Women Active in Turkish Art Community

First, I must emphasize that as the norm and not the exception, women have worked side-by-side men in all professional fields in Turkey since the beginning of the Republic; therefore, the topic of women active in Turkey’s art community could be seen as a mundane topic. What is exceptional is the degree of their dedication to their careers and determination to push on while receiving only minimal recognition or reimbursement. The situation for artists is even more complicated than that of other professionals since the lack of consumers or patrons, government support, and museums for contemporary art, means they must continue a second career to obtain economic stability. Nevertheless, few Turkish professional women could be seen as activists or feminist. Most continue with their traditional roles in the family structure. Many are married, many have children, and some also care for elderly parents. In this sense, they are ‘super women’ who carry on with their perceived responsibilities as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a role models, a teacher, a writer, a curator, an artist, and an art manager who voices opinions on personal, artistic, social, and political issues.

I know that Istanbul is not representative of the whole of Turkey and that the situation of the urban professional well-educated woman is different from that of the woman living in the countryside, but in Istanbul, I have never found doors closed solely because of my gender. In fact, when I moved to Istanbul in 1969, I found the situation of professional women stronger than what I had experienced in the USA. Of course, in the past forty years, things have changed throughout the world and in Turkey. Today, large numbers of women graduate from university with degrees in art history, art management, and studio art every year. Many women teach art related subjects at the university level, many women manage art institutions, many women own galleries, many women write about art, many women work as curators, many women work as artists. Do they out-number men? I have no idea. With the present political atmosphere in Turkey, is this changing? I hope not, but I cannot forget that the Italian performance artist, Pippa Baca, was raped and murdered outside of Istanbul last year. Neither can I understand how the present government could consider, let alone arrest, Prof. Dr. Turkan Saylan1. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be accurate to say that Turkish professional women face the same problems as professional women anywhere in the world: Who has power? In May of 2009, Istanbul Hurriyet newspaper ran an article entitled, Turkiye’de kultur ve sanata yon veren 50 powerbroker” (the 50 powerbrokers giving direction to culture and art in Turkey).’ None of the ‘Powerbrokers’ dealing with contemporary art listed in this article were women. Real power, power related to money, universally lies in the hands of powerful men.

In the following paragraphs, I will tell a story about the women who have worked to broaden the perspective of art related subjects being taught at the universities, to bring innovations to the local art community, to explore new techniques, and to expand the base for presentation of artist’s work both inside and outside Turkey. Many women work as highly successful professionals in galleries and museums. To mention just a few, Yesim Turanli opened in 1998 and continues to manage Pi Artworks; Isin Onol works as the project manager of Proje 4L Elgiz Contemporary Art Museum; Azra Tuzunoglu in 2008 opened Outlet, a non-profit gallery space; and Mihda Koray opened URA gallery and project space in the same year. Other women work in managerial positions in institutions. Çelenk Bafra, who acted as the director for the 9th and 10t Istanbul Biennials, will begin in July of 2009 to work as the artistic coordinator of the Contemporary Arts section of “Saison de la Turquie en France”; Bige Orer will replace her as the director of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial; Basak Senova will curate the 2009 Turkish pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennial; Fulya Erdemci who directed the 4th, 5th, 6th and partly the 7th International Istanbul Biennials has been appointed co-curator at SCAPE in New Zealand; Esra Sarigedik worked as curatorial assistant for the 3rd Berlin Contemporary Art Biennial, served as assistant to the editor of the 5th Istanbul Biennial catalogue and worked as assistant curator for the 9th Istanbul International Biennial while also working on numerous projects outside of Turkey; Derya Yucel worked with Santralistanbul to organize the 2008 “Save As” Contemporary art exhibition for Turkey at Triennale Bovisa Museum in Milan, Italy; Beral Madra who directed BM Gallery from 1984 to 1990, BM Contemporary Art Center from 1990 and BM-Suma together with Binnaz Tukin (former director of Borusan Art and Culture Center) and Nilifer Suluner since 2007, has been coordinating visual art projects for 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency since 2008 with Deniz Erbas and Gunes Nasuhbeyoglu as assistants. Other women work as writers. Aysegul Sonmez works as an art critic for Radikal newspaper; Zeynep Rona has translated many art books and published Turkiye Sanat Yilligi for many years; Pelin Tan edited the international journal, art-ist 5, co-edited Mutelif, a non-profit contemporary art magazine, co-edited the book, Public Space Discussion in Contemporary Art in 2007, and guest edited the Journal of Re-Thinking Marxism in 2009; Fatos Ustek writes articles for Tema Celeste, turbulens, Genis Aci and is co-editor of the on-line magazine Nowiswere; and Ahu Antman who worked with Zeynep Rona on several issues of Turkiye Sanat Yilligi has written a number of major books about art, now writes weekly articles for Radikal newspaper and occasional articles for Flash Art International. Evrim Altug, Elif Dastarli, Rana Ozturk, Burcu Pelvanoglu, and Didem Yazici are just a few other women who write for local and international magazines or newspapers.

