Three new exhibitions at the Suna and Inan Kırac Foundation Pera Museum, two of them focused solely on Byzantium, ring in the New Year with style.
Pera Museum, located in the Tepebasi area of the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, is home to three new exhibitions starting on November 23, 2021. The fourth floor showcases From Istanbul to Byzantium, while the fifth floor is home to “What Byzantium is this in Istanbul!” On the third floor, a contemporary exhibition called Notes for Tomorrow awaits visitors.
An archaeological approach
Brigitte Pitarakis, the curator of From Istanbul to Byzantium: Paths to Rediscovery, 1800–1955, tells TRT World that the departure point of the exhibition is from the beginning of the 19th century to the mid 1950s focusing on Istanbul’s geopolitical and cultural location and its role in Byzantine explorations.
She goes on to say that Byzantine explorations until then were shrouded in a fog. In the West, the focus was on classical archaeology. On the other hand, Byzantium was unknown because it had not been dug up in Istanbul yet: “As we show here, Byzantium emerged during excavations for new roads, railways, new buildings and after fires. On the other hand, Byzantine mosaics underneath plaster were revealed around the same time. That’s when interest in Byzantium peaked, and we tried to explore the cultural, geopolitical and scientific role of Istanbul at the time.”
According to Pitarakis, “We have on display original Byzantine items from the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. While conducting research, we were able to access the vaults of the museums and retrieve some precious items. So not all items are familiar to the viewers; even researchers may not have seen them before.”
Pitarakis also mentions a book that was presented to the palace from the Istanbul University Rare Books collection: Gaspare Fossati’s book published after the Hagia Sophia restoration that was gifted to Sultan Abdulmejid personally. “This is a printed book but because it is a gift to the sultan, each page was hand-painted with watercolours. Each page is a work of art. The binding is unique as well, and inside there is a hand-written note of dedication by Fossati to the sultan.” Moreover, she says, the exhibition has books from around the same time that were published before colour photography was available. They have chromolithograph pages, lithography in colour.
Pitarakis says the collection on display at the Pera Museum consists of pieces from the Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation and Istanbul Research Institute collection, from the Omer Koc collection, and mentions a 16th century book, one of the oldest books written about Byzantium by Pierre Gilles, owned by Philip Anton Dethier, a researcher and one of the managers of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums during its foundation years, has a note inside marking it as one of the sources Dethier used in his research.
Pitarakis also mentions the Byzantine Institute of America founder Thomas Whittemore who has unearthed mosaics covered under plaster in mosques including the Hagia Sophia.
“Until [the 19th century] it was not known that the city had been a centre of art, there were no witnesses to its glorious past,” she says. “Artists copied the mosaics in case something would happen to them, and you see that influence here as well. You see it in Nejad Devrim’s paintings, including ones he did of Chora Museum.”
A pop cultural approach
The fifth floor of the Pera Museum is dedicated to “What Byzantinism is this in Istanbul!” Byzantium in Popular Culture, a playful exhibition that focuses on the reflection of Byzantium in pop culture.
According to the notes on the exhibition, “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!” borrows its title from Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu’s novel Panorama I-II (1953–1954), where his protagonist exclaims these lines, being frustrated with postwar Turkish society.”
The notes explain that “Karaosmanoglu knew precisely what he meant by Byzantinism, referring to not only the social unrest and hostility among the nation’s citizens but also the superstitions raging among society at the time, for they found the chaos they were living in otherwise inexplicable.”
Curator Emir Alisik has chosen to strip this phrase from its connotations, and compile representations of Byzantium in contemporary novels, metal music, comics and graphic novels, visual arts, video games, movies and fashion.
Alisik confides that What Byzantinism is this in Istanbul! and the From Istanbul to Byzantium exhibitions were initially planned to be displayed in tandem with the 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Istanbul. But when the pandemic struck, the congress was postponed, and its location was changed to Venice. That did not deter Alisik, who put together a formidable exhibition at the Pera Museum’s fifth floor.
“Byzantium influences many visual artists today,” Alisik tells TRT World. “For example mosaics, frescoes and icons, while generally considered to be a part of religious art, are being repurposed by contemporary artists to speak of something new.”
“We did not limit ourselves with visual arts,” he says. “Be it literature, graphic novels, video games, sometimes we see a repetition of Byzantine history, and sometimes tales being told anew, inspired by Byzantine style.” He adds that they wanted to showcase Byzantium as an inspiration that could be taken into many directions and dimensions.
“What could be emphasised for this exhibition is the diversity in the arts and also the artists. All these artists are coming from different eras and different geographies who have found a cultural centre of Turkey to be an inspiration.... That’s something.”
Last but not least
According to the foreword by Inan and Ipek Kirac, “Pera Museum bids farewell to 2021 with the Notes for Tomorrow exhibition and says hello to 2022.” Occupying the third floor of the museum, the exhibition is the brainchild of 30 curators who have selected pieces from the contemporary art world. They, collaborators of Independent Curators International (ICI), are part of this travelling exhibition.
ICI Exhibitions Manager Becky Nahom tells TRT World that the curators come from all over the world, from 25 different countries. The exhibition, she says, was developed last summer in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and “we set the parameters that this exhibition would be experimental, it would be able to travel without any shipping involved, and artworks can fold into a variety of spaces – large to small museums.”
She says that the works that emerged cover indigenous practice, as well as decolonisation, care, the home, and “it really makes us question what events have happened in the past as well as make us think about the future.”
Istanbul, Nahom says, is the fourth stop on the tour, and Notes for Tomorrow will travel through 2025. “The exhibition opened up at the start of 2021 at Haverford, Pennsylvania, in the US, then it travelled to Calgary, Canada, Nanjing, China, and here it is, the fourth stop on the tour, at the Pera Museum.”
Nahom adds that in 2022, “it will open in Taipei, Taiwan, Toronto, Canada, Auckland, New Zealand, as well as Las Vegas, Nevada, and many more spaces.”
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: Jonathan Godoy, The Byzantine Stones, 2007. Fountain pen, with real textures, added digital colour and effects. Courtesy of the artist.
HEADLINE IMAGE: Alfons Maria Schneider’s excavation in the atrium of Hagia Sophia. 1935-1936. DAI Istanbul.