Lost Photographs of Anatolia

published on Artunlimited December 2015 issue

Last August, I wanted to write about Vahap Avşar’s “Lost Shadows” exhibition opened on the ground floor of Salt Beyoğlu, yet was scared of what I would put on text seen the growing tension of the post-elections atmosphere, and had postponed it for a later date. “Lost Shadows”, consists of a collection of photographs not selected to be printed as postcard from the AND Postcard Archive. A little while after the “Lost Shadows”, Salt also hosted the “How did we get here?” exhibition where it observed societal movements and popular culture following the 1980 coup d’état. The Vahap Avşar exhibition serves as a mirror onto the near pas, especially when read with the “How did we get here?” exhibition in Beyoğlu and Galata.

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Exhibition view from Salt Beyoğlu İstanbul

A different version of the “Lost Shadows” was opened at the P! Gallery in New York in partnership with Protocinema executed by Mari Sprito. The photographs exhibited almost like statues that were hung back to back on cement blocks, surrounded the viewers and succeeded in forming an efficient dialogue with them. The exhibition in New York, however, the photographs were scaled down to almost postcard sizes. Viewers are welcome to take away these photographs printed in large quantities and exhibited on little racks one under the other.

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Exhibition view from P! Gallery New York

Today, as I start writing again from where I left off, I am again surrounded with unfortunate events. Today is the 10th day of the curfew at Silvan, the city is constantly bombarded, and we hear deadly news from the civilians. Again, today, as I was thinking that it had already been a month since the Ankara bombings, I learned that we have lost our great artist Cengiz Çekil. I believe it would be an incomplete Vahap Avşar article, if I hadn’t commemorated Cengiz Çekil and the Ankara Central Railway Station Exhibition that took place 20 years ago.

Avşar, meets Cengiz Çekil, who later would become his teacher, in 1985 when he takes the exams for İzmir Dokuz Eylül University Fine Arts Faculty. Çekil, impressed with Avşar’s portfolio, offers him to be his assistant. There goes a master-apprentice relationship that would last for years, and a friendship story. They live on the same building, by chance, and start sharing a majority of their time together; they work, eat, and converse together. They dream of starting a new movement, and found a new school. Avşar mentions of Cengiz Çekil as a teacher, a friend, and a father. Çekil was a great artist, as well as a great instructor, and he had serious contributions to many artists who were trained in İzmir. One should look into Cengiz Çekil, his master, if one seeks to observe the origins of the robust relationship Avşar establishes with material and form.

In 1995, Vahap Avşar organizes an exhibition in partnership with Selim Birsel, Claude Leon, and gallery owner Füsun Okutan, as part of the Sanart Festival. They invite artists like Cengiz Çekil, Aydan Murtezaoğlu, Ayşe Erkmen to the exhibition, taking place at the Ankara Central Railway Station. In the Turkey of the 90s, the war against Kurds was in rise; therefore the exhibition cannot avoid this political climate. A day after the opening, coming to the Station, they see the exhibition totally destroyed, and the works damaged. Avşar finds his installation named “Last Drop” in one of the toilets, takes a picture, and leaves the scene. The Manager of the Station tells him his work reminds of blood, and scolds the young artist. A couple days later, Avşar leaves for New York for a visiting student program, and decides not to come back to Turkey once the program is over. The ravage at the Ankara Station plays an important role in this decision. 20 years later, I remembered of Avşar’s “Last Drop” when they killed over a hundred citizens in front of the Ankara Central Railway Station. Nothing had changed; I wished Avşar would be proven wrong, wished his works would not be so contemporary and today we would not be debating over the same issues.

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Exhibition view from Salt Beyoğlu İstanbul

Between 1978-1982, And PostCard Company sends photographers to Anatolia, and commissions them for the production of postcards. Some of these were not printed as they reflected the post-coup violence atmosphere of the time, or just did not carry standard postcard features. This selection by Vahap Avşar of unprinted postcards is in complete harmony with my childhood and pre-teen memories of public space in Van. They ought to be very autobiographical for Avşar who grew in Malatya, and painted the images on postcards since his childhood. The sceneries corresponding to the photographs taken in various cities in Anatolia, also correspond to not only the period of the shutter triggered but also the situations, and states hung in the atmosphere of the geography for years. The mountains in the scenery are like insurmountable boundaries of the city, transformed almost into a prison, surrounded by the police or the military police forces. If you were to be shot at your head, right at that moment, it feels like no one would notice, and you would be buried in someone’s backyard; I am talking about days with no internet, no social media, during post-coup period when intelligence agents were all over the place, in their white Renaults, spreading fear all around.