The Beginning
Where did this story begin? The story I am telling about contemporary art began in the 1970s. Between 1977 and 1987, the Fine Arts Academy within the Istanbul Art Festival agenda sponsored bi-annual exhibitions entitled Yeni Eğilimler (New Directions). Canan Beykal, Ayşe Erkman, Füsün Onur, Gülsüm Karamustafa, and Handan Börüteçene, participated in these exhibitions that attempted to broaden the boundaries of art in the Turkish context. Women opened private art galleries, the Melda Kaptan Gallery and Macka Sanat by Rabia Capa.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, art consumers increased, more galleries opened, and a few art critics/curators became influential. Women artists such as Fusun Onur, Canan Beykal and Ayse Erkan participated in the “Öncü Türk Sanatından Bir Kesit (A Cross Section of Avant Garde Turkish Art)” and the A, B, C, D exhibitions that played an important role in revolutionizing the direction Turkish art would take in the future. Beral Madra became an important writer, curator and organizer of contemporary art events. Her contribution to the organization of the 1987 First International Contemporary Art Exhibition (women participants were Fusun Onur, Handan Börüteçene, Alev Abuzziya, Candeger Furtun, Meric Hizlan, and Seyhan Topuz), the 1989 Second International Istanbul Biennial (women participants were Nese Erdok, Azade Koker, and Gulsun Karamustafa), and the 1995 Fourth International Istanbul Biennial cannot be overestimated. International endeavors such as the 1990 2nd Minos Beach Art Symposium in Crete; the 1992 “Sanat, Texnh” with fourteen Greek and Turkish contemporary artists; the Turkish participation in the 1993 45th Biennale of Venice; the 1994 “İskele Türkische Kuınst Heute” (Berlin and Stuttgart); the 1994 “Orient Express” exhibition, (Yıldız Palace, Istanbul and Berlin); and the 1996 “Diyaloglar” (Dialogues) exhibition were just a few other shows curated by Beral Madra. All of these events have played a significant role in exposing the work of Turkish artists, many women, abroad. In 1995, the International Plastic Art Association (Uluslararası Plastik Sanatlar Dernek, PSD) sponsored an exhibition. “Oteki” (Other) that consisted of performances, happenings, installations, art statements and included numerous female organizers and participants.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments was the 1995 4th International Istanbul Biennial curated by René Block. The most recent tendencies at that time in both Turkish and International art appeared in this event as it aimed to initiate a dialogue among artists with perspectives outside the central-peripheral model. Block believed the Turkish woman artists included in the exhibition represented a more radical position than the men and predicted that what he called “the fatal dominance by men” had finally begun to break. Following the teachings of Beuys, Block advocated a peaceful revolution for social and political change and included such women as Fatma Binnaz Akman, Hale Tenger, Handan Borutecene, Arzu Cakir, Esra Ersen, Aydan Murtezoglu, Gulsun Karamustafa, Ayşe Erkmen and Füsün Onur in this show.

