A Space of Hope in Bayburt

The Baksı Museum is a project brought to life by artist and academic Hüsamettin Koçan in the village of his birth, motivated by the desire to spread art beyond city centers to the peripheries. Turning its hometown into a cultural and touristic attraction because of its location and architectural design over the years, the museum hosts the works of villagers and of contemporary artists and includes a boutique hotel as part of the complex. Hüsamettin Koçan shares with us the inspiring story of this center.
Hüsamettin Koçan

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in this village in 1946. It was called Baksı back then. Now its name is Bayraktar. I finished middle school in Bayburt, then studied engineering in Istanbul for three years, and eventually crossed over into the fine arts. After graduating from the school of fine arts, I became an assistant there, and in 2006 put an end to my academic career. I served as dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Marmara University for three terms. In 2000, I started working on the Baksı project. I envisioned this place as a cultural center. In about 20 years we managed to gradually institutionalize it, turning it into a reputable museum by international and European standards. It operates as a foundation, the Baksı Culture and Arts Foundation. For this reason, in 2014 it was selected as the best museum in Europe. In 2015, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey awarded me the Grand Prize for Culture and Arts. In 2017, the Ministry for Culture named us “institution of the year.” The Baksı Museum has around 20 different awards from various places. As an artist, I have shown in 45 exhibitions. As an academic, I have published numerous articles. And here I am today.

How did the Baksı Museum come about?

The origin of this project is quite interesting. You see, I’m the child of an expat. My father used to go abroad to work, and he would come back once every two years. In the winter we would wait for our dad over on that hill. I was a kid in waiting. My mom was a mother waiting for her husband. Our relationship to our father is one of longing. My father always supported me. I studied engineering for three years, then he let me go on to fine arts. My wife is an urbanite from a more modern background. My father always supported me in marrying her. He was there for me in all my progressive inclinations. And for this reason, when my father passed away I wanted to bring him back to his own village.

When I brought him home, I saw that the village had changed. In the past there used to be mansions in the village where these folk poet-musicians would try and outperform each other, tales of war would be spun, games would be played, and conversations abound. No TV in the evening, no this or that. But when I came back I saw that everyone had bought a black-and-white television. And you know what their biggest problem was? Not being able to watch TV shows properly because of frequent power outages. They had forgotten how to relate to one another.

My father always supported me, always encouraged me on my path, so I thought why not set up a village mansion as a token of gratitude to my father? So the Baksı project started with the idea of a village mansion. At the core of what it has become today is a desire to thank the father.

When we were students we wished for art to spread into life. Because of this, we objected to art being confined to the city center. This is a revolutionary form of thinking, in a way. Art had to go to life. The Baksı project connects the center and the periphery, seeks to develop the site it is located in, create a new center in this location, and use art and design to do so.

Here, sprawled across 60-something dunams of land, we exhibit the creative efforts of mankind. We aren’t a period museum, an ethnographic museum, a modern art museum, or an archaeological museum; we are the Baksı Museum. And for that reason, our museum and archives hold both the works of villagers and those of our present day avant-garde. This is a meeting point. Baksı is situated within the global museum practice as a project that values employment, prioritizes children (we seek out talented children and offer scholarships), puts forward women in administrative positions, and sustains itself. It is entirely voluntary; all of these buildings and collections you see have been made with nothing but the contributions of artists and art lovers. It is for this reason that Baksı is celebrated by the international museum establishment as an inspiring project. We serve cultural tourism, productivity, and sharing, and contribute to cultural democracy.

How did the villagers react?

This is a question we get asked frequently. At first we were met with surprise, then pride, and for some it became something they would watch with a bittersweet smile. Women and children supported us a lot. Expats supported us. There were doubts in the city center at first, now they are a huge support. The more Baksı proves itself as a brand in Bayburt, the more it contributes to life, the economy, and the cultural environment here. For this reason, we don’t only focus on the village, but on the entire region. Black Sea tours stop by this place now; it altered tourism routes. So it’s also important to think of it in terms of contributions to the region.

What does the Çoruh mean to you?

We used to go dip in the Çoruh river. There weren’t so many trees and shrubs around. We would tumble down that hill over there. There used to be sand here, so what we did was called “sanding.” We would go and “sand” over there in circles. The water would heat up towards 1 pm, and we would slowly start hopping in. Then we would go across. Further ahead there’s this rock in the water called Kumbulkaya, it’s still there, we would go over there and play, skip around, and come all the way down in the water lost in conversation. We would spend entire days like this. We knew every stone and every tree, and we knew how deep every spot was. And so the Çoruh flowed through our lives. We all have the Çoruh in our memories. We learned how to swim in it, holding on to the tails of oxen. In the winter we would break the ice to fish in it. The Çoruh is not just a river for us, it is life itself. For everyone living here, it is life. It flows down below us, but it actually flows through the center of our lives. I don’t think life could have flourished here if it weren’t for the Çoruh, to be honest.

