Even a Cat Has a Mustache

Canan Şenol interview with Pelin Tan*


Tan: Canan, when I compare your work from the 1990’s with your recent works in which you mainly use the pictorial language of oriental miniatures, I first see your transformation in the visual representation language/technique. It’s a change from a more realistic visual language, such as video and photography, to a language that is more intensely symbolic.
These two visual representation techniques which I find very different as visual languages and as representation methods probably don’t seem very different to you, since you have been working on issues such as the government, the panopticon, public gender and the subjectivity under public suppression and covered and repressed values. How do you explain this transformation?

Şenol: In one of his interviews, Irvin Cemil Schick comments on the reflection of sexual life in the Otoman Empire in the Turkish popular life as such:
This unfortunately shows how the Eastern mindsets have influenced the world view of the average Turkish citizen. Naturally, Westerners are not the only ones responsible for this effect since republican culture mainly aimed to estrange the average citizen from their Ottoman past. They have accomplished this at least partially by demeaning Ottoman institutions. The dervish lodges have been represented as “houses of laziness”; traditional Ottoman music has been described as monophonic and primal; classical Ottoman poetry as a forgery, formalist and far from creative, and; the palace folk of the last three centuries as degenerate, decadent, cowardly and cruel. That is why Ottoman sexuality has been exoticized [...] In Ottoman times sexuality has really been represented as primal and as cruel as – in a word – “the other”.
Toplumsal Tarih Dergisi (“Social History Journal”) No.183, p26
We can certainly add to Irvin Cemil Sckick’s list the scorn for oriental miniature. Considering that I have been dealing with biopolitical concepts since the beginning, the transformation of the visual language in my work, as I focused upon it in recent Turkish history, was inevitable for me. Therefore, I can explain this change in the language as a conscious choice. According to Benjamin, in a piece of art, the essence and the physical appearance are so intertwined that when the relation between them is put forward well, they are able to explain each other with no other interpretation needed. I find it necessary to use a representative language pertaining to the underlying “other” meaning, to represent the necessary “others” of today. As I speak of today and the recent past, I think that I also make an archaeological excavation in the artistic sense. Even though for me, the content and the format complete each other, I believe that through the format, I allow myself to say a second word with one work.

Tan: In Exemplary, you reveal the repressive trauma occurring during the switch to modernity in Turkey through the female identity. Do you think you are using a documentary style?

Şenol: Eastern tales start as “the news broadcasters, the monument shippers, the story-tellers of the day say that…” Therefore, the story-tellers used to be called “râvi.” Although we immediately think of an unrealistic world when we think of a fable, I think that fables point to a kind of mind transfer and verbal history. And every fable contains a truth. Therefore, even though I accept that I am using a documentary expression style, I prefer to describe my work as “video-fable” and myself as “râvi” in this work. In addition, the images I use certainly have a documentary quality.

Tan: In Exemplary, besides matters such as the process of implementations of modernity turning into violence and tools of public repression, you touch on issues such as rural-urban life, immigration-adaptation and the duality of urban culture. How do the adaptation to urban life and immigration traumas reflect on public gender, and how do you take on these issues in your work?

Şenol: Public gender certainly is a practice area for the government. As the government demonstrates its power by redefining the “normal” and the “abnormal”, the legitimate and the illegitimate, it also reconstructs public gender. In my opinion, Turkey’s modernization depended on sprucing up (or manipulating) this “image”. In Exemplary, we witness the process of “normalizing” or “legitimizing” the public gender through the image of a woman. In the same video, we can see the “normalization” or “legitimization” process of the previous and the next generations. The previous building process focused on modernizing whereas the next one focuses on conservatism. These reconstruction processes in the video are sometimes depicted as an outside pressure, whereas other times they are maintained by the observance and control of power structures such as public opinion or religion. I also want to say through Exemplary that getting stuck between the two processes requires a difficult body control.

Tan: Can you talk about your other works in the exhibit?

Şenol: All the works in the exhibit were created both to connect the past and the present, and to compare the two.

