Laudation for Gülsün Karamustafa on the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize, 23 September 2022 at the Kunsthaus Zürich
fellow members of the Foundation Board,
ladies and gentlemen
Although Gülsün Karamustafa has been a pioneering contemporary artist in Turkey and especially in Istanbul, her adoptive home, for some decades; and although her work has been shown at major exhibitions in Europe, America and Asia since the 1990s, she is, remarkably, not an artist who is very well known in the international context. That is both incomprehensible and unjustified. For five decades now, unswayed by the expectations of others, Gülsün Karamustafa has been creating a multifaceted and powerfully expressive body of work that spans and engages with almost the full range of media: painting and objects, photography and text, performances and video works that she often combines into space-filling arrangements.
In Gülsün Karamustafa's case, then, the writers of art history have a gap to fill: for in terms of substance and depth, her work is every bit the equal of her generational contemporaries. The Roswitha Haftmann Prize therefore believes it is important to interrogate certain areas of purportedly canonical art history and to supplement and update it, with a new perspective and a new degree of attention.
Gülsün Karamustafa is a precise and empathetic observer of cultural and political phenomena. She is interested in her country's history, in the social changes that are constantly taking place, sometimes abruptly, often gradually, in part propelled by a changed public, in part steered by a political system. Yet Karamustafa does not merely observe these phenomena: she sees herself as part of them and reacts to them - using the resources and capabilities of art.
One example is the installation entitled "Etiquette". At its centre is a table laid as if for a banquet. Only on closer inspection do we notice the particular decoration on plates, glasses and serviettes, all of which have little pictures printed on them. They are taken from a book by Abdullah Cevdet that Karamustafa chanced upon in an antique shop in Istanbul. It is a Turkish adaptation of a French publication dating from 1910 on the subject of "correct" behaviour in society. The adapted book was published some 20 years later in Turkish written in Arabic script, at a time when the Latin alphabet had already been prescribed in Turkey. So it is an entirely self-contradictory publication, passing on tips on etiquette from French high society to instruct "the East" on how to behave. It is an attempt - as naive as it is presumptuous - to establish Western behavioural conventions as the only ones worth aspiring to, with the ultimate aim of degrading Eastern traditions. The work makes clear that culture is a construct which can very easily be manipulated, and which needs to be constantly questioned and renegotiated if one is to take charge of one's own life.
To help you understand the works even better, I invite you to join me at one of the central locations in Istanbul: Taksim Square. This has always been an important place. It was where the city's water was distributed as far back as the 18th century (the Arabic word "taksim" means distribution); it was home to the old Atatürk Cultural Centre, an opera and concert house built in 1946 that burnt down in 1970, was later demolished and was then rebuilt, reopening in 2021. Immediately adjacent to it is Gezi Park, which is laid out on the site of barracks dating from Ottoman Empire that were demolished in 1940, and which was the location of the now famous 2013 protests (to which I will return later). Taksim Square is also bordered by residential and commercial properties housing international hotels as well as a mosque that, like the cultural centre, was inaugurated last year.
In the centre of the square stands a monument dating from 1928 designed by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica; it commemorates the foundation of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and is the principal place where wreaths are laid on official holidays. Like many squares around the world, from Tiananmen in Beijing to Tahrir in Cairo or the Maidan in Kiev, Taksim Square has a history of its own, one often marked by violence. It has been the venue for student demonstrations, military interventions and trade union rallies, a number of which escalated and ended in deaths. So Taksim Square has a particular effect on everyone who visits it or lives around it - including Gülsün Karamustafa, who has had her home nearby since the 1950s.
"I was in primary school" she says "when the pogrom against Greek, Jewish and Armenian minorities took place on this square; since then I've known what it means to observe something terrible happening on a public square from your own private space, where suddenly you don't feel safe any more."
The interplay between public and private events on the square preoccupied Gülsün Karamustafa in the decades that followed. But it was not until 2005 that she created her video installation "Memory of a Square", in which Taksim as a public place and as repository of a nation's collective memory is contrasted with the personal experiences of individuals and with private perspectives. In "Memory of a Square", two films are played simultaneously. On one screen you have scenes in a domestic interior, without sound and with no precise indication of when the film was shot. On a second are photos from the 1930s to the late 1980s, all of which were taken on Taksim Square. There are no obvious direct connections between the big and small stories, between everyday dramas and national destinies, but they are easy to imagine, and the juxtaposition of the images encourages us to do just that.
As you will see, "Memory of a Square", like other works by Gülsün Karamustafa, links together history and poetry, politics and everyday life. "The personal is political", the old 1970s slogan of the women's liberation and minority rights movement, is especially true of this artist. Her approach is one in which art emerges out of life; and she successfully combines her concern for the specific historical and social realities in Turkey with a perspective that is as humane as it is poetic, inspires thought and makes statements that can be read as universally valid and are directed towards humanity as a whole.
How did it all begin? Let us look back to the late 1960s. Around the world, and especially in the US and Europe, there were demonstrations. Workers, intellectuals and students were protesting for educational reforms, against social injustices and, increasingly, against the discrimination experienced by women in public and private life. There were also protests in Istanbul, and Gülsün Karamustafa, who was 24 years old at the time and studying at the State Academy of Fine Arts, joined in - until March 1971, when the military staged a coup against the national government for the second (and by no means the last) time in Turkey. Like many other demonstrators, Gülsün Karamustafa was promptly arrested and imprisoned. She and her husband, the graphic designer Sadik Karamustafa, were sentenced to jail terms by a military tribunal for "inciting disobedience" - six months for her and no less than two and a half years for him.
