Turkish performance artist Şükran Moral explains how fear is the greatest threat to art and why collaboration is the key to overcoming it

A veteran performance artist, outspoken feminist and courageous breaker of boundaries, Turkish artist Şükran Moral has spent decades creating challenging, controversial and progressive work with a powerful social message. Born in 1962, Moral studied art in Ankara and Rome. She graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma in 1995 with a degree in painting, but went on to work mostly with performance, installation and video.

Known for her provocative and controversial performances, she frequently uses her work to challenge conservative viewpoints and promote progressive attitudes towards women’s rights and gender equality, as well as lending a voice to marginalised segments of society, such as immigrants, prostitutes and the mentally ill. After a performance in 2010, which challenged conservative opposition to love outside traditional heterosexual norms by staging lovemaking between two women in an Istanbul gallery space, Moral received death threats and was forced to flee Turkey and live for a year in Italy.

In March this year, when a suicide bombing in the popular Beyoglu district of Istanbul resulted in citizens evacuating the streets in fear, Moral went out and danced and sang love songs in the deserted streets, calling for unity in the face of terror. Amid an increasingly authoritarian stance from the Turkish government in the wake of an attempted military coup in July, which resulted in tens of thousands of arrests and a crackdown on liberal media, Moral sat down with Selections to discuss the role of artists during times of crisis.

“I believe that an artist should be involved in society and tackle the problems of society,” she said. “Whatever it takes – whatever risks it involves, whatever problems come my way – I feel that I need to be involved, to be a part of it through the work I do.”

Moral spoke just after an unscheduled performance at Contemporary Istanbul, which she used as a vehicle to make a statement about censorship amid a climate of growing fear in which many Turkish journalists, academics and artists amid to being unsure about what they can and can’t say with impunity.

Her performance, entitled Hit-and-Run My Heart, was part of a series of swift, unscheduled pop-up performances the artist has taken to doing as a means of sharing her work without attracting unwanted attention or facing potential censorship.

“Of course there is oppression, but the real threat to artists is from self-censorship,” she said. “We have all been censored for many years now, but it doesn’t stop me – it shouldn’t stop them either. I act like a 20 year old, coming here and doing hit-and-run performances just to say what I want to say. If they want to say something, they can and they should.”

Moral was shaking as she spoke, wracked with emotion and nauseous from the smell of blood in the wake of her dramatic performance, in which she silently nailed chunks of raw meat and fresh animal hearts to a white wall. The emotional performance, during which the artist broke down in tears, served as a bloody and bold statement heavy with symbolism. When she finished, her hands and face smeared with blood, Moral threw written statements into the audience, silently elaborating on her performance.

“As an artist, things that go on in our country hurt me deeply, as well as everyone else,” the statement began. “I just don’t want to be defeated by despair and slavery. I couldn’t be the spectator of fearful words, jet-black curtain drawn above in the sky.”

Afterwards, she expanded on her reasons for performing. “Normally I never do performances at art fairs,” she explained. “I normally do them in the streets, but I wanted to do this performance at the art fair at this time because society-wise we are being prevented from a lot of things and I feel obligated to share my reaction. I feel like I’m being stabbed in my heart, as the country is. It’s only getting worse, and one should take responsibility to react to these problems, so that’s what I’m doing… We have become suffocated because of all the unpleasant things that surround us, and as a result I did this performance in order to show our suffocation and our bleeding.”

In spite of her sorrow and anger, Moral ended the interview with a message of hope.

“The only way out is to keep creating and collaborating,” she said. “People should gather and find ways of creating collectively – not only in art but in theatre and music and everything. In every field of arts there should be collective creation. That’s the only way of fighting all of the negative things that happen to us. The things I do help other artists to come out of their fear zone and allow themselves to be out there, fearlessly.”