The Moon and Stars Project: Representing Turkish Art
by Vanessa H. Larson
The Moon and Stars Project, the most prominent Turkish arts organization in New York City and the largest such arts organization in the U.S., has a challenging mission: how to be a non-political, non-profit organization promoting Turkish arts and culture, while representing a country whose identity tends to be defined more by outsiders’ views of it than by Turks’ views of themselves. Although still less than a decade old, the organization has managed to transform itself from a shoe-string operation to one that produces professional-quality events that attract both Turkish and non-Turkish audiences, in particular to the New York Turkish Film Festival. In doing so, the Moon and Stars Project has offered a vision of Turkish art and culture that is far more multi-faceted, dynamic, and cosmopolitan than the image in most Americans’ minds when they think of Turkey.
As the organization’s mission statement makes clear, it is “committed to broadening cultural horizons and ultimately…forging a global identity.” This Turkish “global identity” is not a given but is consciously constructed in the American context. Rather than presenting only what might be considered “traditional” art forms such as Turkish folk music or folk dancing, the Moon and Stars Project showcases a wide variety of contemporary Turkish art and culture, including visual art, film, music, drama, and literature. Implied in this aesthetic is a desire to expand and diversify Americans’ conception of Turkish art and culture by showing that it consists of far more than the prevailing stereotypes of belly dancing and whirling dervishes. Indeed, some of the programming has very little about it that Americans might think of as “Turkish,” except that its performers or creators are Turkish—which is clearly part of the point. The image of Turkish identity presented is one that tends towards the urban, intellectual, and secular, and the audience it attracts is for the most part like-minded.
The Moon and Stars Project’s success appears to be due in large part to its organizers’ clarity of vision in their mission to raise the profile of Turkish art and culture in New York and the U.S. and to encourage artistic and cultural exchange between the two countries. Its major projects are two annual festivals: the film festival and MayFest, a month-long lineup of programs ranging from music and theater to art exhibits and literary events. While some of the artists featured in MayFest are brought over from Turkey, the organization is also committed to promoting the work of locally-based Turkish artists (visual and performing), both through a grants program and through sponsoring their participation in MayFest.
The New York Turkish Community
It’s no accident that the Moon and Stars Project was started in New York City, given that the New York area (including Long Island and parts of New Jersey) is home to the United States’ largest concentration of Turks and Turkish-Americans. Yet until the late 1990s, it seems, there was relatively little in the way of Turkish artistic and cultural programming taking place in New York. Nur Emirgil, the founder and chairperson of the Moon and Stars Project, became inspired to change that after helping plan a concert in New York to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Turkish Republic in October 1998.
“All of a sudden it occurred to me that every ethnic group in New York had a festival, a day, some kind of theater….We seemed [to be] the only minority who really didn’t have anything but a Turkish Day Parade, with no arts and culture features attached to it,” she recalls.
Emirgil got together with others in the Turkish community and the following May they launched the first MayFest, which she describes as “a huge success.” The ambitious festival program included performances by Yasar, a well-loved Turkish pop singer, and Cem Yilmaz, one of Turkey’s most popular comedians. It also included a seven-film Turkish film festival directed by Mevlut Akkaya, an independent film producer in New York.
“I said, ‘Let’s make a film festival too,’” recalls Akkaya. “And they said, ‘You are crazy. It is so difficult…and nobody will come.’ I said, ‘I know, but…we are already crazy, because, doing something like this—without getting paid, and [giving] all your free time—you have to be crazy.”
But the film festival—and MayFest as a whole—did get off the ground and, building on their success, Emirgil, Akkaya, and the other festival organizers turned MayFest into an annual event. In 2001, the New York Turkish Film Festival was made into a separate festival held in the fall. Then, in 2002, after several years as a loose organization structured around the festivals, the group was formally established as the non-profit Moon and Stars Project.
“We started this whole thing as a project of passion,” says Emirgil, reflecting back on the sequence of events. “It started on an impulse…but then it caught on.”
