence and become Istanbul’s 94th shopping mall” in place of the park. What started as a peaceful ecological sit-in evolved into violence when police officers pepper sprayed and tear gassed people sleeping in their tents and set some tents on fire, which officially started the Gezi Protests. The protests then rapidly started spreading to other cities in the country and became about a larger uprising against the government and president’s growing authoritarian tendencies. “The protesters were the most heterogeneous opposition group Turkey has seen in the last two decades, including leftists, secular-nationalist Kemalists, ultra-nationalists, some Kurds, some Islamists and some unaffiliated, apolitical citizens outraged by police brutality.“ The participating groups were all united for the protests even if they had never agreed on anything before, they let go of their disagreements and fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the Gezi Protests. People resisted for their freedom and a popular form of resistance that was observed was using art to share their stories and feelings about their fight. 

Art in Gezi 

The Symbols Used Within Designs & Street Art that were Produced During and After Gezi 

The art that was produced during and about Gezi used smart ways of alluding to the events that happened and created iconic symbols that were used throughout the documentation of the protests. Political slogans tied with symbols and art pieces led to the creation of a collective spirit which helped keep the fire of resistance alive. Some symbols that were popularly used within the art included; 

Pepper Gas: The excessive usage of the pepper gas towards peaceful resistors became a topic for the art. The picture on the left shows street art with the text: “Welcome to the first annual gas fest” making a joke out of the horrible treatment they were getting from the police during the protests. The picture on the right includes an illustration of the president along with the text: “Red Hot Chili Tayyip”, pointing a finger at the president for his role in the oppression in a comedic manner. 

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Fist and Tree Symbols: The resistance was symbolized by the fist, sometimes along with tree imagery to tie it to the initial reasoning of the protests. The #direnGezi (#resistGezi) was popularized and used alongside the art pieces trying them together. 

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The Red Dressed Woman: Ceyda Sungur, a Turkish musician and activist, became an iconic symbol of resistance with her red dress and flowing hair, and her image was used in designs, drawings to tell the story of the people resisting. 

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Gas Masks: The art pieces showed the fight for freedom against the police that the protestors had to have. The gas masks helped to symbolize how the protestors were unphased by the heavy oppression coming from the police with the excessive use of pepper spray. 

Penguins: Penguins became a popular symbol of the Gezi protests since the CNN News channel refused to broadcast the protests by showing a documentary about penguins instead. This lack of media coverage of the Turkish people’s fight for freedom led to the creation of this symbol. 

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Guy Fawkes Mask: The mask of the character from “V for Vendetta” has been a global symbol of protests and resistance which was also popularly used in Gezi. Sometimes within drawings and posters as well as demonstrations in public.  

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Comedy Being Used in Art as a Form of Resistance in Gezi

Comedy has been used as a way of opposition and resistance countless times in history. Humor helps to shake the authority and connect people by amplifying shared feelings whether they are positive or negative. It gives a way of showing the funny sides of life, by also pushing forth the idea that even when there is pain, it will be temporary and there will be hope instilled in people for a happiness at the end. It was no different during Gezi as people found comedic ways of clapping back to the government even in the harshest times. Some slogans that were commonly used were “Önce herşey gaz bulutuydu, sonra hayat başladı (First everything was a cloud of gas, then life started)”, “Bu biber gazı bi harika dostum (This pepper gas is awesome bro)”, which helped people feel back in control of the situation they were in while illustrating the backlash they were getting from the government. Angering the authority was done through these comedic ways, leading the public to stop their fear and fight for their freedom with a smile on their faces. They also commonly used the words that were used against them in their comedy, as another way of striking back and reclaiming their freedom. Examples of this include the word “çapulcu” which was commonly used for people in the resistance and people took this name to create slogans such as “Everyday I’m chapulling”, “The art of chapulling: Introduction of Turkish sociology”, “I chapul therefore I am”; “Chapulling is not just a word, it is a life style”. These popular media references that are embedded within the comedy help elevate the relevance and relatability of the slogans, making them iconic still to this moment. Comedy in these forms helped to shake authority as there is no way to stop the creativity and freedom of these jokes, leaving them stumped on ways to oppress a society.  

The symbols used within the art pieces also heavily included comedic undertones whether it be gas masks, penguins or important characters in the resistance. A lot of comic magazines also included them in their cover pages which made the art pieces impactful and it helped to tell the story of Gezi. The examples below show the covers of popular comic magazines that portrayed people resisting against the police, one showing a police officer being confronted by someone with a flower. The other one includes the iconic character that stood still during the protests as a resistance with a penguin drawn on his side which was another symbol of resistance. These drawings are both influenced by real events that occurred during the protests, the comedic documentation of the events helped the coming generations as well as the people who took part in the protests reminisce about the resistance. 

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A resistance becomes harder to stop when people are laughing and enjoying every moment of their freedom, believing that there is hope for happiness in the end. The place of comedy in resistance and resistance in comedy is undeniable which portrayed a powerful shift within the Gezi protests. This has been an observation made within many other protests over the years with people standing up against the government by using comedy, reflecting the power that humor has in creating a community and taking a stance together.

The art produced during the protests for the Gezi Park create an idea of the place for art in resistance as well as the place of resistance in art. From the examples of the abundance of art that was seen all throughout the protests, the soul of resistance is reflected within their creativity and the art that has come out of Gezi. During critical times such as these, art becomes even more important as it is a way for the people to express themselves, there is a blast of creativity that happens in people. The production of the art is unique as it comes from a place of political despair, the art pieces are only made for portraying and sharing a community’s feelings rather than commercial value which make them an important part of history. Nowadays, Gezi protests are remembered as a turning point for the people of Turkey, uniting people from all walks of life and the art that was produced during the events help us to remember. The art cannot be separated when remembering Gezi as it was present in all aspects of the protests and the resistance shown by the people along with their fight for their beliefs can also be considered an art piece on its own. 

Edited by Joanna Sowińska, Artwork by Vanessa Franko