Continuing to establish their position as influential artists outside of Turkey, Ayşe Erkmen participated in the 1993 DAAD program in Berlin and in 1996 Hale Tenger participated in the 1996 Rotterdam “Manifesta 1” exhibition. In November of the same year at the New York New Museum of Contemporary Art, Tenger’s installation, “Enclosures”, was shown together with work by Carolee Scheneeman. In 1998, Gulsun Karamustafa set up her installation, “Objects of Desire/A Suitcase Trade (100 Dollars Limit)” in Zurich at the Shedhalle.

Another Turkish woman artist, Nil Yalter, who has lived and worked in Paris since 1965, made her first video about the female situation, “The headless woman”, in 1976. She has used her photography; documentation, computer, video and performances to communicate issues related to human rights or feminism and have become known as the first Turkish artist to make interactive artwork. In addition to being included in major international exhibitions, Yalter has also shown her work in Turkey.

Throughout the 1990s, women continued to be selected for the Istanbul biennials. Sukran Aziz, Sukran Morol, Semiha Berksoy, and Ebru Ozseven participated in the 1997 5th International Istanbul Biennial and Fusun Onur, Ebru Ozseven, Neriman Polat, Gunes Savas, and Aydan Murtezaoglu in the 1999 6th International Istanbul Biennial.

Innovative Projects
While these women became well known outside of Turkey, other women artists worked predominently in the local scene. In 1994 Gulcin Aksoy, Neriman Polat, Gul Ilgaz and I, Nancy Atakan, began a series of collaborative self-organized events aimed towards reading philosophical and scientific texts together, developing a common theoretical background, and presenting their individual work using innovative techniques and materials in an interactve manner. For our first exhibition in 1997, “Arada”, we rented a space at Ataturk Culture Center to show our analytical work resulting from our research about and questioning of art. “Ardarda” from 1998 took place in our joint studio in Arnavutkoy. In this show, every week for four weeks, we added individual work to that of the previous artist until all four of our works appeared simultaneously. Throughout the exhibition, at least one artist remained in the space to give explanations and answer questions about the theoretical background of the work. For “Arada ’99”, we rented a space from Istanbul Technical University and in the same year, exhibited “Arada ‘99” in Vasif Kortun’s magazine Resmi Gorus Guncel Sanat Seckisi-2. While questioning the accepted premises of art and searching for alternative methods of presentation, social content always played a major role in our art practices. Technique was also important and we were some of the first Turkish artists to make digital prints and video. In fact, our efforts helped to legitimize the use of photography, video, and digital prints as contemporary art materials in the Turkish art environment. Since private galleries were not yet interested in this type of work, to exhibit it in Istanbul in the 1990s, we had to find our own venues.

By 2000, not only had video and digital art been accepted, but the Istanbul art community had also become polarized into two groups, those working with ‘new media’ and those using conventional techniques. In 2000, to help bridge this gap, the four ‘arada’ artists, invited other artists (many from the Hafriyat group) who used more traditional mediums to exhibit with them in an artist-organized project. The first exhibition in the series, “Yerli Malli” (Local Produce) took place in a rented space at the Elhamra Gallery. In 2001, we expanded the number of artists for the next show named “Yurttan Sesler” (Voices from the Homeland) and exhibited in the Karsi Sanat Gallery. In 2003, again at Karsi Sanat Gallery, for “Aileye Mahsustur” (For Families Only), we further expanded the number of artists and included a “Guest Room” for daily changing shows of 27 more artists. These projects were artist planned and organized using a non-hierarchical model for interaction.