But now other things are cropping up around the Çoruh, either regular or irregular. So now its relationship to its surrounding environment has been damaged slightly because of dams built towards Nörgâh (Pazaryolu), İspir, Yusufeli, and further down. Actually it’s not slight, the damage, it’s quite serious. The concern to govern the Çoruh, to derive profit from it has turned the river into something it is not. It has come to be perceived as a “commercial flow,” nothing more.

Surely nobody could object to energy production on the Çoruh, as long as it stays on a reasonable scale. I believe the river will be in much better condition if these could be planned in a manner that doesn’t upset the natural order and ecological balance. Otherwise this onslaught of dams and concrete will gradually change the river’s temperament, its history, and maybe its appearance too. For this reason, we must find ways to generate energy from the Çoruh that keeps its natural state intact. Yet I believe we are already a bit too late.

In the city center of Bayburt river restoration projects are underway. We were there earlier. Looking at it from this vantage point, however, we see the Çoruh has its own natural “landscape design.” What do you think about what was done over there?

It is impossible to speak of a natural river in the city. They severed the city and the river with high walls. We used to swim there and dip in it. In the winter we would skate. The river was one that had a presence in our lives. Now there are walls between us and the river, an abyss… What they did most recently stripped the river of its standing as a river, and instead turned it into an irrigation canal. These kinds of artificial makeovers ruin nature. It isn’t just huge buildings that turn nature into concrete. It is a good idea to take water from the river, sure. But the whole point is to achieve that without destroying nature… If we assault nature to such a degree, it will inevitably one day call us to account. For this reason, I consider the relation of production we have established with nature to be an ill-planned act of degradation, not formulated in congruence with human nature and the essence of nature itself, but based only on a narrow, short-sighted sense of benefit/profit.

You contributed to the region with an architectural monument. Did anybody ask for your opinion or consult you as they were undertaking this restoration project in Bayburt?

At times they act as if they are consulting me. This is the biggest problem here. In places like this expertise isn’t part of the picture, jurisdiction and authority is. I am not against authorities exercising their authority, but I think it would be best if they involved experts in their decisions. Civil society participation in problem resolution here is very low, there is not really any civic space. There are no consultation mechanisms for this either. There are mainly authorities. And authorities may be well-intentioned. No doubt. But having good intentions is not enough to do the best job. For that you need to bring in experts. You need civil stakeholders that will be partners in problem-solving. You need scholars and universities to take a close interest in these matters. I don’t think universities have really shown much interest. I mean we have a university in every province now. These have to be searching for solutions to the problem of how we will carry our relationship with nature, with rocks, that tree over there, and other beings into the present, and how we will live in peace with them. We aren’t doing this. Instead, universities are seen as money-making opportunities. If fifteen thousand students come in, that means fifteen thousand more consumers. But if we only think about it in these terms, it won’t work. A university has responsibilities. It is responsible towards the landscape it is located in, towards its people and its technology – it must find answers. For this reason, I think the greatest criticism here can be brought against the institutions of politics and the university.

You mentioned a hydroelectric power plant (HEPP) project to be built here. Would you elaborate briefly?

I am now 73 years old. When I was a kid, triangular tents had been set up during harvest time. That’s where I saw a gramophone for the first time. They were saying, “A dam will be built here.” I was 5 or 6, so this was 65 years ago. They came and went, came and went, construction sites popped up, this and that happened. It’s always been “just about to be built”…

About a decade ago things got a bit more serious. There’s the project for the Laleli Dam. The water was going to go up here, but there was a lot of trouble with expropriation so they dropped it (the water level). It would also have destroyed arable land. The land on the river banks is very valuable because it is very fertile. It was said that they dropped water levels for this reason. Now a couple of days ago we heard the news that “Production will go back to the previously planned levels.” I find it wrong to play with nature like this. Yes, this may bring us certain material benefits. But I think sometimes we shouldn’t meddle with certain things simply for material benefit. I think we must respect nature. We have to cherish the river, for it is our life. It would be great if the Çoruh continued being an embodiment of culture itself for us and sustained its existence with its own particular identity. It’s almost impossible to say let’s not touch it at all, but it would be best to work on it in a way that respects its natural habitat, its history, and its relationship to nature, and its shores. Building on it and turning it into concrete right now is something I consider to be a violation of all of these, at odds and destructive.