Shining gold cloth and vivid blues, reds and greens of patterned tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and installations from Gülsün Karamustafa’s Chronographia fill up the Berlin gallery, imprinting on everyone wandering through.
I walked along under the bridges and cement verges of Berlin’s canals in the Saturday sun to reach the gallery where I would find Gülsün Karamustafa’s latest exhibition, Chronographia.
Exhibited in three different spaces in the gallery, 110 works radiate through a thousand square metres of space spanning two wings of the old train station. The walls have been painted red, shimmering gold lines a staircase, and pale pink ribbons flutter over the bridge between two of the exhibition spaces.
Born in Ankara in 1946, Karamustafa’s work traverses religion, history, feminism, gender, migration, state repression and the tangled experiences of the orientalist ‘Other’. In the words of academic Meltem Ahiska, in a review on Art Radar, 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.”
Lives lived in the in-betweens
But I saw what Ahiska calls a “possible, not yet existing space” as already very real in Karamustafa’s work. I was struck by the profound sense of dignity that she finds in the people her art features. Following the trails of both internal and external displacement, dislocation and fragmentation, she reads and presents the small, intimate motions of people’s lives without romanticising them in the face of their struggles, and without reducing their power in the face of the grand systems, histories and events that determine their lives.
In Stairway (2001), a video of three young Romanian children who survive by playing music on the streets of Istanbul, the camera holds the children as they move up and down the stairway in Galata where they busk. Their small figures come and go; the staircase, the street, the need to find cracks and spaces in which to survive, lasts long beyond them. And yet, their transient presence is strong, vital – they stare back into the camera and laugh amongst themselves, even as they visibly tire while they play.
In Objects of Desire / A Suitcase Trade (100 Dollars Limit) (1998), she fills a bag with cheap goods from Istanbul’s markets, travelling to different places and selling the goods on the streets there. In the collapse of the Soviet Union, trade in the cheap glitz of capitalism surged, and people would travel back and forth from Turkey with bags like Karamustafa’s.
“The opening of the Berlin wall, fall of Soviet Union and regime changes in the Middle European countries created a new kind of trade trafficking through newly opened borders. Istanbul was the largest and the cheapest liberal market [in the region] with its rather open rules for the border trade”, she says, explaining where the inspiration for the piece came from in an interview with Independent Turkey.
The trade in women’s bodies grew in tandem with the trade in goods, and many women would sell their bodies to fund buying trips. Although this flow of goods and sex was later taken up and cemented by organised crime networks, Karamustafa notes that her interest was, from the start, with the women themselves. “I was more touched by the beginning years of this trafficking that was acted with the free will of women, whose only wish was to gain the money to fill in their suitcases with goods they can sell back in their countries for the sake of feeding their families. This is [how the] “Objects of Desire – 100 Dollars Limit” Performances came to life.
These two works are examples of the way Karamustafa tracks the lives that fall through the cracks of patriarchy, capitalism and the blind rigidity of state and nation. For working class women in today’s Turkey, the issues and experiences Karamustafa has been negotiating and exploring through her work are no closer to being resolved.
“The policy of the government for making more children (at least 3 children to make a perfect family), the new promotions for those who have a big number of children, the new abortion law that brings in limits, and the exaggerated maternity leave are all hidden plans to keep the working women out of sight. With such obstacles I am afraid the employers will soon prefer not to have women workers as they will be too occupied with their large families.”
The struggles of the those portrayed in her work are real and living. Stairway and Objects of Desire become quiet portraits of people with a pervasive, vivid commitment to life who ply the thin cracks of oppression and exist within them in creativity and dignity.
Art as a way to keep the mourned alive
She grieves the lives and things that aren’t allowed to be – women declared missing from Istanbul in NEWORIENTATION (1995/2016), where shivering pink ribbons are stamped with the initials and the date that each woman was recorded missing from Galata’s quay.
She grieves the richness of Turkish culture smothered by orientalist consumption in Anti-Hammam Confessions (2010) and Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies (2000). Both track the lewd eyes of the West and the discomfort they bring to the people and rituals they fall on. In Anti-Hammam Confessions, footage from inside a hammam follows a voice talking about the demise of hammam culture because of tourists.
In Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies, Karamustafa isolates and mirrors figures from orientalist paintings, highlighting the performance of fantasy the West played out through how it imagined Ottoman culture.
In Tailor Made (2005), footage of a fashion show starring working class women shows how those fantasies continue to be enacted and internalised in modern Turkey. And in The Settler (2003) and Mystic Transport (1992), Karamustafa honours the experiences of those who have been forced into migration. Given the massive movement of people through Turkey today, these works of home and dislocation are especially poignant.
The difficult and entangled themes within Karamustafa’s work do not exist solely within the echo-chamber of the art world and its privileged audiences. Throughout her life and career she has made sure that her work is centred among the audiences and communities which her art speaks of. “My main aim is to bring my thoughts to life and the circumstances never mean much. If you trace back the first presentation place of many works in the [Chronographia] exhibition you may find out that they are quite unknown but the right place for their audience.”
Politics as practice
Karamustafa’s work is imbued with her political involvement. Her imprisonment after the 1971 coup for harbouring a political fugitive led to Stage (1998), a large-scale photo of her sentencing, with a projection of the words ‘Stage. Regime. Control. Ideology.’ circling the image.
Her reaction to state repression is seen in the 1972 series Prison Paintings, an emotive sequence of women in prison painted in bright, bold colours. The bright and the bold pulse through the exhibition, and to me it seemed like Karamustafa was fighting with light against the smothering effect of an unequal world.
“Artists do not have the power to change the world but they have their own ways to deal with it,” she says. “Throughout the time I lived, I have witnessed three military coups and they all had direct and definite impact on my life. I am still in shock with the fourth that happened only a month ago. Since then suppression over freedom of speech is tightening more. For artists there are many byways that can be applied. At those moments a change of language in art or a new way of expression might be helpful.”
I went back into the Berlin sunshine a little more melancholy, but with renewed faith in the languages that can artists like Karamustafa develop and share, allowing the rest of us to navigate the world around us, witnessed.