Many innovative projects have been founded or co-founded and run by women. In 1999, Selda Asal, opened the Apartment Project to provide contemporary artists with an exhibition space and to emphasize interdisciplinary collaboration. In its 24 square meter, Tunel area ground level space, the exhibitions and events of the Apartment Project have always given priority to work that interacts with the daily street life of the area. Apartment Project was included in the 10th International Istanbul Biennial as a special project. Nomad founded in 2002 by Basak Senova working together with a group of engineers, designers, curators, writers, and architects produces and experiments with new patterns in the digital art and sound art spheres. Elmas Deniz worked to found K2, a non-profit, self-supporting, artist-run Izmir organization, aiming to support the emergence of national and international contemporary visual art. K2 was also included in the 10th International Istanbul Biennial as a special project. In 2006, Banu Cennetoglu whose work was included in the 10th International Istanbul Biennial founded Bas, a non-profit space to collect and produce artists’ books. Also founded in 2006 by women, Atilkunst began to use Internet as an exhibition space to ironically criticize political and social events in Turkey. Oyku Ozsoy, curator and program co-ordinator for Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, co-founded the independent artist project entitled Alti Aylik in 2006; The Hafriyat group opened Hafriyat Kadikoy in 2007 and participated in the 9th and the 10th Istanbul Biennials with special projects. Several women artists, Banu Birecikligil, Ceren Oykut, Fulya Çetin, İnci Furni, Nalan Yırtmaç, and Neriman Polat work in Hafriyat that is concerned with tragic and ironic modernization projects in Turkey and aims to organize uncensored exhibitions addressing related issues. In 2008, Nancy Atakan co-founded 5533 as an independent space for research, discussion and exhibition of contemporary art. Students studying art management, public relations, art history or fine arts have an opportunity to get hands-on experience in organizing and presenting professional contemporary art exhibitions or events.

Residency Programs
Residency programs have also become popular with artists in Turkey. Every year many Turkish artists travel abroad to participate in programs while foreign artists travel to Turkey to participate in programs located here. Since 1988, the Berlin Senatosu Bilim, Arastirma ve Kultur Dairesi (The Berlin Scientific Senate, Research and Culture Division) has given German art professionals with two year Berlin residence three-month grants for study in Istanbul. In 1994 when this program was limited to only professionals in contemporary visual art, Beral Madra and the BM Contemporary Art Center became the director. This program has played a major role in exposing and acquainting the Istanbul art scene to European artists as well as artists of Turkish origin living abroad. In 2005, Nezaket Ekici, a Turkish/German performance artist and student of Marina Abramovic, participated in this program. Since that time, Ekici has participated in numerous shows in Turkey.

Public Art
Several women worked to bring the idea of Public Art to Turkey. In 2002 Fulya Erdemci organized “Istanbul Pedestrian Exhibition 1” and co-organized the 2005 “Istanbul Pedestrian Exhibition 2”. Between 2000 and 2005, in an apartment on a backstreet of the Galata region of Istanbul, three women, Özge Açıkkol, Güneş Savaş and Seçil Yersel, founded and organized Oda Project. To mention just a few of their activities, Oda project was included in the 8th and 9th International Istanbul Biennial and the 2003 50th Venice Biennial. Oda Project experiments with alternative ways to use and produce space in a city. Other public art events included, a 2001 project, “Re-Duchamp” Traveling Exhibition, organized by Ipek Duben in which work was exhibited on the street and in buildings around the Galata area of Istanbul. Gul Ilgaz, organized the Golyazi project that ran for two summers, 2005 and 2006. In the first phase of this project students painted the outside of the village homes. During the second phase, artists lived in the village for two weeks and make site-specific artwork. Over the windows of their residency in the Galata area of Istanbul, in 2005, Canan Senol arranged enlarged digital photographs of apartment dwellers performing mundane actions. In this manner, she instigated a dialogue between inside/outside, between private/public, and between subject/object. Also, in 2005, in her activity, seyir-name, Gulcin Aksoy transformed a private vehicle into a mode of public transportation. She gave free rides in her car to anyone wanting to travel from Galata to Karakoy, but during this short trip the passengers had to watch her artwork on small televisions. In 2007 Övül Durmuşoğlu organized “Radikal Art: Ardından Değil Karşısına” that showed work on Istanbul billboards.