In my young days in the small eastern city of Van, the fear atmosphere of post- 1980 coup was added to the conservative climate in the city. Some of my teachers at the Van Vocational School for Girls were young people, full of life, dispatched from Western cities to the East following the coup. I would later discover and appreciate the value of this school, that I was registered with no alternative, that I never was accustomed to, and did not even make one single friend from. The exile “punishment” that my teachers had to undergo blew life into my adulthood filled with distress; my dreams oppressed in that small city had expanded with far cities thanks to books they gave as present or recommended. My childish mind was filled with dilemmas that I was not able to understand, but was trying to comprehend with an intuition. My favorite teachers at school, and protagonists were “revolutionists”, yet at home I was faced with a robust conservative atmosphere that slammed the leftist movements. My father, a humble tradesman, was appointed as district president of the ANAP (Motherland Party) political party during the Özal period, and was working for the party filled with enthusiasm with a few other male members of my family. He was going around district-by-district, village-by-village, and was very glad and excited of the party’s success. Tercüman newspaper was read at home. Even though my mother was anxious of my father’s travels, she was supporting her relationship with the party as it kept him away from gambling. Party members from Ankara, and rarely ministers would come to our house and dine. During these evenings, we would become relatively rich, and would ignore my father’s business life in full debt.

In 1988, I moved my registration to Atatürk High School, without somehow giving notice to my parents, and finally started a mixed-gender school life. It wasn’t long until I had joined a leftist group, and there came my days filled with real friendship as well as filled with nightmares. Some men, we were later able to identify as Turkish Intelligence agents, who saw us chatting in mixed-gender groups in teahouses started to warn my father about me. According to these men, we were not only committing illegal acts but also adultery; he had to pull me together. What was a girl doing out in the streets? My father would ban me from seeing my friends, would search and find my books and journals to destroy them. In the meantime, my Kurdish friends’ brothers or fathers were shot in the backstreets, leaving their homes with no income producers. We would, as kids, bring food to their homes, and pay in common for their accumulated debts to teaching institutions. In our book club, those who could afford would buy books, which were read by each of us in order, and finally given to someone’s library as a gift. I read many classics, and banned books including The Elementary Principles of Philosophy (Georges Politzer), Socialism and Feminism (Henri Lefebvre), The Night His Rose Faded (Erdal Öz), The Woman Has No Name (Duygu Asena) during this period. When Özal was shot from his hand in 1988 at his party’s congress, although I was worried about my father, I remember being sorry deep inside that Özal survived, as I considered him to be the main reason of our disputes.

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original negative from archive

The white Renault, one of the common images in Avşar’s photographs, strike as a symbol of the surveillance and control situation of the Anatolian cities at the time. Looking at it from today, I believe civilians were part of the “surveillance” and “control” mechanisms, and not just intelligence agents. Even though you were able to get away from the state, you were not able to escape from the neighbors, known faces surrounding you with suspicious eyes. In 2010, years after reading Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”, I felt that “surveillance” feeling from my childhood when I went to visit Kars as an adult. Although not my favorite, “Snow”s city and nature descriptions are unbelievably good. I got a hold of the feeling of being “stalked”, the feeling extending all over Pamuk’s book, when I was walking the streets of Kars. Even though the coup period was over, the “stalking” habit of the city, rooted from the traditional stance of the city, was still there. The presence of the police at every corner was not out of need, but rather to spread fear, to intimidate, and to threaten. Just like the case in Van, people were too interested in each other’s private lives, and the people were playing the role of “police”. I believe the similarity between Van and Kars originates from Turkish population, brought to these cities to live after the Armenian Massacre, and their conservative and nationalist inclinations sharpened by fear.

