The lost women of modern Turkish art

Many of their works are undated. Some of their birth and death years, or even their full names, have not been recorded. Few are remembered outside of their own families. They are, as curator Deniz Artun puts it, artists “that cannot be read in history books”.

Despite her own experience as a scholar of Turkish art, Artun says she had only heard of “maybe a fifth” of the 117 women depicted in “I-You-They: A Century. of Artist Women “before starting to put on the show for Meşher, an exhibition space in Istanbul. “We wanted to understand who paved the way for contemporary female artists in Turkey who are successful today,” says Artun, noting that she deliberately calls them “female artists” in order to emphasize their artistic rather than gender identity.

The 232 works in the exhibition were all created by women living and working in Turkey between around 1850 and 1950, a period spanning the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the early years of the Turkish Republic. Ottoman artists began to embrace Western-style painting and sculpture at the start of this era, and the works on display largely reflect this. They run the gamut of styles and mediums, including abstract oil paintings, finely detailed charcoal portraits, totem terracotta sculptures, linocuts, pencil sketches, and photographs.

The exhibition takes its title from a 1993-96 work by Turkish artist Sukran Aziz, a chessboard-shaped grid of letters cut from aluminum foil on wood spelling out “I-You-They” in many languages. It is organized in three parts on three floors, each centered around one of the personal pronouns of the title of the exhibition.

Design (nd), Belkis Mustafa. Arkas collection

Portraits and self-portraits fill the ground floor of the historic Meşher building, around the idea of ​​the “I”. Some faces meet the viewer with a frank gaze while others appear masked, reflected in a mirror, or entirely erased, as in a delicate but disturbing pencil sketch of hair, ears, neck, shoulders and jawbone. ‘a woman, at the beginning of the 20th century. artist Belkis Mustafa.

Upstairs, the “You” section juxtaposes representations of family and motherhood with portraits of female performers and nude figures, such as the gentle but muscular woman painted by Célile Uguraldim in 1949, in a posture reminiscent of that by Rodin. The Thinker. The point, says Artun, was to get people to ask “who decides that the mother’s body is sacred and the odalisque’s body is not?” It also shows how even successful women have often seen their artistic identity overshadowed by their family role.

“When women are mentioned in Turkish art history, they are always portrayed in relation to someone else, as the mother or wife of a male artist, as if they were not capable to become an artist on their own, “says Ceren Ozpinar, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, whose research focuses on gender, identity and art in Turkey and the Middle East.

The first Academy of Fine Arts of the Ottoman Empire opened in Istanbul in 1882 – reserved for male students. An equivalent school for women was not established until 1914, and arts education remained gender segregated, with bans on working with nude models of the opposite sex, until after the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. .

Before the establishment of the Art School for Women, “girls from the bureaucratic elite were encouraged and supported by their families to immerse themselves in art as a hobby, but not as a profession”, explains Ahu Antmen, professor of modern and contemporary art history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. (Similar limitations were of course encountered by women in other parts of the world, including Victorian England, as Ozpinar notes.)

“I-you-they” includes some personalities who have managed to mark the Turkish art world more publicly, and others whose works have been rediscovered in recent years. Painter Fahrelnissa Zeid, a prominent member of modernist and avant-garde circles in London and Paris in the 1950s, is probably the best known internationally of these names, with a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2017 drawing renewed attention to her paintings. abstract kaleidoscopic. Photography pioneers Yildiz Moran, Semiha Es (Turkey’s first female war photographer) and Maryam Sahinyan (the country’s first female studio photographer) are also in the spotlight, as is painter Mihri Musfik, the first director. of the School of Fine Arts for Girls when it opened. in 1914.

Echo (1952), Yildiz Moran.  Yildiz Moran Archives

Echo (1952), Yildiz Moran. Yildiz Moran Archives

But the exceptional success of these women only underscores the discrimination they and their peers faced, explains Ozpinar: “They are noted in art history as rebels, as extraordinary artists, while artists Similar males are considered normal. ”The newly formed Turkish nation-state“ has promoted the visibility of women in society as a reflection of its cultural modernity, ”Antmen said. “But when you look at how the history of art was written, you quickly realize that it was written by men who don’t really believe that women are equal in merit. They are [portrayed] as the enthusiastic “ladies” of the spectacle, rather than equal counterparts in the field of art. “

Indeed, even after women were able to receive a full formal arts education, they continued to face obstacles to equal recognition. “For years, women graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts could only find jobs there as teaching assistants,” says Tomur Atagok, a Turkish artist and teacher who began her career in the 1960s. Museums prefer to exhibit works by artists who teach in universities and these are mainly men. The work of women artists is still often underestimated by collectors and commercial galleries in Turkey.

I-You-They (1993-96), Sukran Aziz.  Fuat Yalin Collection

I-you-they (1993-96), Sukran Aziz. Fuat Yalin Collection

For Ozpinar, the roots of these inequalities lie in the way art history is traditionally taught. “This historic idea of ​​progress, from one exclusive club of artists influencing the next, has mainly been applied to individuals or groups – made up mostly of male artists,” she says. “When we look at women artists, it may be more helpful to think of them as a constellation, not a continuum.” While some contemporary Turkish artists cite female predecessors as inspirations and influences, they often had to rely on their own research to learn more about these figures.

Meşher’s curatorial team took a similar approach, focusing on ‘constellations’ or networks, to discover the diversity of the artists featured in ‘I-You-They’, which Artun hopes will stimulate further investigation. depth on other forgotten women artists. “We started from artists we knew, looking at their photos, their studio journals, their invitation cards to an exhibition, who else their teachers had taught to find others,” she told About the nearly two-year research process that fueled the show. “In this way, one woman led to the next.

Still Life (nd), Frumet Tektas.  Courtesy of Aylin Tektas

Still life (nd), Frumet Tektas. Courtesy of Aylin Tektas

On the top floor (“They”) of the exhibition, more than 100 works by 85 artists depicting flowers and trees are displayed in a salon style, creating an impression of a sprawling garden of sunflowers, poppies, begonias and roses. , carefully arranged in vases or sparkling on their canvases. Many are the only pieces known to the artists represented, most often on loan from their families, never having found a place in any public collection. “Painting a flower in a vase was the safest job a woman of a certain social class was supposed to do, like playing the piano,” says Artun. “In some cases, no other artistic path was open to them.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, women have become more prominent in the Turkish art scene, both as artists and in leadership positions in galleries and institutions, just as they have done across the country. world. But their predecessors remain relatively unknown. “The fact that we always feel the need to organize an exhibition on women artists shows that there is still a problem,” says Ozpinar.

‘I-you-they: a century of women artists’ is at Meşher, Istanbul, until March 27, 2022.

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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