The opening of Gülsün Karamustafa’s “Chronographia” on 10 June at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin marks the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work outside of Turkey.
“Chronographia”, which runs until 23 October 2016, includes 110 works installed within a 1,000 square metres exhibition space, ranging from the 1970s to the present day and exploring themes such as migration, modernity, feminism and gender.
Gülsün Karamustafa (b. 1946) is one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century in Turkey. Living and working in Istanbul, with an oeuvre that includes over four decades of painting, installation, performance and video works, Karamustafa has served as an inspiration and example for young artists in Turkey since the early 1990s.
Early on in her career, Karamustafa was broadly influenced by modernism and abstraction. However, the artist was seeking a style that allowed her to more easily and more directly interact with her audience, which led her back to more narrative forms akin to medieval and Renaissance era depictions. As artist and cultural researcher Marion von Oosten states,
Figuration allowed her to tell stories about the people suffering under the dictatorship, a system of injustice that was upheld by the international world powers during the Cold War.
And unsurprisingly the artist, along with her partner and graphic artist Sadik Karamustafa, became an activist and fought against torture and in favour of freedom of speech. These decisions made life very difficult and unsafe for the couple. They were constantly under surveillance, interrogated, imprisoned at a certain point and, for 15 years between 1971 and 1986, were barred from leaving Turkey.
Having attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, Karamustafa was first recognised internationally in the 1990s for her contributions to the third and fourth Istanbul Biennials, after which time her work gained international visibility through numerous exhibitions and biennials. Karamustafa’s work has been shown in major exhibitions and is part of public museum collections in various European countries, her home country Turkey, the United States, Canada and Argentina.
In “Chronographia” there are works from distinct periods in Karamustafa’s career, installed in a non-chronological manner, reinforcing the ways in which the artist approaches and repeatedly returns to certain themes at different junctures throughout her career. There are works contained in this exhibition that have only ever been exhibited once before and some of which were very recently on display in the 2013 retrospective of the artist’s work at SALT in Istanbul. Curator Marion von Oosten explains:
Karamustafa’s perspective is not that of a distanced panorama or a view from above to the practices of ‘ordinary people’; it is rather a relationship of closeness aimed at making contact with people, attitudes and practices.
A main topic of interest for the artist has been investigating the impact of Western notions of modernity and political transitions in Turkey since the Ottoman Empire. Karamustafa is also interested broadly in Western views of the Middle East, with a focus towards analysing how politics, religion and history collude to influence an increasingly globalised world. The artist represents these ideas in her work through the use of textiles, found footage and kitsch objects.
This consistent tussle with time and one’s ability, or inability, to depart and return, is increasingly apparent throughout this exhibition. Karamustafa does the painstaking work of connecting her understanding of time and history the ways in which certain stories have, or have not, gained visibility. In thinking about Karamustafa’s work, scholar Meltem Ahiska adeptly notes that the artist offers
a space of escape from the accumulating waste and dust violently turned into stone under the name of modernity. What is at stake in her works is not merely the matter of unveiling modernity or completing the unfinished project, but of revealing the multiple temporalities and unacknowledged experiences under modernity as a hegemonic sign.
Karamustafa invites us into a temporal maze in which one could find her ‘personal time’ and recognize it among the ruins of history. This is not a hope projected onto the future in a linear fashion, but one that illuminates the side paths and back alleys of ‘modern life’, and nourishes the power of making life and meaning in the midst of continuous displacement and fragmentation bred by capitalism and imperialism in this world.
Ahiska continues by writing that Karamustafa’s work
attempts to disrupt all the labels and dichotomies such as East and West, modernity and tradition, that are inscribed on monumental representations, and tempts the viewer to look in other directions: sideways and backwards, upwards and downwards, from the outside or the inside, to imagine a virtual space – a possible, not yet existing space in which repressed potentials could be activated.
It invites us to see through the eyes of the subjects – both human and non-human – who have been forbidden to look and see, and who were doomed to be only an image in the imperial, male-centric mirrors. Life is breathed into these forlorn and forgotten subjects and experiences, and they are mobilized to search for their own singular stories, faces and names.
Negarra A. Kudumu
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