ISTANBUL: The historic group show, ‘I-You-They’ at Meşher, curated by Deniz Artun, is a whirlwind series of galleries that inspire its seers to reexamine a century of art history through works by women born between the 1850s and the 1950s
In place of visibility, there is a crowd. It is more like a mass and moves across the sky, at times hanging low to the ground, where it slows down and is called fog to those who pass through it, at a loss for where they might have planned to go. But from above, to those who fly, it might be seen as no different than the land itself, a natural emergence of air from the soil, as its elements commingle and create the texture of Earth.
The metaphor of cloud cover, as seen from above and below, concerns the curation of historical artwork from a gender perspective in the context of seeing the show, “I-You-They: A Century of Artist Women” at Meşher, where leading ladies on the first floor, such as abstract expressionist painter Fahrelnissa Zeid and Turkey’s first female professional photographer Yıldız Moran hold a canonical presence alongside peers, antecedents and successors.
Zeid’s oil on canvas “Resolved Problems” (1948) pushes the envelope of the exhibition’s ambitious timeline near to its conclusion. The work is abstract but calculated, her mosaic-like forms recall Byzantine culture, and the fragmentations of visual perception, conceived in an age which she presciently forecasted would be increasingly dominated by the saturated overpopulation of voices and works streamlined into corporate media.
All artists, whether they were men or women, who came into the world between the 1850s and 1950s, responded to an entirely different zeitgeist of perceptual discernment. When Zeid made “Resolved Problems” she was not so much revealing or obscuring, as much as she was showing obscuration itself.
That knack and intuitive grasp that Zeid exhibited was common among women who were expressing, however obliquely, the fact that they had been subjugated to less importance in the cultural historiography of Western art, and more so for being Turkish. Moran, the genius that she was, produced a trio of photographs, “Echo” (1952), blurring the self-examination of mirrored portraiture in a figure absorbed by her reflection to the point of subjective dissolution.
In a room of her own
The liberal spaciousness of Meşher can offer particularly creative curatorial opportunity, such as when the “Beyond the Vessel” show exhibited Kim Simonsson’s “Moss People” (2019), transforming one of its walls into an enchanted forest, or when it formerly housed Arter, and painter Can Aytekin’s “Empty House” emphasized the absence of its architectural anomalies. “I-You-They,” however, succumbs to the regressive tendency to merely decorate.
There is a long overwrought debate on the lightness of being in art, on whether or not aesthetically engaged work can confidently kick up its feet and exist as mere decoration, or disembark from amusement theme institutionalization into the deep waters of many fields.
And in walks feminism. After a long march from prehistory, when goddesses and the female form served as the inspiration for the earliest works of figurative art in the archaeological record, women confronted men on the soapboxes of fin-de-siecle society. Righteously, they were frustrated over their displacement amid the rise of democracies led by working classes empowered to reform their governments, representative of human equality.
Their ideas were large, and so were their strides. Turkey stands out as having led a successful women’s suffrage movement before many Western countries like France, Greece and Switzerland, although not without a few compromises to their overall electoral system. There is an oil painting on plywood at the show from that time, titled, “Girls Practicing Painting” by Emel Koruktürk, dated to the 1930s. Its impressionistic bent is rosy, if faceless.
That incipient era of Turkish feminism, as it might be remembered, had a parallel life in and among the pictures that women created before and in the midst of its burgeoning actions. But its beginnings toward a more enlightened republic of liberated women were not without awkward moments, considering the patriarchal background of Ottoman art history. A pastel on cardboard by Mihri Müşfik, born in 1885, is that of a self-Orientalist. “The Sultan’s Favorite with Mirror,” follows familiar tropes, and Artun’s often haphazard curation is not exactly critical.
An artist as a woman
Müşfik, who lived wide awake and working through the Ottoman Empire’s transition to the Republic of Turkey, showed a girl from the palace in the typical fashion. Like Moran’s modernist woman, invoking a semblance of American artist Cindy Sherman, Müşfik’s subject gazes away from the artist, and into a mirror. She is demure and half-dressed.
When placed next to a work of oil on hardboard by Semiha Berksoy, “Self-Portrait,” their divergent approaches to making art are clearly distinct. Müşfik was weighed by the lingering influences of Turkey’s past, Berksoy was a daughter of the secular republic, who’d come to painting with the ecstatic joy and uninhibited expressionism, freed from the stage that made her name as she went back and forth between Turkey and Germany in the 1930s, famous as an independent, bohemian bon-vivant throughout her illustrious, eccentric career.
But the temptations of the Orientalist were not entirely extinguished by the cold shower of modernism. That is patent at “I-You-They” in an untitled photograph by Semiha Es, whose globe-trotting adventures gleaned images from exotic locales, including that of a black woman draped in the fur of a big cat. It appears that she made the woman pose, as she lays facing the camera directly, exposing her forehead and chest, marked with ritual scarring.
In the final act of “I-You-They,” the top floor of Meşher’s galleries is mobbed with a wall of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and other forms of artwork. Their attributions are heaped together in a long series of lists set apart from the art. The effect is disillusioning. If the idea of the exhibition was to inform and foreground women as central to Turkey’s art history, it was a confusing balancing act, jumbled, as it were, in search of something more tangible than those names that are already canonical. But, if seen with a welcome naivety, and an open heart, it is still an opportune feast of visions in the name of so many, countless Turkish women who lived empowered lives as accomplished artists, uniquely important as ever.
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