There’s a young woman sitting in a market stall. Behind her hangs a row of dresses. A small Turkish national flag is draped above one of them. She might be in Istanbul, recently arrived from the countryside. Or she might be a newcomer to Berlin, working in a flea market that caters to locals of Turkish origin. It is not exactly clear who she is or where she comes from. I cannot make out her age or proportions because she is wearing so many layers of clothing: a lilac scarf, worn over head and shoulders, with delicate white flowers atop and folds of lace beneath; an indigo jacket worn over an embroidered cotton blouse; and several skirts in vertical and horizontal stripes, one worn right on top of the other. But what really strikes me about this woman is not her curious assemblage of clothing. No, what really has me wondering about her provenance is the transistor radio that she’s got resting on her thighs. She has her arms wrapped around it, the way a woman from the wealthier classes might pose for a formal portrait holding a tiny lap dog gently and with affection. The device seems so very out of place next to the many layers of tradition and history sewn into the fabric of her abundant garments.
On ViewHamburger Bahnhof, Museum Of Contemporary Art
June 10 – October 23, 2016
The mixed-media work, Precious Bride (1975), executed in a naïve, folkloric style, reminiscent of illustrations found in many 1970s children’s books, is arguably one of the more humble pieces amid a host of notably ambitious works in Gülsün Karamustafa’s survey exhibition, Chronographia, at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (her first outside of Turkey). But it is one of my favorites. It speaks eloquently to the themes that have preoccupied Karamustafa since the late 1960s when she completed her studies in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul: migration and home, tensions between tradition and modernity, history and memory, private and public spheres, and, above all, where women have fit historically within these colliding worlds.
One of the strengths of Precious Bride is that it whispers, inviting you to look closer, to see and consider what is often invisible. Similarly, The Notebook (1993/2013) has an almost light, playful way of approaching what is a heavy subject: the dissemination of national ideology and indoctrination of loyalty to the state. The installation features four identical black-and-white photographs of the artist as a young girl. She’s the picture of childhood innocence, all pigtails, bows, and smiles. Beneath the framed pictures are several school notebooks resting on wooden crates. Even if you cannot read the Latinized Turkish script to discover that it references Cold War ideology, you can see from the large, graphite letters etched deeply into the paper, and from the colorful butterflies and flowers dancing along its edges, that these books are the product of a happy and earnest young student. Eager to please, she faithfully traced the texts and ideologies handed down by her teachers, whom the Turkish state had employed to bring up loyal, patriotic citizens and workers.
In contrast to Precious Bride and The Notebook not all of Karamustafa’s work employs such a light but effective touch. While the themes may resonate, the delivery sometimes falls flat, victim to Karamustafa’s own ideological aims. To cite an example from her earlier oeuvre, in the late 1970s she did a series of mixed-media works on paper that depict the historical struggle of the working classes. In Sketches for the ‘History of Working Class in Ottoman and Turkish History—Syndicate Workers On Strike (1977) and Icons—Paris Commune (1978), working-class heroes appear as larger-than-life figures, as iconic heroes (destroying symbols of fascism) or as religious martyrs (bloodied bodies strewn across a field). However, unlike the woman in Precious Bride, these are not individuals so much as stock figures executed in the style and spirit of Socialist Realism, lifted from the cannon of Marxist historiography.1
In the context of late-1970s Turkey, where the Turkish state and socialist movement were engaged in open warfare, one sympathizes with the impulse. Karamustafa herself spent six months in prison in 1971 for her political activities and then had her passport revoked for fifteen years. The struggle was both personal and real. But political activism does not necessarily produce nuanced or engaging works of art.
This pedagogical impulse haunts some of Karamustafa’s more recent work as well. Modernity Unveiled: Interweaving Histories (2011), for instance, feels driven foremost by the imperative to instruct viewers rather than to inspire their curiosity or to make their own connections between the past and present.
The work consists of two parts: a sculptural installation and sixteen 8×11 sheets of paper tacked to a neighboring wall. Made from plywood, the roughly ten-foot-tall structure resembles a frame for what might be a modernist playhouse. Inset within the framework are enlarged black-and-white photographs of what are presumably villagers and workers engaged in construction projects. As the wall text explains, the sculpture is a one-quarter scale model for a village school, based on a design made by Austria’s first female architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, when she worked for the Turkish Ministry of Education between 1938 and 1940.
Set in a font and layout reminiscent of a history textbook, the wall text introduces two intersecting strands from the past: Schütte-Lihotzky’s early history (as an architect, member of the Austrian communist party, and anti-fascist resistance fighter), and two modernizing projects introduced in the first decades of the Turkish Republic: the reform of the Turkish alphabet and the push to build village schools. In the account, Schütte-Lihotzky comes off as another stock character from a cast of Marxist and feminist heroines, not as a complex individual who made compromised decisions, some of which included the decision to contribute to projects commissioned by such repressive states as Mao’s China and the former German Democratic Republic, details not mentioned in the text.
Organized thematically and spread over two floors and several wings, Chronographia showcases Karamustafa’s impressive range of media—from painting to found objects, video and sculptural installation. Her strongest works have a way of crawling under your skin, introducing in subtle and sometimes unsettling ways forgotten elements from the past, and drawing attention to such politically urgent, and often ignored, issues as the psychological and material consequences of migration and displacement, state power and nationalist ideology, and the experience of women. Yet the execution is not always effective, reproducing—without irony or insight—well-worn political tropes or relying too heavily on extensive explanatory texts. Instead of complicating the past and the lives of individuals, some of her weaker pieces threaten to oversimplify them, denying her audience the chance to challenge their views of the world or their place in it.
- Süreyyya Evren, “An Ongoing Tension Orthodox Left versus Turkish Contemporary Art,” in Kunst + Politik/Art + Politik, edited by Hedwig Saxenhuber (Vienna, Springer Verlag, 2008) 178 – 83.