Visiting Vahap Avşar’s exhibition with a friend, I found my self-pointing out: “Look, this is Van… and this one as well…” but I was wrong. Like Marco Polo who narrates Venice at every opportunity, sneakily, it felt to me that each of Avşar’s photographs told about Van. I later understood, the reason I was wrong, was because of the similarities in between the cities. Especially cities that are not constructed on a foothill, “flat” cities like Mardin, Tunceli, or Bitlis, look a lot like each other. Buildings reflecting the 2nd National Period structure aesthetics like Government offices, Governor’s Buildings, Post offices, Courthouses situated in the late configured city centers. These public buildings that can come nowhere near their likes in big cities like İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir in terms proportion, materials used, and labor, still had similar features to their precursors. The windows on the façades mostly made of plaster, are contoured with frames made of either stone or mosaic. Local stones, or marbles are used on the façades of some buildings like the Tekel Building, and the City Museum. These low-rise buildings set examples of good architecture since they are only a few constructed with care and aspiration. The bigger mosques, and minarets situated in the squares of some of these cities with no historical downtowns, establish the characteristic views as the only curvilinear forms of the cities’ landscapes. The pools embellishing the squares, the Atatürk sculptures, and the “arcs” made of iron, dictating that cleanliness comes from faith strike us as denominating urban setting elements of these cities. Homes with roofs made of asbestos and cement, office building façades filled with signboards, single-floor indoor markets, etc. provide us with good civil architecture examples of the cities in question. The stupendous mountain views rising behind these two, three-floored buildings, are now hidden behind today’s zoning plans allowing high-rise buildings, and huge shopping malls spreading all over in all cities.

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The determinant color in Avşar’s lost photographs, are the “grey” of conflict, and “red” of celebration. The “grey” in question, is an Anatolian grey, giving hints of brown coming from the poplar trees and basalt stone mixed with dust and soil, rather than the “modern city grey” observed on the shiny surfaces of boring European cities. The rock grey of the mountains covered in snow for months is just splendid. The grey flowing from the summits to the skirts becomes darker when mixed with the city’s cement grey. It turns into a male grey made of policeman and soldiers, and the place is filled with smoke.

The second dominant color of red does not get its existence from nature, but from the Turkish flag. It almost feels like the 23rd of April, National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, the 29th of October Republic Day, the 19th of May, Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day are made to paint the public sphere in red. Regardless of the demographic density in the ethnic structure of the cities, the “flag”, is a sign of power imposed by the state. In Turkey you may jauntily hang the national flag like a dissuasive bat to scare those who are not like them, while in many countries its use limited by law. During a flag ceremony at fifth grade in primary school, I had thought I pulled the flag all the way up the staff and had waited until the end of the national anthem; I hadn’t, the flag was up halfway. I still have the goose bumps thinking of how the principal beat me up and insulted me in front of everyone at the end of the march.

I don’t know about the west, but to me, the color of the Eastern Anatolia is white, a color consisted of all colors, a colorless color. The high magnificent mountains surrounding the cities are covered with snow during all over of the year. When you look outside the window, the roads lying ahead of you are soft white. The sun heats the white in the morning, which the early evening covers like a throw. The white that you collect from the mountains, can be mixed with grape molasses, and eaten like an ice cream. In the east, the civil life is whiter than anything. Cleanliness does not come from Allah or faith but from the white melting in the rivers in spring…

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Avşar’s selection also presents us with the people’s profile, along with the city’s architecture. Streets in the photographs are filled with men. Men walk in downtowns freely, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, joke around, but women or young girls are not well looked at on the streets, in the public sphere. Men are dominant on the lakesides, riverbanks, or bridges as well. The conversations always happen men to men. Men can get together, set a table to have rakı, pour their grieves to each other, and pass a full day in nature. Yet women, can only become part of this scenery, as part of their families; although not illegal, women are not welcome to have a drink by the lakeside, wonder around, or swim in the lakes. Every time I go to Van, I think of the times, me and my friends never got to enjoy the wonderful lake view while growing up, and think of my teacher Veysel with compassion, who would take us there, without noticing school authorities, to have a picnic.

In his works, Avşar depicts a society he doesn’t feel safe within. The themes he persistently dwells on ever since his youth are still relevant today. The figures underlined in the photographs at “Lost Shadows”, are in alignment with the themes of societal control, pressure, and security that he treated in different periods of his life. For those who follow his art practice since the 90s, the images like soldiers, policemen, police cars, Atatürk, flag are not stranger. The images that he conceptualizes via different mediums like painting, sculpture, installation and video, are visible, years after through the photographs of anonym photographers. There is a strong continuity and a plausible persistence between Avşar following these similar themes over the years, and him buying the And Postcard Archive after years of hunt down.

The exhibition, which opened its doors in these days when the feeling of fellowship between West and East has just been established, and paradoxically guns have regained voice, complements the missing images of our connection with Anatolia. Vahap Avşar’s exhibition is a good opportunity to look at the near future, in these days when we face a police state blocking promising and hopeful developments in our society. Would you say that when this article will be published, the curfew and the blockade in Silvan will be over?

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