Turkish artist CANAN creates a mystical and critical cosmology across three floors in “Behind Mount Qaf”.
Feminist artist CANAN delves into ancient, modern and contemporary “myths” about gender, power structures and the body at ARTER Space for Art in Istanbul.
Defining herself as a feminist and activist artist, Istanbul born artist CANAN has been making work that intervenes into the politics and representation of gender, sexuality and the body since the early 1990s. The current exhibition at ARTER Space for Art in Istanbul offers the opportunity to compare the artist’s most recent works with older works, many of which are being displayed for the first time.
Over the past decade, CANAN has been engaging with ancient Islamic cosmology, exploring the emergence of figures such as the jinn in relation to modern and contemporary moral frameworks. The works produced range from sculpture and photography to print, embroidery, video, installation and traditional miniature painting. While the media are extremely diverse, the exhibition coherently explores the persistence of religious and mythical paradigms in defining the value and meaning of human life, especially in relation to the systems that uphold the importance of gender, nationality and racial categories of identification.
The exhibition “Behind Mount Qaf” takes its title from Arabic and Persian cosmology, according to which there exists a mysterious mountain called Mount Qaf that is both the highest and farthest point away from the earth. The Mount Qaf story is associated with the 16th century publication of mystic Zakariya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders of Creation, a collection of religious texts that were extremely influential across early modern Islamic society. According to Qazwini cosmology, Mount Qaf assists Allah in the task of holding up the sky so that it does not fall onto the earth.
Each of three floors at ARTER Space for Art Istanbul corresponds to the three organising cosmological realms: heaven, purgatory and hell. In the floor named heaven, viewers encounter a self-portrait of the artist pregnant posing as the Anatolian goddess of motherhood Cybele. Other self-portraits in which the artist portrays herself as a mythological character can be found close by. In both Shahmaran (2017) and Şehretün’nar (2017) the artist similarly depicts two characters associated with motherhood, this time the figure of the “mother of all gins”.
Also on the first floor is the large-scale installation Animal Kingdom (2017). Colourful fabric birds, snakes, dragons and lions hang from the ceiling or spring up from the ground creating a striking scenography of a chaotic and lively paradise. In a work entitled Heaven (2017), the artist adds a revolving cylinder made of tulle to the scene. Brightly lit from inside, the cylinder turns slowing and hypnotically to reveal the images embroidered onto the fabric: male and female figures dance and walk through a rainbow coloured landscape. As the colours blend into each other so do the female and male figures, suggesting the artist’s paradise is one in which gender categories are not the central organising force. Heaven sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, which sets out a complex and profound cartography of the tensions between the visible and the invisible, light and shadow, story and experience, political and mythical narrative structures.
Another new work situated on the heaven floor is a video entitled Women Bathing in Moonlight (2017). Shot on a full moon night on the Turkish island of Burgazada near Istanbul, a group of young women with flowers in their hair can be seen howling like wolves at the full moon and then walking down to the seashore to bathe in the sea. The video was recorded at the Madame Marta Cove, a small beach named after the protagonist of a local story that tells of a woman called Marta and her fisherman husband who end their own lives due to a tragedy – a story which explains why the sea does not come too far into the bay. What appears to be the performance of an ancient and mystical ritual jars with the bustling city of Istanbul, whose skyline of skyscrapers and packed housing blocks is visible in the background.
As can be expected, more disconcerting works can be found on the “purgatory” and “hell” floors in the exhibition. In There’s So Much Evil Out There (2017), the artist has constructed a scenography of a bedroom, whose stark whiteness and sterility draws associations with a hospital, school or monastery – historical settings associated with discipline, fear and loneliness. Across the walls of the staged bedroom, the artist has scribbled hundreds of words and phrases – love letters in which both the sender and receiver are left anonymous.
In another work called Transparent Police Station (2017), the artist constructs a series of transparent plastic boxes each one containing a scene of conflict or violence against women. As a sculptural version of a traditional miniature painting, the work explores the isolation and punishment of women across the physical, virtual and spiritual worlds, the ancient, modern and contemporary.
The exhibition concludes with the installation Wonders of Creation (2017), which spreads across the entire second floor gallery. Here, the human figures that were present in the rest of the exhibition disappear completely, as the jinn take over the stage. This is hell, in which jinn figures drawn with fluorescent paints on tulle fabric dominante a dimmed space, inviting the viewer to confront fears, face the beast within and learn to coexist with the ones constructed as Jinn.
Since the 1990s CANAN has been analysing how institutions such as government, family, society and religion affect the private lives of women. In her recent engagement with ancient cosmology, CANAN brings a new level to her analysis, revealing how old narratives are pulled through new frames of morality to dictate contemporary experience.
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