Shortly after her release, Gülsün Karamustafa began documenting her prison experiences in the form of art. By 1978 she had created a striking series of images that she later called her "Prison Paintings". They consist of scenes of her fellow inmates sleeping, playing or cooking, and portraits of others sitting behind bars. In formal terms the pictures appear private, almost naive, seemingly inspired by the traditional aesthetic of Byzantine icons or reverse glass painting; but the theme of incarcerated women shows everyday reality at close hand.
Incidentally, Karamustafa never intended to exhibit the relatively small-format "Prison Paintings", and she stuck to that position for decades. But when, in 2013, she was invited to do so for the first time, she readily agreed. For that same year, "her" story was repeated in Istanbul: in Gezi Park, which immediately adjoins Taksim Square, there were large-scale demonstrations against a planned construction project on that very site. The protests were initially directed against the threat of gentrification. But in response to a violent police intervention and renewed arrests, the demonstrations were increasingly seen as an action in support of democratic rights. This was underscored by the fact that the protest movement gained a transnational character through the widespread solidarity of Turkish communities abroad, and backed civil resistance against an authoritarian system of government.
It became clear to Gülsün Karamustafa that the seemingly private mode of depiction she had employed in her "Prison Paintings" made for the sharpest contrast with the comparatively harsh approach of self-authorized forces, and that this same mode of depiction could turn the spotlight on indiscriminate political action against peacefully demonstrating citizens.
When convicted in 1971, Gülsün Karamustafa had her passport revoked until 1986. She was no longer able to travel abroad and, like Turkey as a whole, endured a period of isolation and feeling cut off from the world. For now, her radius was limited to her home country. She completed her studies and, in 1975, took up a teaching position at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul. In parallel with this she embarked on a thesis entitled "The Interaction between Painting and Poster", receiving her doctorate in 1981.
In the early 1980s, Gülsün Karamustafa began focusing entirely on her artistic work. Understandably, the experience of imprisonment or confinement, the sense of insecurity and the quest for stability became key motifs in her art. "Double Reality", for example, is the title of a 1989 installation which conveys that very frame of mind. A male mannequin wearing a woman's nightgown (a combination that the artist had found at a market) stands in an almost invisible cage that appears to be open but from which there is no escape. The boundaries consist of markings that are nearly invisible but clear. They do not offer protection, but instead expose the figure in a curious way, as if it were under observation.
In 1992 she created "Mystic Transport", in response to an invitation from that year's Istanbul Biennial. The installation consists of large metal baskets containing brightly coloured quilts. There are obvious associations with the laundry baskets used in hotels, with bird cages or litter bins. The baskets are on wheels, so that exhibition visitors can move them around. As such, the installation could symbolize an apparent mobility that is nevertheless confined, perhaps constrained, within a prescribed space. It also hints at the loss of home experienced by migrants and refugees, their poverty and exposure to danger. Finally, there are references to the great wave of rural exodus in Turkey that began in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s - and to what Gülsün Karamustafa refers to as a growing "international nomadism" attributable to all manner of causes. The artist herself, incidentally, comes from a family of immigrants. Some of her ancestors moved to Turkey from Crimea in the 18th century, while another branch of the family has its roots in Bosnia.
Karamustafa's installations break with conventional ideas of what art should look like - in Turkey, that meant adherence to old-established, rigidly academic rules - and tie in with international exhibition practice. Gülsün Karamustafa has exhibited "Mystic Transport" numerous times over past decades as a kind of signature piece, and latterly has mostly combined it with other works.
In 2000, Gülsün Karamustafa began working with video. Her central piece, "Memory of a Square", is one I have already introduced you to. It was preceded by "Men Crying", a three-channel installation in which a trio of famous Turkish actors of the 1960s and 1970s performed short scenes under the guidance of an equally famous director, Atif Yilmaz. In it, the men learn that their partners have left them, and then start weeping. The actors themselves had achieved fame in films where the protagonists had to play traditional roles: they were not permitted to show feelings, and there was nothing in the script about being abandoned by a woman - rather the opposite, in fact. So not only is it a unique experience to see a superhero from the cinema of memory such as Cüneyt Arkin exhibiting weakness: "Men Crying" also clearly demonstrates how minor a change or reversal it takes to disrupt role conditioning and turn gender-specific stereotypes on their head.
Another example is the video "The City and the Secret Panther Fashion", which deals with the roles that society allocates to people, especially Muslim women. In traditional strata of society, women are still expected to conceal their bodies. Here, a group of women meet in an apartment for a relaxed chat over coffee, all of them wearing figure-accentuating clothes with a leopard print. The curtains, lampshades and upholstery in this apartment are in the same pattern; they might stand for female freedom or liberated femininity, for bodily autonomy and self-expression. Behind that, of course, is the desire for a future free of compulsion and control by others - a desire that, however, can only be lived out in secret. At the end of the film, the women are wearing their conventional everyday clothes again and leaving their hidden dream world through a grated door, but not before agreeing to meet again the following day.
Seen from outside, Turkey is a society of contradictions, in which different and competing attitudes and belief systems unremittingly collide: forward-looking and progressive, but also traditional and attached to an old order. In such a society there are tensions, there is discrimination and oppression. Often it is women and minorities who bear the brunt of patriarchal or other authoritarian structures - when they do not rebel against them.
Gülsün Karamustafa has never failed to speak out on that topic; with her artistic voice, she has unswervingly formulated aesthetic commentaries that can also be read as political statements. For her, making art is about resistance, standing up to prevailing conceptions and expectations, questioning them and sparking debate.
So there can scarcely be a better time than today to honour the work of Gülsün Karamustafa. The time is right to make clear that this artist is one of those pioneers who combine art with an awareness of responsibility and social engagement. The time is right to acknowledge that Gülsün Karamustafa's art merits its place on the international stage and needs to be viewed in a broader context. Her Roswitha Haftmann Prize is indeed eminently well deserved.
Translation: Geoffrey Spearing