Istanbul is a sprawling city of domes and spires, of churches turned into mosques, of a brilliant history and of a vibrant future. Yet today, more than ever, that history and future have opened up to include more diverse perspectives and voices than before — thanks in part to the people’s protests of 2013, when the secular spirit of Turkey was defended.
Freedom of expression is an indispensable ingredient for the creation of art, and despite the current tensions palpable in the country and the geopolitical conflict in the surrounding region, cultural life in Istanbul feels very much alive and kicking.
Ghulam Mohammad. Untitled (2014). Paper, ink. Private collection. Photo: Usman Javaid
It’s no wonder, then, that the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) in London chose Istanbul’s Pera Museum to host the first extra muros exhibition of this fourth edition’s shortlisted Jameel Prize artists and designers. The relatively young museum, which was established in 2005, is housed in the former Hotel Bristol, with its original façade restored and Art Deco interior preserved. In addition to three permanent collections that comprise Orientalist paintings and historical artefacts such as weights and tiles, the museum aims to encourage a dialogue between past and present. Ottoman tradition, here, is shown alongside European artists: Osman Hamdi’s The Tortoise Trainer takes pride of place in a modern museum that also put on a Frida Kahlo exhibition with great popular success.
From June 8 until August 14, the Pera Museum will showcase the work of the 11 names that were selected by curators Tim Stanley and Salma Tuqan of the V&A and a panel of four judges, who this edition must make do without the blessing of the late Zaha Hadid, who was patron of the Jameel Prize.
“Each time it becomes more difficult to select the shortlist,” acknowledged Tuqan. The current selection shows a breath of practices and nationalities that only serves to underline the potential of Islamic art to adapt to a changing world and enriching global relations.
Istanbulite Cevdet Erek, an artist captivated by rhythm and sound who will represent Turkey at the 2017 Venice Biennale, entered the Jameel Prize 4 with works revolving around ‘sound ornamentation.’ He’ll present the jury with two rulers, one that reflects the transition from day to night, and one that can be interpreted as a timeline that traces the historic transition from Arabic to the Turkish alphabet. When he shows us around his art space ‘brm Otopark’, an unused car park in Istanbul’s Tophane Boğazkesen area, Erek explains his vision for the third work, a sound installation. He says,
“I like how the work doesn’t make sense in a photograph — it needs an explanation.” Erek’s very analytical way of thinking still requires lived experience — an innovative way of connecting the patterned nature of Islamic art with Adolf Loos’ early modern method of thinking about ornamentation.
On the other side of the globe Lucia Koch made it onto the shortlist. As an artist living and working in São Paolo, Brazil, her work displays the influence of Islamic traditions in far-flung places. Her architectural interventions often involve cutout patterns and transparencies that redirect the viewer’s attention to the space itself — not its structure or architecture as such — by manipulating the incidence of light and our sense of dimension. For the Jameel Prize 4, Koch worked in steel, creating patterns in mirrored acrylic within sliding frames that cast various shadows depending on their configuration — a hard and heavy piece of art with a lightweight effect.
A strong representation of geometric form cannot come as a surprise when viewing Islamic (influenced) art, and the vast majority of the Jameel Prize candidates present a variety of ways in which to incorporate this tradition. Lara Assouad from Montreal, Canada, provides us with an entry-level system of wooden blocks that simplify Arabic typography in order to introduce non-Arabic speakers or children to the language. Bahia Shehab from Beirut, Lebanon also takes a graphic approach to calligraphy and typography by repeating the Arabic script for ‘no’ over and over in her book A Thousand Times No. In terms of sculptural forms, Shahpour Pouyan from Isfahan, Iran explores the political meaning of the dome as a display of power, while Sahand Hesamiyan from Tehran, Iran, links science and geometry to abstract notions of religion in his faceted steel, oversized Nail.
The figurative, however, is also represented, most poignantly in CANAN’s work Resistance on Istiklal Street. This work, which represents a contemporary political moment while employing the Islamic tradition of miniature and map-making, documents an uprising that risks to be left out of Turkey’s official history, but is now preserved through visual culture. CANAN’s belief in collective history and story telling is powerful in its use of symbols and colour.
CANAN. Resistance on Istiklal Street (2014). Ink, colours and gold on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Rampa. Photo: André Carvalho and Tugba Karatop - Chroma
Other works of CANAN can be found in Rampa, a gallery dedicated to contemporary art, and one of many venues and projects that have arisen and are up-and-running in Istanbul. Many are founded or managed by young women who, with a lot of love for their country, are making an effort to address the political climate and open up platforms for expression.
Nazli Gurlek is a curator and writer we met while she was in the midst of organising readings from the book Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The stories revolve around myths of the ‘wild woman’ archetype, an idea, Gurlek mentioned, which is still all too often repressed or unacknowledged in Turkey today, and that can only be conducive to artistic expression.
Heretofore untold stories were movingly and with great care processed in exhibitions that placed sensitive pages out of Turkey’s history back into our consciousness. At SALT, a research-based contemporary art space, the exhibition Empty Spaces, explored the archive of the American Board and the catalogue raisonné of the Museum of Natural History of Anatolia. In between these artefacts, a story is woven of the Armenian community’s plight.
The same subject returned in 1915, a series by Diana Markosian exploring the memory of tree survivors of the Great Crime. Shown at DEPO, a culture and debate platform, this exhibition transmitted a real sense of loss and longing through photography, video and installation work.
David Chalmers Alesworth. Hyde Park Kashan 1862 (1900-1950 and 2011). Pile carpet, embroidery. Courtesy of Juan Yarur Torres, President of Fundación AMA. Photo: David Chalmers Alesworth
Amid all of these much-needed discourses, nationalist sentiment remains strong in Turkey, and even a place like The Museum of Innocence, a house based on Orhan Pamuk eponymous book, depicts with much tender feelings la petite histoire of a man who falls in love with a far-removed cousin, and by proxy the pleasures and sorrows of the lives of many people in Istanbul.
The Jameel Prize 4 equally seeks out the manifold voices of artists influenced by traditions from the Middle-Eastern region — from the centre and the edges of the Arabic world. Its history should and can be kept alive in conjunction with contemporary practice.