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Threatened artist and academic creates new life for her family

Queen’s Scholars at Risk committee works to welcome first Artist Protection Fund Fellow.

Canan Altinkas
Canan Altinkas, a Turkish artist and scholar, is Queen's University's first Artist Protection Fund Fellow. (Supplied Photo)

After hours of writing, Canan Altinkas stood from her seat, approached jury members at the front of the examination room, and handed in her six-page English assessment. It was 2010 and she had applied for an assistant professorship, so was required to complete the university’s in-house language test to qualify. As an academic in Turkey, she had excelled previously at a mandatory state-issued proficiency test, so she was confident she would do well. She walked immediately back to her desk, quickly gathered her belongings, and headed toward the exit. Passing by the examiners’ table, her chest tightened when she glimpsed a hand scrawling on her test in red ink: failed.

“Fifteen seconds,” says Dr. Altinkas, a Turkish artist and scholar who, together with her family, left her home country for Canada to escape sustained institutional and state persecution. “Six pages of written answers evaluated in 15 seconds; the time it took me to walk back to my desk and collect my jacket. This wasn’t the first time I was actively blocked from career advancement and it wouldn’t be the last, but with every instance my frustrations grew, and my opportunities diminished.”

In the years after, Dr. Altinkas and her husband Evren Altinkas – an academic as well – faced increased harassment in their workplaces. The couple had been active in protesting the conservative Turkish government, resulting in backlash from university administrators. Dr. Altinkas faced increasing exclusion, arbitrary administrative warnings, and social media monitoring and harassment. She and Evren were eventually forced to resign their positions.

“I continued to apply to new positions but received responses citing the ‘impossibility’ of my recruitment due to social, cultural, and political reasons,” she says.

In 2018, she and her family left Turkey and settled in Guelph, Ont. Her husband had been supported by the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network – of which Queen’s is a member – so he was able to join the faculty and return to his profession. Until now, she has struggled to find work due to restrictions on temporary residents of Canada.

Artist Protection Fund

As an artist and a scholar, Dr. Altinkas describes painting as a form of storytelling that captures the struggles of an artist who seeks artistic and academic freedom. Throughout her career, Dr. Altinkas has faced economic challenges that prevented her from pursuing her career as an artist. Instead of giving up, she has always looked for innovative and creative solutions to the production of art pieces.  She used whatever means available, including paper and stain (instead canvas and paint) to tell stories through her paintings. These challenges dramatically affected her style, allowing her to develop new skills and techniques.

Canan Altinkas' painting "Three Gems of Balance"
Canan Altinkas' painting "Three Gems of Balance". (Source: artist)

Dr. Altinkas eventually discovered and applied to the Artist Protection Fund (APF) – an initiative of the Institute of International Education (IIE) that provides fellowship grants to threatened artists and places them with host institutions in safe countries.

Her application was successful and she was awarded an APF fellowship in September 2020, joining Queen’s University’s Fine Art (Visual Art) Program and Agnes Etherington Arts Centre as an Artist Protection Fund (APF) Fellow in residence.

Queen’s decision to join the SAR network is based on the university’s commitment to support academic freedom. It was reflective of the initiatives already undertaken by different academic units and associations on campus, including at the Faculty of Health Science through the Medical Students Association.

Since joining the network in late 2018, Queen’s has formed a pan-university committee, and hosted guest lectures. With the support of the Artist Protection Fund and a generous donation from alumni, Queen’s is thrilled to host its first Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence.

“The hosting of Dr. Altinkas is reflective of Queen’s desire to contribute to the common good,” says Fahim Quadir, Dean and Vice-Provost of Graduate Studies and the chair of Queen’s Scholars at Risk Committee. “We are welcoming Dr. Altinkas at a time when the world is witnessing frequent attacks on scholars, writers, and artists. Queen’s is grateful to APF and our donor for their generous support for welcoming a scholar and artist at risk to our campus.”

Dr. Altinkas’ presence at Queen’s will help build an awareness about the importance of protecting artistic and academic freedom and stimulate dialogue and discussion about creating a safe space for threatened artists and scholars to freely share their ideas. As articulated in Principal Deane’s report on the Conversation, the activities of SAR Queen’s will bolster Queen’s image as a globally engaged university.

“I am pleased to welcome Dr. Altinkas as our first Scholar at Risk at Queen’s,” says Patrick Deane, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the university. “This program is so important for supporting academic scholarship across the globe. It exemplifies the power of intellectual pursuits even when facing great adversity and the impact higher education institutions can have when we support and collaborate with another.”

In her new role as an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence, Dr. Altinkas will have the freedom to expand her artistic practice, and gain opportunities to meet fellow artists and grow her network in Canada.

“Art, for me, is not just a job, it is a lifestyle,” she says, “so, I am deeply grateful to APF and Queen’s University for this opportunity. But, more than that, this is not only about me or my career, it is about helping my family build a new life. This is a dream come true.”

The Queen’s community will have an opportunity to hear from Canan Altinkas during her time at Queen’s. Upcoming events details will be posted on the Queen’s Scholar at Risk website, Facebook Page and Twitter page.