Beral Madra is a key figure in the past, present and future of anything related to art in Turkey. We met her at Sanayi313 to talk about Istanbul and her life of transformations - which have followed those of the city itself.Photographs: Nazlı Erdemirel

Pondering Istanbul’s past, we always find something to complain about. What it has become today. Why it so often fails to pleaseits modern residents. And who can blame us? This is a city that has witnessed one of the most large-scale and acute changes in as little as one human lifetime. Beral Madra is a firsthand witness to the social, economic, political and spatial upheavals that Istanbul has undergone in just 80 years. I’m curious to learn more about the nature of her relationship with modern Istanbul.

“People in higher income groups may not realise this, but many of the city’s residents are living in severe poverty. It is a heterogeneous city as much as it is a dystopian one. It is this dystopia that shakes Istanbul to the core. You can see the big picture when you look at the city from the Marmara Sea. Along the shoreline is a city that has withstood time, but above it are skyscrapers that represent a great collision of history and neo-capitalism… Think of it, a city of three million swelling to  20 million in less than five decades. Despite all this, I have lived a fine life in this city. I’m one of those lucky people who has had the liberty to choose a path. I confess that it has not been easy. I worked hard and I still do. I have done my share for the cultural development of this city. That’s why I can’t be too hard on Istanbul, but we have to know the facts, right?”

Beral Madra was born in 1942, on the fourth floor of Nişantaşı’s landmark Ralli Apartments, which is currently the Consulate of Syria. She was exposed to art at a very young age. “Fahrünnisa Zeid lived one floor down. I could see her painting in the courtyard from the window of our flat. It was fascinating to watch her as a kid.” Madra’s family came to Istanbul from Crimea in the late 19th century. They first settled in Gedikpaşa before moving to Nişantaşı. Her big family lived together in the 12-room flat in the Ralli Apartments and later moved into a new apartment built by Beral’s father, Yahya Kefeli, on Şakayık Street.


The late teens are, perhaps, the years when we are most eager to understand the world around us. I ask Madra when she truly discovered Istanbul: “I started at the German high school after graduating from Nilüfer Hatun Primary School. Every morning, I used to take the bus from the corner of the Nişantaşı Police Station and get off at Tünel. Beyoğlu was a great discovery for me. Unlike what it is now, it was incomparably calm but also a vibrant and fun neighbourhood. The Istanbul pogrom happened in September 1955. I remember not being able to go to school in those days. Beyoğlu became sad and gloomy after that… The Beyoğlu that I watched looking out the bus window on my way to school and the streets I explored closer to Taksim, simply disappeared. I was a firsthand witness to the wave of immigrants arriving from all over Anatolia. Over time, I watched Beyoğlu change in several phases. Being a student at the German high school undoubtedly broadened my perspective too. Imagine, we had teachers from Germany in the 1950s. Looking back now, I think the foundations of my lifelong political orientation were laid in those years. I witnessed the coup d’état of 1960. There were student uprisings during that period. Tensions were very high in Istanbul.”

She studied archeology at Istanbul University during its halcyon days. The iconic scholars of Anatolian archeology such as Halet Çambel, Jale Inan, Arif Müfit Mansel, Kurt Bittel and James Mellaart were lecturing there when Madra was a student. “Çambel would invite groups of students to his house, which was later donated to Boğaziçi University. I went there several times. I had the opportunity to study her personal archive. This was also where I witnessed how traditional life on the Bosporus really was. I also frequented Laleli. There was not a restaurant or even a cafe on the university campus. We would get something to eat from the local bakery. There were empty fields, historical buildings and shops around the campus. I loved wandering around the Grand Bazaar and Tahtakale in those years. But with the beginning of mass tourism, my trips there became less frequent. I don’t go now.”