Photography, Digital Prints, Digital Video
Even though material reward has been minimal for this type of artwork, women artists have continued to investigate alternative tendencies in art practice, innovative experiments in method of presentation and use of materials and techniques. While pursuing their art practice, participating in exhibitions and often organizing events, they have pursued full-time careers in art or other fields. Nazan Azeri worked as a lawyer from 1975 until l989. After finishing her art related doctorate in 2000, she began to teach at the university level and to exhibit her photographs, digital prints and digital videos. In 2002 she completed the project, “Dus Roller”, a photography series of Beyoglu street dwellers dressed in designer clothes. After completing her doctorate in 2006, Inci Eviner began teaching at Yildiz University, has participated in numerous prestigious residency programs, and exhibitions inside and outside of Turkey. She combines photography drawings, acrylic paintings, digital video and digital prints in her installations. In the series, Hicbiryer-Govde-Burasi (nowhere-body-here), Eviner presented a panorama of irrational, disturbing figures. Gul Ilgaz who taught at Robert College for 14 years, represented Turkey in the 2003 50th Biennale of Venice, now teaches part-time, gives private lessons and works with video and computer manipulated photographs. Her deeply introspective work deals with private emotions, lived experiences, ideas and personal intuition relevant to the geography in which she resides. For example, in her piece entitled, “born/bearing in to death” from 2001, she shows the photograph of her daughter as a baby gazing at the birth passageway between her mother’s open legs. Aydan Murtezaoglu who has participated in numerous prestigious exhibitions, as a statement against the political situation in Turkey, refused the invitation to show her work at the Turkish pavilion in the 52nd Venice Biennial. In her manipulated photographic series, “The Pilot”, made between 2001 and 2003, Murtezaoglu talks to a group of Roma to instigate questions about their situation in the Turkish society. Yesim Agaoglu’s photographs, “Hands Up!” and “Which Women?” from 2006 question the position of women in the urban and the rural context. Banu Cennetoglu will represent Turkey in the 2009 53rd Venice Biennial. For her 2005 multiple book series, “15 Scary Asian Men”, she photographed 15 unsuspecting Turkish men who were sitting in the green zone of the high way connecting Asia to Europe.

Numerous woman artists make videos with social or political overtones. Sukran Moral made her video, “Hamam”, in 1997 for the 5th International Istanbul Biennial. In this video piece, Moral bathed and was massaged by a man in the men’s section of the Galatasaray Hamam. Esra Ersen participated in the 1995 4th International Istanbul Biennial, 2002 Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt, the 2003 8th International Istanbul Biennial, and showed work in 2003 at the Walker Art Center in the USA. For the video work “Brothers and Sisters”, she recorded illegal immigrants living in Istanbul. The Turkish spectator accustomed to thinking of the Turk as the migrant worker living abroad, was shocked to realize the numerous African, Bulgarian, and Moldavian illegal workers living in Turkey are more marginal than the Turkish workers in Europe who do have a legal status to reside there. Gülsün Karamustafa, in her short black and white film entitled “Men Crying”, used three male professional actors famous in the 1970’s Turkish cinema to act out her scenario depicting Turkish men’s methods of showing emotion. In another of her works from 2003, “Making of the Wall”, three women who were imprisoned after the military coup of 1971 talk of their experiences. While they describe instances of torture, they also speak about the strong friendship ties that were established among the inmates. My 2004 digital video entitled “Grandmother’s Lace” that was shown in 2005 at “Cosmopolıs 1: First Balkan Biennial”, in Greece, was based on two years of research that I had done on my mother-in-law’s family who were among the 15,000 Sabbetaic people who moved to Istanbul from Greece in 1924. Yasemin Ozcan Kaya’s video, “Elmasli Apartman” documents Zekiye Hanim and Madam Ida reminiscing about their lives in the Galata area of Istanbul, a place that has served as a home to numerous ethnic groups and is presently undergoing rapid change due to gentrification. For her video piece entitled “What is a Turk? 2005” Ipek Duben, asked Europeans, Americans, Australians and others who have resided in Istanbul for various lengths of time to choose and comment on a collection of postcards about Turkey. In 2005, Ipek Duben and I, Nancy Atakan, read Zygmunt Bauman’s book Wasted Lives and created a text from this reading that we used in the film, “Thinking Garbage”. For this piece, we also videoed people leading everyday lives in the Galata neighborhood. Neriman Polat who generally depicts social situations from a personal perspective, used a female vocalist singing a song by Ahmet Kaya in her 2006 staged video work, “Kafam sikar giderim” (I’ll blow off my head and go). Here, she paced back and forth while occasionally pulling the trigger of a gun aimed at her head. Hatice Guleryuz who lives in California and participated in the 2006 9th International Istanbul Biennial makes politically critical video works. For her 2008 piece, “Hard to Die/Olmek Zor” Selda Asal visited a series of Women’s Shelters (Kadin Siginma Evi). In this, video, she showed only a hand or a foot, nothing that could identify the women who were still in hiding from the harassment and torture of their past. Drawings about past made specifically for this video gave the only concrete information about their experiences.

