Organised under the patronage of Cigdem Simavi and sponsored by UNLU & Co, I-You-They: A Century of Artist Women can be visited at Beyoglu’s Mesher art space until March 27, 2021.
Hazal Arik, 30, works for Mesher, an art space off of Istiklal Street. She is taking TRT World through the newest exhibition: I-You-They: A Century of Artist Women spread out over three floors.
The exhibition features a selection of 232 works by 117 artists. According to the news release, “living and working in Turkey between roughly 1850 and 1950, the work of these artists is largely unrecognised by the art historical canon.”
Arik explains that the first floor is the ‘I’ floor, the second floor is the ‘You’ floor and the third floor is the ‘They’ floor. “The I floor is dedicated to women representing themselves, or how they see their sex,” she says. She highlights Nevin Ethem’s sketchbook which is open to a page depicting a woman wearing a mask of a male. Ethem was the niece of famous painter Osman Hamdi Bey, but did not fare as well as her uncle. Her masked drawing is juxtaposed next to a faceless drawing by Belkis Mustafa.
On the same floor, there is a reflective photograph by Yildiz Moran, keeping in step with the identity theme, “despite art history being dominated by men.” She marries Ozdemir Asaf and bears him three children. Anecdotal evidence says she decides to spend 24 hours a day either on photography or her children, and that she chose her children over her art. Arik says this floor has plenty of self-portraits.
Gencay Kasapci’s ‘Infinity Spot’, reproduced here at a much larger scale with the permission of her family, can be viewed from the outside, beckoning art lovers in. She was part of the Zero movement, but she was not really recognised as such in her lifetime or after.
Next to it is Fahrelnissa Zeid’s abstract ‘Resolved Problems’, hung up high “to talk to Kasapci’s work,” as Arik puts it. Arik says that of the 117 artists, “there are those who are famous and about whom we know a lot; but there are also artists we know next to nothing about, not even their birth and death years.”
On the ‘You’ floor there are different definitions of womanhood, of being ‘the other’. There are nudes on display, as well as paintings depicting family life, of becoming a mother, of having children.
Arik draws our attention to the details of ‘Madonna and the Child’, noting that “every detail has been painstakingly painted with gouache on paper, inviting the viewer to look closer.” Arik says she believes the painting to be related to ‘magical realism,’ and it is hard to disagree with her. Deniz Bilgin, the artist, has also painted book covers for a publishing house, not really regarded as an artist, and died by suicide in 1999.
Interestingly, the artworks on the ‘We’ floor do not have titles or artists’ names affixed next to them, but a printed map is available to navigate the pieces. The background of the walls is decorated with a floral pattern based on an old one from the famed Sumerbank factory. On this floor alone there are 116 works, tightly packed to form a collective power, without a hierarchy.
Curator Deniz Artun writes “We avoided detailed biographies because, as far as these artist women are concerned, their educational backgrounds and the lists of their exhibitions cannot constitute applicable criteria,” adding that “Lives of the artist women are full of moments and memories where they could not receive a formal education or have an exhibition. In this respect, the floor of flowers [the third floor] is concerned with being egalitarian.”
The ‘We’ floor also makes a reference to the widely held belief that “Women are fragile; like flowers.” So on this floor, women answer with their flowers, not all of them fragile at all. It does, however, suggest a domesticity, the entrapment of the female indoors, being able to draw still lives with fruit and flowers. Some, like Esma Ibret Hanim, produce calligraphy. Some are represented by one picture only, and some are literally unknown treasures.
Curator Deniz Artun has named the exhibition after a work by Sukran Aziz, a Turkish born international artist and the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire in Poughkeepsie, NY. The news release notes that referencing Aziz’s call to collectivity, the exhibition “does not only recognise women’s struggle for selfhood, the ‘I’, but also explores the conditions for the formation of a collective ‘we’.”
In the forenote to the book accompanying the exhibition, Artun lists the ways in which ‘artist women’ have become more visible and more esteemed in the international arena. She says “However, victories are singular, thus are struggles. It is impossible for established contemporary artist women in Turkey to evaluate their works in relation to local references in addition to universal ones, to explore their roots among the ancient methods and materials of their geography, and to build something new on the accumulated knowledge of previous generations.”
She goes on to say “Furthermore, exhibitions in Turkey do not enable young artist women to reach the wellspring and to flow together with the old. In other words, the visibility of women who continue to produce and hold exhibitions is not only with no before, but also with no after. The existence of artist women in Turkey has no history.”
That’s why, she notes, that “I-You-They does not claim to write this history. On the contrary, it recalls and reminds us that this history to be written is not singular, but plural. It is a call to a ‘we’ in and through which each woman and each work can construct its very own history. To celebrate these endless combinations of relations, it adds to those ‘I’s who have individually achieved recognition, the ‘you’s who could not make their name known, see their works exhibited, and, more often than not, could not realise themselves.”
As a final note, Artun says the exhibition I-You-They “is not about finding and listing all the women who have lived and worked between 1850 and 1950, the period we roughly limited ourselves to. Rather, it invites deeper exploration. If, by chance, the viewers of the exhibition take a closer look at and ponder on the women around them, then this exhibition can be said to achieve its primary goal.”