The fair's director, Kamiar Maleki, scored the participation of the high-profile, first-time exhibitor Almine Rech as well as the returning Galleria Continua. In a bid to encourage more foreign galleries to come on board, Maleki hired the curator Marc-Olivier Wahler to curate a section, Excuse my French, showcasing works from eight French galleries, including Loevenbruck and Jocelyn Wolff.

Aware that the 18% VAT on artworks could be off-putting for sales, CI's founder and chairman, Ali Güreli, said he was striving to ask the Ankara government to have this reduced and put a positive spin on Turkey's state of affairs. “The art environment is not linked to [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan's government,” Güreli asserts, pointing out that Turkey's new minister of culture and tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, attended the fair's opening. “There are problems because of the situation in the country but there are also opportunities,” Güreli adds.

The political and economic climate preoccupied everyone at CI. “The fair management had a difficult time due to sudden changes, instability and uncertainties in the current political climate,” Bugra Uzuncelebi, director of Galeri 77 in Istanbul, says. “However, they organised the fair as best they could. The biggest shortcoming was the lack of international art lovers and collectors who, due to uncertainties within the country and the turmoil in surrounding countries, didn't want to choose to travel. Therefore, there's a slight decrease in sales compared to the previous years,” adds Uzuncelebi, whose sales included a rectangular wall installation, priced at $40,000, by the Armenian artist Armén Rotch. Made from hundreds of tea bags arranged in a minimalistic pattern, the piece is influenced by Italy's Arte Povera movement.

 Armén Rotch, Untitled, 2006, Tea bags collage, 200 x 166 cm. Courtesy Galeri 77 (Istanbul)

The galleries concurred that the situation was tough. “It has been an economically challenging year for Turkey's art market so inevitably the fair has been affected by it,” Ferhat Yeter, director of Anna Laudel, another of Istanbul's leading galleries, says. On a more upbeat note, he adds, “For local galleries the fair provided us with an opportunity to meet new collectors and make a fresh start in the new season, and artworks by local artists were more affordable for international collectors.”

Among Anna Laudel's sales were works by 30-year-old upcoming artist Ramazan Can, priced at €7,000, whose practice reflects on connections between the past and present and draws inspiration from Anatolian traditions, mythology and Shamanism. On show from Can's 'Cupboard/Attic' series was a hand-woven oriental rug with red neon words placed over it reading: “The work of once upon a time.” The rug, a reproduction of an old, musty rug, was made by Can's relatives at his request using traditional weaving techniques. The use of the neons indicates how an old, nomadic culture is being replaced by modernity.

Ramazan Can, The work of once upon a time, 2018. Neon, rug, 170 x 106 cm. Courtesy Anna Laudel (Istanbul)

Certainly, the diversity of artworks displayed throughout the fair ranged from the poignant and political to the kitsch and colourful, some of them inevitably catering to local tastes. Artworks by Turkey's leading artists were also exhibited by some of the foreign galleries, such as C24 (New York). One of the artists at C24 was Irfan Önürmen, 60, whose work is exhibited at Istanbul Modern, the contemporary and modern art museum that recently relocated to the Beyoğlu district, home to many of the contemporary art galleries. Onurmen's work is characterised by multi-layers of cut tulle sewn and mounted on canvas that seem to replicate street photography and portraiture. Works by Önürmen and fellow Turkish artist Seçkin Pirim proved popular. “We had a strong fair amid the volatile economic climate in Turkey,” Michelle Maigret, C24's director, said. 

 Irfan Önürmen, Street 2, 2018. Multi layers of cut tulle sewn and mounted on canvas, 520 x 197 cm. Courtesy C24 (New York)

However, most foreign galleries struggled. “Unfortunately, the fair has not been successful in terms of sales; we sold a few pieces but it has been extremely difficult,” Chiara Pozzi, gallery manager at Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea (Milan), says. “The main problem has been the Turkish inflation and collectors were scared of buying large pieces in this period.” The gallery had a solo show of El Gato Chimney's highly imaginative watercolour and gouache paintings of animals, such as an owl carrying birdhouses on its back and two pheasants festooned with ribbons inspecting a golden birdcage.

Among the 11 galleries having solo shows was Atelier Rose & Gray (Manchester)
 presenting humorous paintings by the British artist Stephen Chambers, including 'Throwing A Boot At The President' (2018), priced at €78,000. The gallery sold a set of paintings to an American collector but found that Turkish collectors were less responsive. “We would welcome more Turkish collectors who would be interested in collecting works from artists, like big international names, based outside Turkey,” Chris Brooks, co-founder of Atelier Rose & Gray, says.

Stephen Chambers, Throwing A Boot At The President, 2018. Oil on linen. Courtesy Atelier Rose & Gray (Manchester)

Indeed, Hélène Lacharmoise, owner of Galerie Dix9 (Paris), had lots of enquiries but no sales. On the stand was a solo show of the Greek artist Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos' 'Libro d'Oro' (2018) series of white neon lights, replicating graffiti she discovered in an Italian prison, glimmering against a gold leaf backdrop.

Other highlights included Iranian artist Behrang Samadzadegan's paintings questioning aspects of Iran's political history at Mohsen Gallery (Tehran) and the duo presentation of contemporary photographer Almagul Menlibayeva and 20th-century photographer Max Penson, showing “the 100 years of difference in Central Asia”, at Andakulova Gallery (Dubai).  

Behrang Samadzadegan As Serious as Children's Games, 2018. Acrylic and pencil on paper, 148 x 215 cm. Courtesy Mohsen Gallery (Tehran)

One of Menlibayeva’s staged images is 'Solar Eclipse IX' (2018), priced at €7,500, depicting three female figures in shroud-like clothes, one of which is holding a baby, who are bound to the pillars of a ruined temple. 

 Almagul Menlibayeva, Solar Eclipse IX, 2018. 87 x 123 cm, Ink jet on archival paper. Edition 1 out of 5, 2 AP. Courtesy Andakulova Gallery (Dubai)

For local collectors, the presence of international galleries enhanced the pleasure of visiting CI. “It's a great advantage to have them in Istanbul and the fair is a great opportunity to see work from those galleries,” Haluk Yücelsin, who is part of Clubfinearts – a group of young collectors, says. Clubfinearts was presenting a solo show of the Turkish painter Ekrem Yalçındağ in an uptown venue, which houses four galleries, during the fair. Indeed, such initiatives happening around CI are reflective of the determination to boost Istanbul's art scene.