And Now…
All of the women mentioned above continue to work, to organize, to create, to write, and to exhibit. Sometimes they face problems of censorship, but they continue to address personal, political, psychological, and social problems. They make a stand and their voices are heard. Every month numerous women open shows in Istanbul. In the fall of 2008, Nil Yalter’s work was included in the show, “Suyun Bir Arada Tuttugu” exhibition at the Istanbul Modern Museum. During 2008-2009 Ayse Erkmen, Hale Tenger, Fusun Onur and Gulsun Karamustafa have had solo shows at Yapi Kredi Kazim Taskent Art Gallery with Rene Block as curator. In the spring of 2008 at the same gallery, Sukran Moral had a solo exhibition entitled “Ask ve Siddet” (Love and Violence) about violence towards young girls. In the same month, I opened my solo show entitled “I Believe/I don’t Believe” at Pi Artworks. Under pressure from fundamentalists in the community where the gallery is located, a few days after the opening, I took down my four meter pink neon artwork, “Why not two gods?” from the outside of the space. Shortly after my show closed, Yasemin Ozcan Kaya opened a solo exhibition at Apartment Project entitled “301’’, in reference to the 301st law limiting freedom of thought and speech in Turkey. For her video-installation, she transformed the space into the jewelry workshop where she designed and had made a necklace with the number 301. In her solo show at Karsi Sanat in 2009, Nazan Azeri made large black and white paintings originating from her mother’s wedding dress blowing from the branches of trees. With Serra Ozkan as curator, “Reciprocal Visit”, sponsored by Apartment Project, took Selda Asal, Gozde Ilkin, Ceren Ozkut, Fatma Ciftci, Zeren Goktan, and two male artists to Iran, Azerbeygan, Georgia, and Armenia during the month of May, 2009, to observe the countries, interact with local artists, and make artwork related to their experiences. On behalf of the 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency, Beral Madra organized contemporary art exhibitions under the title of “Taşınabilir Sanat” (portable art) in peripheral regions of Istanbul. In May 2009, Gulsun karamustafa opened a show in the Rodeo gallery that presented examples of her work from 1980 through today. In the same month, Atilkunst opened a show at 5533. At BM Suma the Istanbul branch of the Berlin Scholarship celebrated the 20th year of this initiative with a two-part exhibition of 23 artists who have lived and worked in Istanbul since Beral Madra became the director and mentor of the program. Simultaneous to this exhibition, Gulcin Aksoy displayed at Mimar Sinan University “The Error of the Couch on the Table”, in Vahit Tuna’s MASA, a table used as an exhibition space. The piece made from quilted red vinyl with bronze buttons cast as a pointing finger, referred to a type of furniture found in bureaucratic offices and a shaming gesture. By the opening of the Berlin Academy exhibition in November, 2009, Gulay Semircioglu, Gul Ilgaz, and Ipek Duben will have also had solo exhibitions in different galleries in Istanbul and the 2009 11th International Istanbul Biennial with four Croatian curators, WWW, as directors, will have opened. It is impossible to mention everything, but I have included more than enough to show that regardless of politics or power structures, the dynamic and industrious women in the Turkish art community continue their investigations and innovative work.

1.Turkan Saylan dedicated her life to eliminating leprosy and educating women. Through her efforts, leprosy is no longer problem in Turkey. She founded CYDD (Contemporary Living Foundation) which now has 93 offices, 17,000 members, has educated 36,000 girls in secondary school, and given 29,000 university scholarships to women. Radikal 19 May, 2009

Nancy Atakan
PhD Art History
May 2009