Perfect Beauty is a miniature series of seven compositions. In this series, we come across the manipulated female figures of Levni (who lived towards the end of the 17th century) and Abdullah Buhari (who lived in the first half of the 18th century). Both artists have an important place in our art history as miniaturists of the Tulip Era. In each of the seven pieces, we are introduced to a new definition of beauty. Each piece is accompanied by a text describing the beauty condition: darkness, roundness, tightness, smallness, breadth, length and redness.
The texts have been taken from “Tuhvetü’l Müteehhilin” which is a book of sexual subjects written in the 17th century. While we certainly learn about past definitions of beauty through the work, we also acquire a comparative view of the esthetic qualities of the past and today. For instance, in the 17th century, a full-figured or “overweight” woman was assumed to be more desirable, and a woman with dark eyes and eyebrows more beautiful; the beauty standards for women today are almost the opposite. As these varying beauty descriptions hint at the ruling cultures of the day, they also demonstrate that interference with the female body has not changed since that time; on the contrary, in both eras dominant male views controlled the female figure.
“Gülşah Savaşıyor” [p16] is an excerpt from a miniature included in a manuscript of the13th century poem “Gülşah and Varka”. When we read “Gülşah and Varka”, we notice similarities between this story and the story of “Romeo and Juliet”. The most important difference here is of course the fact that “Gülşah and Varka” was written in the 13th century. Unlike Juliet, Gülşah is a powerful warrior woman who wears a shield and exercises fighting skills with Varka.
Besides “Gülşah and Varka”, “Hünsa – the woman with testicles” [pp 11-12] has an important place in the exhibit for me. In the making of this work, I was influenced by the story from Otoman history of Halife Sultan becoming the sheikh. The story drew my attention because it shows that powerful women could only attain a higher position by becoming masculine. Briefly, the story is as follows:
In the beginning of the 14th century, an argument arose about who would replace Seyyid Harun, who passed away after he came from Horasan to Anatolia, accomplishing many deeds including the establishment of Seydişehir. Would it be the (educated) daughter Sultan Halife or the (uneducated) niece Musa? Instead of the young and incompetent Musa, the well-read Sultan Halife was chosen. However, her supporters had to defend that she was a “hünsa”, and some even declared that she had changed her gender with the sheikh’s prayer, becoming a male. (Makalat, 60, 62) At very least, this means that in some circles, a hünsa exceeds a woman sheikh and a transexual sheikh exceeds a woman sheikh [...] According to a study on the Mevlevi order, women who have ruled many religious communities are not seen in such executive positions later on. Moreover, discrimination during community prayers increases. One of the most successful poets of the 19th century, Leyla Hanım (Ms. Leyla, d.1848) is told to cry out at the kitchen door saying: “My God, why have you forsaken me, a piece of flesh?” (Göpınarlı, p. 281)
(Woman in Anatolia over the Centuries – 9000 Years of the Anatolian Woman, Ministry of Culture of Turkey, Directorate of Monuments and Museums, ISBN 975-17-1185-1 p. 195,196)
We can talk about Vakvak Tree as the last work [pp 17-18]. Vakvak Tree, like Exemplary, is a video-animation consisting of miniatures reflecting recent Turkish history. Although the word “Vakvak” means “duck” in the vernacular Turkish language of children, in the Otoman language of the time it is a word with Persian roots meaning “fear”.
This video takes its name from the legendary tree that lives in hell and has human heads as fruits, according to Islam. However, the most important thing here is that this mythological tree has given its name to a historical event.
In 1655, after the uprising of the Jannisaries due to their not receiving their payment, many were hanged on the plane tree in Sultanahmet, causing it to resemble this mythological tree with fruits shaped like human heads. Therefore, this tree has been called the “vakvak tree” and the incident in which people were hanged on this tree has been named “vaka-i vakvakiye” (the incident of vakvak).

I preferred constructing the video based on this tree and the Janissary incident in Otoman times, and connecting it with the military strikes that took place in recent Turkish history.


* Pelin Tan, sociologist, art historian and editor of various contemporary art magazines, İstanbul

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