When Turkish artist Mehmet Aksoy built his “Monument to Humanity” he built it out of love. His family is of Armenian descent, and it was a gesture of reconciliation between two countries on an issue that’s loomed large in their relations and politics for a century.
“We Turks and Armenians are sisters and brothers,” the artist said to the Turkish Daily News in 2008. “Now, it is time for both of us to open our hearts to each other and heal our traumas.”
Not everyone saw his gesture in the same light, and, in his usual fashion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised his voice. In 2011 he called it a “monstrosity” and prompted local authorities to tear it down, according to the New York Times. In March a court ordered Erdogan to pay Aksoy $4,000 in compensation, but now, according to AFP, prosecutors are seeking to put the artist in prison for 56 months because he insulted the president.
Aksoy, born in 1939, studied sculpture in Istanbul and London and went on to win several international awards, according to the Turkish Daily News. Even though he lived in Berlin for some time, he told the paper, “I am tied from the bottom of my heart to people of this land.”
Aksoy was commissioned in 2009 by the then-mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoglu, to build his “Monument to Humanity”: two large figures that stood almost 100-feet tall and if completed would be posed to shake hands. The sculptures included a giant hand, palm open and facing toward Armenia. “The hand will serve as a call for amity and humanity,” he said to the paper. Aksoy was excited about the sculpture and envisioned a grand opening to coincide with World Peace Day. He told the Turkish Daily News that he planned to invite his family and Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, because he is also from a family of Armenian descent.
The project stalled in 2010 and, according to the Economist, the mayor, in the meantime, was forced out of office. By 2011, the project came to a full halt after a visit from Erdogan.
“When Erdogan came to Kars, he reacted as if he had not been aware of the statue, as if we had erected it overnight,”Aksoy told Al-Monitor. According to multiple reports, the president called the statue a monstrosity and prompted local officials to destroy it. “They put a monstrosity there, next to the tomb of [scholar] Hasan Harakani,” he said. “It is impossible to think that such a thing should exist next to a true work of art. ” Another translation suggested by the Economist, Erdogan called it “freak” and once said, “I spit on this kind of art.”
Some suspected the reasons were political. “In fact, he was maneuvering to consolidate his reactionary base in the run-up to elections.”Aksoy told Al-Monitor. “Besides political interests, he did it because [Islamists] see sculpture as idolatry and have an aversion to it. Hence, he killed two birds with one stone.”
Based on Erdogan’s comments local officials rapidly destroyed the statues, AFP reports. Aksoy told Al-Monitor, “I felt as if my children were being beheaded. I could do nothing.”
But Aksoy found a way and, according to the New York Times, he sued Erdogan for “insult.”
In March he was successful. An Ankara court ordered Erdogan to pay Aksoy 10,000 Turkish Liras, or $ 3,750, for damages and mental anguish. But Aksoy declined to take the money, saying, “I would never make a sculpture with dirty money.”
Now, because of his comments, prosecutors are looking to put Aksoy in prison for 56 months for insulting the president. According to AFP the prosecutors claim Aksoy implied that the president’s earnings were illegitimate. “My words were not meant to insult the president,” Aksoy said. “I meant that this money just fell in my lap and was not money earned through the sweat of your brow.”
Erdogan has become notorious for jailing critics, particularly journalists. But Aksoy’s says he wasn’t criticizing, just extending the hand of friendship to a neighbor.
“I am really sorry, sorry on behalf of Turkey,” he told the Anatolia news agency, the BBC reports. “They can demolish it, we will re-make it.”