– Spring/Summer 2019

Gülsün Karamustafa: A Life of Care

Vasif Kortun

Gülsün Karamustafa, Painting for Poster – 1977 First of May (Woman constantly sewing red flags with her sewing machine), 1977, mixed media on paper, 70 × 50cm. Courtesy the artist and BüroSarıgedik

Turkey’s ambivalent relationship to the West and its distinct history as a ‘third world country’ is articulated through the lens of its own constitution. The country was a product of an ensemble that included the remains of a nineteenth-century colonialist empire. The Republic of Turkey was less the result of a rupture with the past than had been argued and it struggled to develop a sense of postcolonial awareness.1 Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs was rebuffed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1955 during the Bandung Conference when he spoke in favour of NATO. Dismissed later by the Non-Aligned countries, Turkey found itself in partnership with Iran and Pakistan as part of the ‘Northern Tier’. Their goal was to keep Soviet Russia from extending to the south, and to serve as a strategic outpost of the United States of America. The US’s nationalist anti-imperialism was shaped by a series of crises like that which provoked the infamous ‘Johnson Letter’ (1964) that forbade İsmet İnonü, Turkey’s prime minister, from proceeding with a military intervention in Cyprus. This fed the increasingly anti-American climate in the region in the 1960s.

  1. Tanıl Bora refers to the absence of postcolonial experience as mahrumiyet (deprivation) in reference to Ali Bulaç. Tanıl Bora, Cereyanlar: Türkiye’de Siyasi İdeolojiler, Istanbul: I.leti¸sim, 2017, pp.96–97.

  2. The declaration and the student commission report are accessible at Gülsün Karamustafa archives hosted by SALT Research. See http://archives.saltresearch.org.

  3. Özer Kaba¸s and Erkal Güngören, ‘D.G.S. Akademisi Temel Sanat Eğitimi 71–72 Çalı¸smaları’, Arkitekt, no.01, 1973, pp.26–28.

  4. The State Academy of Fine Arts, Academy of Applied Arts was established in 1957. The Gazi Institute of Education (Primary and Secondary Teachers’ College) was founded in 1926. Both institutions were reorganised as universities after the coup d’état of 1980. The Gazi’s curricula and educational model were contemporaneous with Germany-inspired models. The institute served as a format for a considerable number of underprivileged youngsters in the tabula rasa of Ankara within the framework of the state ideology and the urgent needs of the early Republic.

  5. Osman S. Arolat, ‘Sanatı Öğretenler buİse’, ANT, no.151, 18 November 1969, p.15.

  6. Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu was connected to ‘Blue Anatolianism’. Those who sympathised with ‘Blue Anatolianism’ suggested that ‘Westernisation’ was actually a return to the essence, because Anatolia is home to Greek and Roman civilisations. This approach deeply influenced the reading of history, especially amongst archaeologists and historians. The believers were leftist humanists distancing themselves from Turkey’s official history. Bedri Rahmi’s wife, Eren Eyüboğlu was an important painter. His older brother Sabahattin Eyüboğlu was a writer, translator and art critic. Their sister Mualla Eyüboğlu was a restoration architect. Mualla’s husband Robert Anhegger was a Turcologist and the founder of Alman Kültür Derneği (German Culture Institution) one of the most progressive institutions in Istanbul in the 1960s. Bedri Rahmi visited the United States and taught there. He was a recipient of Ford and Rockefeller scholarships. Although not only interested in the French tradition, he studied under André Lhote in the early 1930s. Lhote’s impact on many artists from the south-eastern Mediterranean exceeds the scope of this text. However, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the technical cubisms of Albert Gleizes, Jean Dominique Antony Metzinger and Lhote had more purchase on the art students of the periphery than those of Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso, a fact that puts another spin on the periphery’s selective habitation in modernity.

  7. Prison Paintings were first shown at ‘A Promised Exhibition | SALT’, 2013, SALT BEYOĞLU and SALT Galata, Istanbul, available at http://saltonline.org/en/616/a-promised-exhibition (last accessed on 20 October 2018). The curators Duygu Demir and Merve Elveren juxtaposed the paintings against Bühne (1998). The deployment of the paintings and the installation in an oppositional proximity, unfolded a set of questions, such as why Gülsün kept the work to herself for all these years, and why Bühne, a commissioned work, would first be shown in Europe, and what may have been the kinds of constraints placed on the artist locally and internationally in terms of practices destined for a local context and an international one.

  8. When the artist Lukas Duwenhögger questions the timidity in Turkish artists’ use of colour, he looks
    to Gülsün as a counterpoint. Gülsün mentions in an interview with November Paynter: ‘…but I wanted to shout and point out important issues and observations. It was probably the activist in me and the influence of Pop art and a period spent producing magazine illustrations, posters and banners when young, in order to make money. Colour was and still is a way to express my character and boldness and it seems that for the younger generation there is a fear of going too far with such a strong mode of self-expression.’ November Paynter’s interview with Gülsün Karamustafa, ‘The Bold and Poignant Palette of Gülsün Karamustafa’, Idea: Arts + Society, no.32, 2009, available at http:// www.idea.ro/revista/index.php?q=en/node/41&articol=632 (last accessed on 19 October 2018).

  9. Ibid.

  10. ‘I’ve been trying to make images of this rapid change for a long time. Kitsch was first revalued in the paintings, and I began developing forms to create a more real, material foundation over time. It entered my practice as a living object, and began to guide me. I employ the aesthetics of bad taste in Turkey in my practice (wall carpets, assemblages, collages and paintings). When choosing a material, I’m really careful that it is really alive at this moment, that it has an important place in human lives. It is critical to me that it will or it has already an active use before it enters my practice. I do not institute a new proposal or make an interpretation of this new aesthetics that we are living with. I exhibit it and urge the audience to pause for a moment...’ in ‘Söyleşi Gülsün Karamustafa, Resimde Kitch Estetiği Üzerine’, Üç Nokta, February 1987, pp.52–53. Translation the author’s.

  11. Interview by Gülsün Karamustafa with Orhan Gencebay. ‘Arabesk Türkiye’de en Çok Dinlenen Müzik Türüdür’, Gösteri, no.16, March 1982, p.76.

  12. As Istanbul’s historical minority communities of Christians and Jews dwindled during the twentieth century, with the Great Catastrophe (term for the Armenian Genocide widely used until the 1960s), the wealth tax of 1942, the pogrom following the race riots of 1955 and the 1974 Cyprus war as parts of the inner city were used by newcomers from rural areas.

  13. The late writer Deniz Şengel argues cogently for the rebuttal of the common reception of Gülsün’s practice: ‘In fact, the work of Gülsün Karamustafa, whose every exhibition and installation has received wide recognition, has been consistently taken up in terms of categories of psychological and socio-cultural decay that range from a vision of the work as a series of arguments on “arabesk sentimentality” and “fatalism,” to the “documentation” or “gratulatory illustration” of “decadence” and “rampant aesthetics of kitsch,” to the perception of the work as “transmitting to the viewer a certain dejection,” presumably about the loss of high culture, integrity and historical identity.’ Deniz Şengel, The Fallen Icon: A Rhetorical Approach to Gülsün Karamustafa’s Art 1981–1992, Istanbul: SALT, 2014, p.37–38, available at http://saltonline.org/media/files/the_fallen_icon_scrd-1.pdf (last accessed on 25 November 2018).

  14. Gülsün in an interview by N. Paynter, ‘The Bold and Poignant Palette of Gülsün Karamustafa’, op. cit.