As Emirgil relates, the Moon and Stars Project had tapped into a real need in the Turkish community and, as a result, the early years were a heady time. “There was such a hunger…for Turkish programs….It was very tough because there were all these tremendous programs that we knew we could do, and we wanted to do…and there was no money to do them,” she says.
For financial reasons, the Moon and Stars Project has stayed a volunteer-run organization, which allows it to put on high-quality programs despite its tight budget. According to Emirgil, the all-volunteer makeup of the organization has also “brought people together from all walks of life” in the Turkish community. “We don’t only do cultural events, but we are also organizing our own community,” she points out.
Turkish and non-Turkish Audiences
The Moon and Stars Project clearly has no difficulty in attracting the Turkish community to its programs. “I think the community is respecting us a lot, and they are really waiting every year: when is the MayFest, when is the film festival?” says Akkaya, who for several years also served as the artistic director for MayFest.
But although in the beginning, MayFest may have drawn a predominantly Turkish audience, the Moon and Stars Project has since made it a goal to attract non-Turkish audiences. Indeed, Emirgil says that, in the long term, “The most important audience is not necessarily the present audience. [It] is Americans of non-Turkish origins.” However, she acknowledges that the “target population will depend on the event” and that “it’ll take time crossing over.”
The film festival is without a doubt the most successful of the organization’s programs at drawing a non-Turkish audience. Aside from getting individual Americans (and other non-Turks) interested in Turkish film, its broader aim is, according to Akkaya, “to introduce Turkish cinema to the American market.”
This is especially important when it comes to independent films, because, as Akkaya points out, “I don’t think we have enough [of a] core audience in Turkey that the independent film industry can survive yet. Without international film festivals, I think, none of these filmmakers can survive in Turkey.”
But the Moon and Stars Project is also not opposed to showing more commercial films. “Of course I consider the commercial film industry in Turkey, because of the people here—especially the Turkish audience—[who] want to see his kind of film. And I am for commercial films,” says Akkaya, who feels that commercial films “will help the Turkish film industry a lot.”
Leaving Politics Out
In addition to promoting a particular cultural and artistic identity, the Moon and Stars Project has chosen to stay a strictly apolitical organization. This can be challenging at times coming from a country whose international image is shaped far more by its myriad political issues—and by outsiders’ views on them—than by its artistic heritage. The Turkish state has a history of thorny relations with not only its neighbors Greece and Armenia, but also its own domestic minorities, most significantly the Kurds. Far from having healed over time, these fraught relationships remain contentious political issues as Turkey tries to enter the European Union.
“We are coming from a country that has a lot of political issues,” says Akkaya. “But, as an organization…we are not political, we are not taking any side.”
Nonetheless, the organization’s apparent lack of a political agenda has not prevented others from ascribing it one, and it has at times received criticism from other communities in New York. Members of the Greek community have objected to certain films’ portrayals of sensitive political issues, while some in the Kurdish community have said they feel the organization has not been sufficiently inclusive of Kurdish culture.
And yet, recent MayFests have encompassed more cultural diversity. The 2003 festival included the performance of an excerpt from Mahmud and Yezida, which was written by the poet and playwright Murathan Mungan and deals with inter-ethnic and religious issues in Turkey. This year’s MayFest featured a concert by the New York-based Ozan Aksoy Trio in which the group performed folk songs in Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Ladino, and other languages spoken in Anatolia to an enthusiastic audience. It also included two Turkish-Greek concerts, one of which, “Letter from Istanbul,” was co-sponsored with the World Music Institute. In that concert, Derya Turkan and Sokratis Sinopoulos—leading players of the kemence (three-stringed fiddle) from their respective countries—performed traditional music with a joint Turkish-Greek ensemble.
In the end, even the few criticisms indicate that the Moon and Stars Project is doing something right: it has undeniably raised the profile of Turkish arts and culture in New York, bringing together both Turkish and non-Turkish audiences.
As Akkaya reflected recently, “This is good for the Turkish community and it’s good for the American community. We need this kind of bridges in this world.”
Vanessa H. Larson recently completed a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies and journalism at New York University, where she wrote her MA thesis on Turkish performing artists in New York. She has lived in Turkey and speaks Turkish.