May 28, 2012 / 4:16 PM / 8 years ago

Artist sews Turkish hopes in modern "Bayeux tapestry"

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Artist Kutlug Ataman wants fellow Turks to share their hopes for the country’s future in a fabric mosaic that mirrors government efforts to create a more inclusive, modern constitution.

Part performance art, part sculpture, Ataman’s “Silsel” consists of hundreds of pieces of cloth inscribed with messages written by visitors, then stitched together to form a giant patchwork draped over a scaffold of wires.

“Silsel” opened this month as a parliamentary commission writes articles of a new constitution to replace the current authoritarian charter drawn up after a 1980 military coup.

The commission, made up of parliament’s four main parties, invited citizens from all walks of life to provide input on the new charter. Representatives of Turkey’s widely differing religions, ethnic groups, unions, sexual orientations and others participated.

“When the government announced it would ask every segment of society to contribute to the new constitution, it occurred to me ‘Silsel’ could be done as a civil demonstration of the process,” Ataman, 51, said in an interview.

“We’re not used to a civil tone in our politics,” he said. “This may be the first time in Turkey that a political act has been turned into public art.”

Turner Prize-nominated Ataman, who also makes films, is one of Turkey’s most politically outspoken artists.

“Silsel” took shape when he was travelling across southeastern Turkey to neighbouring Syria in 2011 to film the seeds of the uprising that has now claimed almost 10,000 lives.

His crew and driver refused to continue to Syria after hearing reports of the violence while in the Turkish town of Mardin. As a diversion, Ataman was taken to the home of a local textile printmaker, Nasra Simmeshindi, 87.

On her ceiling was a blue zigzag motif she called silsel, which Ataman later learned is Aramaic for “sky” or “fluttering of wings.” Simmeshindi, a Syriac Christian, told him silsel stood in for the sky during those times when violence outside made her brethren too fearful to leave home.

Simmeshindi provided the first piece in the installation.


With less than a week left in the “Silsel” show, some 400 visitors have contributed “a letter to Turkey.”

Messages within the winding ribbon include “Don’t fear and don’t cause fear” and “Heterosexism is the opium of the masses. I want free and fair streets to kiss.”

“‘Silsel’ symbolises the challenges of the constitutional undertaking in Turkey and the accumulated problems of a culture of nationalism,” said Levent Calikoglu, chief curator at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, which hosted Ataman’s first retrospective in 2010.

“Like much of Kutlug’s works, it tackles social, cultural and political issues but with a focus on the individual and personal stories.”

A filmmaker by training, Ataman’s video and photographic narratives of the personal and political are in the collections of London’s Tate and the Musuem of Modern Art in New York.

Openly gay, Ataman has criticised Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government’s stance on homosexuality, as well as the treatment of other minorities, even though he has backed the ruling AK Party, which traces its roots to political Islam.

Since sweeping to power in 2002, AK has sought to reshape Turkish society, easing restrictions on religion, reining in the political power of the military and expanding Kurdish rights.

“For a conservative society to change, it had to come from the conservatives,” Ataman said. “I am happy with important steps the AK Party has taken and disappointed with others.”

Among the disappointments of liberal AK supporters is the crackdown on Kurdish activists. Thousands are in prison, among them Ataman’s cousin, Busra Ersanli, a professor of political science and member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

She has been in jail for more than 200 days on charges of “leading a terrorist group” in a case Ataman described as “a political campaign.” International academic groups say her arrest is part of broader effort to scare and silence scholars.

Ataman himself was arrested and tortured in 1980 after the army seized power, because of his ties to a left-leaning youth group and films he made of street demonstrations.

He fled to the United States, where he studied film at UCLA, and was eventually acquitted of charges of political violence.

Now Kenan Evren, the 94-year-old retired general who led the coup and installed himself as president, has been indicted, part of efforts by a secular Muslim democracy to confront a past littered with bloody military interventions.

Evren’s trial “is a denouement. I don’t care if he dies, is set free or is sent to prison,” Ataman said. “It’s important for our society to see that someone in that position can be tried.”


Ataman compared “Silsel” with the Aids Memorial Quilt as a form of community art and to the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France, as a document of a historical event.

He wants to continue collecting pieces for the expanding bolt of cloth and tour it abroad before returning to filmmaking.

“‘Silsel’ is my last big art project. I will now do my storytelling through film,” Ataman said, citing difficulty raising funds for his artwork.

“Silsel” occupies the cavernous auditorium of the Galata Greek Primary School, whose last kindergarten student left five years ago. Istanbul’s native Greek population has dwindled to 2,500 people amid decades of political and economic pressure.

Meri Komorasono, an ethnic Greek and head of the foundation that now runs the school as a cultural centre, sewed a piece of blue fabric emblazoned with the badge of the alumni association.

“We are sharing our common values here. To me, ‘Silsel’ is symbolic of this new spirit of cooperation,” she said.

Reporting By Ayla Jean Yackley, editing by Paul Casciato

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