When I’m not editing SheRa Mag, I write for a culture magazine based in Istanbul. I spend my days attending gallery and museum show openings and reporting back to contemporary art aficionados who read our esteemed publication (believe me, I’m not just there for the champagne and the hors d’oeuvres). It’s a fun job and allows me to keep abreast of the latest developments in modern art. I love me a good photograph or abstract painting and this job has really broadened my knowledge on Turkish artists and Middle Eastern art (which, contrary to popular belief, is not just about horrific war images or pictures of families in desolate housing).
But what I have noticed in the two years I have lived in Istanbul and had this job is the strong female presence in contemporary art—both in the artists enjoying success and the professionals working in the industry. Most of the galleries I visit are owned and/or run by women and the culture journalists I see at press conferences are also predominantly women. The Vienna-based curator Işın Önol tells me that, “women have an exceptionally strong voice in the arts in Turkey. There are many highly-recognized artists, curators, cultural producers and dealers.” Selin Söl, who owns Daire Gallery in Istanbul’s contemporary art hub, Tophane, says that although in the other sectors in Turkey, the men are more dominant, in the art scene, there is a balance between the sexes. Melek Gencer, the director of C.A.M. Galeri, concurs: “I think the state of women in the arts is better than most of the other states of women in Turkey.” X-ist’s Ece Göymen says that the contemporary art world is a “field that is generally purified from gender issues.” What great words to live by.
Female artists too are well revered in Turkey and there are more and more women every year making a name for themselves on the home turf and internationally. “There is a significant number of female artists achieving great success. Along with political developments, the female presence (and power) in art gives us strength,” says Sabiha Kurtulmuş, who owns Galeri Merkur. And there is an increasing number of artists dealing with feminist issues in their oeuvres: The more galleries I visit, the more artworks I see which focus on the differences between men and women, explore the state of women in Turkey and neighboring regions, or investigate the extent of gender issues worldwide. Some artists position themselves as feminists and their work spawns from this. Gencer believes that there are “very valuable Turkish female artists who are dealing with gender and social issues and equality in their work.” “The body of art produced in Europe and the US in the 1970’s was a crucial phase for female artists. I wish Turkish female artists went through a similar phase that would in turn create an unsusceptible and more powerful space for female artists,” she continues.
But it wasn’t always like this. In 1913, for example, the Newspaper of the Ottoman Painters’ Association stated that the profession of painting and womanhood had never “agreed with each other.” It also said that only males could love art deeply and posses an “inextinguishable” desire to paint. How sexist! But according to the NY Times, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, daughters of the wealthy or upper-middle class intellectuals, particularly in Istanbul and especially in non-Muslim families, were encouraged to learn to paint, to speak French, and to play the piano, in an effort to appear more Westernized. And from then, the female painter (or sculptor) was born, and this has undoubtedly paved the way for women to be successful artists today.
Although the outlook for Turkish female artists and art professionals is positive, problems still persist. One of the major ones is a drastic lack of financial support in the art world in general. Every single contemporary art institution in Turkey is privately funded and it is a real shame that the government (who fervently upkeeps historical sights and Islamic culture institutions) doesn’t give a damn about modern art. Şebnem Kutal, director at Galeri Ilayda, believes that education in this area is essential in raising awareness and bringing contemporary art to more people. Önol echoes her concerns and adds that, “the state of women in the art field is not representative of society as a whole: The disastrous extent of discrimination against women, and their omnipresent exploitation and abuse is a core concern for many women—and men—in the art world. It is indispensable that we intensify the struggle for equal rights and empowerment of women.” Gencer also underlines that women still have to work very hard to get respect in the contemporary art world: “As a woman, you need to show that being in the art business is not a hobby, but a serious profession.”
Here are my top female Turkish artists working today:
A veteran of the Turkish art scene, Karamustafa has enjoyed a lustrous career since she graduated from the State Academy of Fine Arts in 1969, including working as an art director on some of the popular yeşilçam melodramas that dominated Turkish screens between the 1960s and mid-1980s. But it is for her paintings that Karamustafa is mostly known. Her use of color is simply superb.
Nilbar Güreş’s powerful videos, photos, and performance pieces explore the female identity, the role of women, and the relationships between women and their homes and public spaces. She’s a big noise in international art fairs like Frieze.
Istanbul-born, London-based Erkmen is a sculptor by trade, though she also works in other mediums and is known for her site-specific installations. I had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Intervals (a homage to theatre curtains) last year at the Barbican.
Knowing for rattling cages, I strongly recommend you look up Yolaçan’s portraits of women adorned in animal flesh. In her series Perishables (above), the artist has outfitted stoic British matrons in meat clothing to question issues of race, unevenly distributed power, and the contradictory relationship we have with the animal kingdom.
With a background in writing (she is a poet as well as an artist), Moral is one of Turkey’s best-known artists. And she’s not afraid of controversy. The artist is concerned with the position of women in society and confronts issues close to Turkey’s heart that many people shun: polygamous marriage, marginalized transgender individuals, virginity, and female circumcision.
One of Turkey’s most prominent artists, Onur is concerned with the relationship between form, space, and time. Music is another favorite subject. Most of all, she knows how to turn a gallery space into something truly special.
The German-Turkish Ekici trained under the great Marina Abramović and her performances are not only deeply underlined by social issues, but toe the line between being playful and disturbing. That’s her blindfolded, eating pig above.
A self-professed feminist, Eviner’s videos and gentle ink drawings deal with the tensions and complexities of being female in a country which straddles east and west, as well as documenting the ongoing social and political changes in her homeland.
Title image source: saltonline.org