Her interest and affiliation with art and the art world grew stronger after she married photographer Teoman Madra. This is also a time when the Madra family spent more time in Ayvalık on Turkey’s west coast. During this period, Istanbul continued to metamorphose at an unprecedented rate. Migrants kept flocking in, the city kept on expanding and another coup d’état introduced fresh social trauma. Madra returned to Istanbul in 1980 with her husband and children. After a period of job hunting, Ali Muslubaş, partner of architect Utarit İzgi, offered her a position managing the Armo Art Gallery in Maçka. In the years that followed, Madra gave a course on 20th-century art at Mimar Sinan University. Meanwhile, she managed to open her own gallery: Galeri BM, a small venue at the end of Valikonağı Street. This felt like the right time to ask how she got involved in the Istanbul Biennial.


“I was invited to a meeting at the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and the Arts (IKSV) while I was lecturing at Mimar Sinan University. They told me about their plans to organise an international exhibition and offered me a place on the advisory board. After a year and a half on the board, I was promoted to coordinator. It wasn’t called a biennial back then. The project was called “Contemporary Exhibitions in Historic Venues”. We invited acclaimed curators like Germano Gelant and Norman Rosenthal for a workshop. A state of emergency was declared and the General who had directed  the coup d’état became president. From the outside, Turkey didn’t look democratic at all. The private sector was suffering too. Just doing business is not adequate when you’re trying to make the shift to a liberal economy. You need to create brands and establish large business networks. The Biennial began to generate interest in historic venues. We chose unique places like Hagia Sophia and St. Irene in Istanbul’s Old City. We shortlisted the artists, developed concepts and did the installations. In a world divided into the West, the Soviets and the Third World, we wanted to use the Biennial to change the Third World image of Turkey on a global scale.”

The success of the project changed Turkey’s image as a country waiting to become a part of the First World. It also showcased the artistic production taking place in the country. Madra was also the curator of the  second Istanbul Biennial. Gaining an international reputation helped Madra establish large networks. Around that time, she relocated Galeri BM to a larger venue on Akkavak Street. But this did not prevent her from doing pioneering work across a range of domestic and international platforms and creating exhibitions for the Venice Biennial for several years. I wonder why she did not curate the third Istanbul Biennial: “If you constantly curate projects for the same institution, there is a point where you start to reflect its ideology. A curator must always remain independent.”


Madra has always been very attuned to the economic and social changes taking place in Istanbul. She anticipated the transformation of Nişantaşı and closed Galeri BM in 2001 before the consumer culture took over the neighbourhood. With her partners first, she moved to Karaköy and then to historic Beşiktaş to open Kuad Gallery. Her favourite parts of the city and her routines related to the city have always been fluid concepts that change with the city itself.

“Throughout the 80s and 90s, I went to particular cafes in Tünel in Beyoğlu mainly because they had a vibrant art scene. There was Şimdi Café which has somehow survived until today. It was my favourite place. In Beyoğlu, I used to go to St. Antoine Church to light candles. I never missed Christmas Eve services. I loved walking around Osmanbey and Kurtuluş. Finally, I moved to Bostancı in 2015 and I have been there ever since. I wander around Kadıköy and Bahariye. I like to see the old shops and houses here. Living in a city located on two continents does make life difficult, however this concept of ‘switching continents’ is an amazing aspect of the city that doesn’t exist in any other part of the world. You are constantly reminded of the scale of the world we live in. As I always say: Istanbul is a city of contradictions.”

Talking with Madra is like travelling back in time. Nearing the end of the interview, another question starts bugging me: What does a contradictory city’s art scene mean to society? “By visiting art exhibitions, members of society realise that another world can exist. I agree that some might be elusive, but art has stories to tell. People find an alternative world in art that is created by the artistic imagination and creativity. Art is an escape for people who are struggling in the face of great difficulty. It is comforting to see freedom of thought. Art and culture are both a part of brutal capitalism and the resistance against it. Let’s face reality, the culture industry also serves capitalism. But it isn’t necessarily an obedient servant. It creates a platform that persistently criticisesthe system from inside the system.”

*A Turkish artist best known for her large-scale abstract paintings with kaleidoscopic patterns, as well as drawings, lithographs and sculptures. Zeid was one of the first women to be allowed to attend art school in Istanbul.