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To picture a child: ‘Double Portrait’ by Cemre Yeşil

ISTANBUL (Dailysabah): At the Milli Reasürans Art Gallery, just steps from Istanbul’s scenic Maçka Park, a show of photography by Cemre Yeşil focuses on child portraiture with a unique sense of art history, publishing and installation

The approach to image-making whereby a figurative artist attempts to represent and convey lived experience entertains that long brush with natural realism where history and art blend and merge. Though, tempered by the exactitudes of modern photography, yet shying from the allures of technological hyperreality, the photographer Cemre Yeşil has reached for the sensitive zone where artists depart from their fellow historians, exploring the intimacies of the personal with the subject of children and their mothers.

The office-like multifloor space of the exhibition “Double Portrait,” couched in a particularly corporate, commercial side of town in Istanbul, begins with an abrupt punch of physical realism where the image of a newborn, silent as exhibited, screams on the other end of the pieces’ production. With its umbilical cord uncut, soggy and dripping, the baby holds out its hands, keeping its eyes firmly shut. Only moments before, the child had been in the womb, and, as posed over the navy blue sheet of a photography studio, is in shock, awaiting its mother’s embrace.

Over photographs that detail that splashing of waves as they rock a wooden pier on a cloudy day, there is a text. The oceanic liquid is metaphorical, as the lifeblood of the earth from which life has sprung. The ocean is womb-like, and every time its waves break on land, someone is born anew, and another expires. The latter is inspiration for the poetical lines that grace the wall to open “Double Portrait,” a meditation on death, and its renewal in memory.

The flexed toes of an infant, almost like a paw, on the plush surface of a white sofa. Its bare leg suggests a baby on the move, exploring its motor skills, animalistic, realizing its strength and independence as an individual. As the exhibition winds downstairs, a series of images show a child, now standing, grasping at a jellyfish. Yeşil has a bold talent for texture and action in her photographs, which, lean into the fragmentation of perspective.

“Double Portrait” begins with the fullness of an individual body, displayed and exposed from head to foot, and more, with its fleshly connection to its mother uncut and raw. It then embarks on a course of aspects, showing, little by little, the total portrait of a child as they mature, play and live. In the stairwell at Milli Reasürans Art Gallery there is a series of photos which have an especially familiar air, as they present the teething stages of a child, who, with their mouth gaping, lips parted, parades the exuberance of early, bodily growth.

To exhibit youth

The trappings of childhood are a world unto their own. It might be true to say that generations differ more widely than cultures, even if separated by the breadth and diversity of the world’s geographic and linguistic makeup. That is nowhere clearer than in the magic and terror that children experience unbeknownst to the grownups around them. Theirs is a universe in which every amusement has psychological potency, conjuring myth and vision.

“Double Portrait exhibits” its evocative stills throughout the dynamic, spacious interior of Milli Reasürans Art Gallery accompanied with a tasteful, if at times over-vibrant, selection of objects that illustrate and emphasize the themes pictured with an added dimension. A slide set over geometric flooring has a candy aesthetic, not unlike Fil Books, a cafe and bakery that Yeşil founded in 2017 as a publishing house specializing in photo books.

The gem-like, sky blue playground is comprised of a single fixture under a projector that screens a slideshow of images that breathe with recurrent color schemes, pinks and reds, greens and yellows. The photographic subjects projected are suggestive of children but do not show their bodies. Instead, model cars and colored balloons are juxtaposed with a stroller and street sign, instances of perception in which a child sees how their world is shaped for them.

Yeşil has a knack for relaying the playful fun of being a child and of being with children. In one shot, a motherly sort wearing a yellow shirt is half-covered in a rug on a laundry line that she is twirling overhead in midair. Its curation matches the hue of the surrounding wall paint. The child depicted is in a state of frazzled bliss, reliving the act of appearance, a light reminiscence of birth, the archetypal hide-and-seek.

The exhibition hall with the projector and slide is furnished with photographs that mark turning points in the maturation of youth, foods, swims, games and stretching. Yeşil has an eye for how a child sees, as a slightly unfocused palm holds out a broken tooth, freshly baked bread steams, a cone of ice cream melts on the sidewalk. “Double Portrait” is a feast of images that show feelings. Seeing them, the seer feels what they picture, subjectively, such as the creature comforts of curling up in pajamas, feeling safe in bed, or rolling around in the sand.

Embodying the embrace

The works and their curation at “Double Portrait” chronicle the fantasies of consciousness, self-awareness, the joy that proceeds from relishing in the experience of mere being, arguably a function of temporality, which, during childhood is natural, effortless. Those precious moments, which Yeşil photographed over a nine-year period of research and observation, seem to hang outside memory.

Together with scenes of a bonfire at night, birds in flight, an unborn face, “Double Portrait” begins to unravel its running motif of that mammalian longing to be held close to, for a brief and perhaps incomplete instance, reenter the holism and interdependence of life in the womb. An older woman hugs herself while immersed in water beside an over-lit close-up of an adult hand gently grasping a baby’s torso in their palm.

Yeşil’s delicate, womanly oeuvre in “Double Portrait” brings to mind the portrait and body photography of the early 20th-century Italian internationalist Tina Modotti, who trained her focus on workers’ hands as part of her artistic ideology. “Double Portrait” frames the labor that child-bearing women give to the world, birthing not only bodies but the harmonization and sustenance of being. The prolific exhibition spans an impressive volume of photographs that show not only the life’s work of their subjects but that of the artist.

At the very farthest reach of “Double Portrait,” there is an antique cabinet in which historical photographs of babies and children correspond to an encircling series of large-format prints in which adults embrace each other, seeking that return to the body of the mother, before identity or otherness had emerged into the light of day after birth. The cabinet sources Yeşil’s muse, as she circled where mother and child held hands or enacted scenes of profound intimacy, bound to their own private, inner world for life.