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March 15, 2010
Writing about web page http://www.nmwa.org/exhibition/detail.asp?exhibitid=200
Last week, I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where there is currently an exhibition of contemporary women’s art from Turkey titled ‘A Dream… But Not Yours’. I spent a summer in Turkey (mainly Istanbul) when I was a student, so I was interested to see the exhibition, and in visiting it, I found the quality of the films included to be particularly impressive.
Esra Sarigedik Öktem, who put the show together, has brought together some striking and fresh artwork with specific yet transnational feminist messages Canan Şenol’s film Exemplary (2009) had parallels for example with Nawal El Saadawi’s 1979 novel Woman at Point Zero.
As in El Saadawi’s fiction, Şenol’s animated narrative described a cultural situation in which the heroine never had a chance of being autonomous because of the institutions and traditions that regulate women and their bodies. Watching these women struggle in the mythical, fairy-tale stories of Şenol is extremely moving, as their desires and ambitions are rejected, broken, eradicated. What is perhaps particularly disturbing about Şenol’s commentary is that it is the mothers who force their daughters to submit to patriarachy’s norms.
Another fascinating film that featured in the exhibition is İnci Eviner’s Harem (2009), which is based on engravings by the German artist, Antoine Ignace Melling, who was invited by Sultan Selim III to produce sketches of life in Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known). Eviner cleverly uses the background of Melling’s Interieur d’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur but transforms it:
Melling’s courtly vision is radically altered in Eviner’s version; the harem becomes more like a prison or mental institution than a vision of luxury. Eviner inserts animated women into Melling’s background, but rather than being engaged in domestic or courtly activities, Eviner’s figures are all dressed in a prison-like uniform and their behaviour is odd, eccentric and disturbing. One woman wields a pick-axe, reminiscent of chain gangs; another reads while conducting an imaginary orchestra; groups of women carry inert bodies, while others kiss or rhythmically thrust in sexualised movements. The sultan of Melling’s original becomes a figure dressed in a teddy bear costume, who is offered a silver sphere by one of the “inmates”. The whole effect is fascinating and of course it reminds us of the traditional Turkish miniatures. In this case, however, the harem is far from being a site of pleasure and decadence. Instead it is a place where women are driven mad by the restrictions imposed upon them.
The desire for freedom was a theme of the final film that I wanted to highlight: Nevin Aladağ’s Raise the Roof (2007). This film features a number of women on a modern cement rooftop, each listening to music on an Ipod/walkman and dancing alongside one another to a separate rhythm. The location of the film is suggestive. Why a rooftop? Were the women looking for a secluded place to express themselves? Why couldn’t they have danced in the middle of a street? What the film suggests is that the woman are able in this empty and abandoned space to be themselves in a way that would never be possible in a crowded street. The film zooms in on their legs dancing and their heels making indents in tar. Aladağ’s Stiletto is exhibited alongside Raise the Roof and features the indents that each women’s heels made. There is something very satisfying in the fact that each pattern is different: each woman danced with the others but all the time to her own beat.