I am so happy to let you all know that a little over two years after the rather distasteful events surrounding the initial exhibition of my installation “Have Your Photograph Taken as an Ottoman Princess” at the Bodrum Castle*, the work’s ‘reincarnation’ as ‘8 Cases’ was exhibited last Sunday at an event organised by the Foça Barış Kadınları (‘Foça Women of Peace’) to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
A lot has happened in between these two ‘one-day-only’ exhibits. First of all, in the aftermath of the castle debacle, the piece found a champion in Sevim İşik, a theatre and documentary film director who has since become a very good friend. Unfortunately, Sevim’s efforts to have the installation exhibited in Istanbul were thwarted by a slide towards authoritarian rule and societal chaos that may be hard for anyone living outside Turkey to get a handle on; moreover, the ‘brick walls’ appeared so suddenly that I began to think that ‘the princesses’ themselves were cursed: First, through Sevim’s efforts, ‘the princesses’ were to be included in an international event at a university in Istanbul; however, a spate of bombings in Turkey led to ‘security measures’ that prevented anyone but students and faculty from entering the campus (hardly my ideal of a ‘public exhibition space’), and then the work was dropped from the program at the very last moment due to ‘funding issues’. Next, Sevim and I approached the staff of a ‘Gender Studies’ program at another Istanbul university, and things looked very hopeful for ‘the princesses’, as we planned an event that would create an intersect between women’s rights and the arts – until another government clamp-down on university ‘activity’ threw a monkey-wrench into the works. In short, it became obvious that a growing climate of fear and repression was not conducive to a public viewing of ‘the princesses’ anytime soon.
So, what happened next? Well, these nine life-size figures spent around a year and a half in our backyard in Bodrum until we moved to Foça last May. It was ‘with great difficulty’ that I managed to convince my husband that ‘the princesses’ were moving with us. At that point, everyone in Turkey was living under a ‘State of Emergency’ that had been declared after an ‘attempted coup’ and then extended at regular intervals thereafter. Tens of thousands of people had lost their jobs and/or went to jail because they were suspected of supporting the ‘coup perpetrators’. What’s worse (yes, there’s worse) is that the events exacerbated the polarization of an already extremely polarized country: Either you believed the president and ruling party’s version of events – i.e. that thousands of people belonging to a terrorist organisation run by an exiled preacher living in the United States had infiltrated all areas of public life and had conspired to overthrow the legitimately elected government in order to install an Iranian-style dictatorial Islamic regime, or you believed, to varying extents, in the theory that the president and ruling party had fabricated a coup in order to seize dictatorial power by instituting military rule, conducting a referendum on regime change, falsifying the results, purging all forms of opposition by throwing thousands of people in jail and/or disenfranchising them economically, and preventing any type of public outcry by implicit or explicit threat that ‘the same thing may happen to you if you don’t watch out’, as they moved Turkey towards an Iranian-style dictatorial Islamic regime.
I suppose it was only natural that in the grand scheme of things, part of me began to feel that pursuing an opportunity to exhibit the princesses – an installation in a public space that tried to champion multiculturalism and increase empathy for those with different socio-political identities, while being critical of the state’s role in perpetuating violence again women – was ridiculously naive and utopian. But then again, the OCD in me was not about to ‘just quit whinging and get on with it’.
Instead, I got in touch with someone I had met briefly on a previous trip to Foça, and during our conversation over a ‘get-to-know-you’ tea, I described the ill-fated adventures of ‘The Ottoman Princess and Her Sisters’. Ahmet suggested I speak to his wife, Filiz Kardam, and a group of women she belonged to known as the ‘Foça Women of Peace’. I ended up becoming part of this group, attending weekly meetings, where we did things like discuss feminist issues while sewing toys for poor and displaced children living in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish Southeast.
When it came time to plan an event to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, we had a surprisingly long discussion about the “Ottoman Princess and Her Sisters”. We spent around two hours going over two main issues, namely, whether or not we should include ‘The Ottoman Princess’ in the exhibit, and whether or not we should include ‘the two extremes’ – i.e., the woman in full, veiled black chador and the woman in a black bustier holding a cocktail glass.
In fact, I was the one that suggested not exhibiting the ‘women in black’, because I felt, given my previous experience with the Bodrum Biennial, that the ‘veiled woman’ might be an unwelcome ‘trigger’ in a town with a similarly ‘staunchly secular’ profile as Bodrum (whereas, as my husband has pointed out, the ‘cocktail glass and bustier’ would be the ‘trigger’ in some other places) and I didn’t want to cause any problems for the Peace Women, and besides, I felt that the exhibition could still speak to the issues of the multiple identities of and the violence directed towards women without the presence of ‘the two extremes’. Ultimately, however, the consensus was to include ‘the women in black’, but not ‘the Ottoman Princess’. As stated by the woman in our group perhaps closest to ‘the secularist profile’ (and bless her heart for reminding me of this), we should not exclude the veiled woman, because “The whole point is to include everyone.”
You may ask, “If the whole point is to include everyone, then why not ‘the Ottoman Princess’?” The reason given was that this figure did not represent a woman who could be found in contemporary Turkish society, and that, in fact, even the word ‘Ottoman’ was a ‘trigger’ – given the ruling AKP’s self-proclaimed ‘neo-Ottoman’ identity and its un-proclaimed attack on the rights of women – and that this would ultimately distract from the message about state-sanctioned violence against women merely because they are women, regardless of ‘what kind of women’ they are. From what I could understand, it was generally felt that the issues that might be raised by the inclusion of ‘the princess’ were on a more artistic/abstract-philosophical level that might not be understood or were beside the point. Perhaps I misunderstood, or perhaps it was I who was unable to explain my intentions/expectations regarding ‘the princess’ (remember, this was a native-English-speaking person with a background in contemporary art conversing in Turkish with a group of Turkish-speaking women without backgrounds in contemporary art).
In fact, in the long saga of the Ottoman Princess, the issue of ‘Ottoman-ness’ has been a much more difficult issue than I had ever imagined. Believe me, it’s not that I wasn’t aware of Neo-Ottomanism as a government policy/identity; it’s that I didn’t realize how the word ‘Ottoman’ alone could conjure up such a visceral antipathy among a certain segment of Turkish society (whereas the blind adulation evoked for another segment I was aware of). It’s as if the discussion of a whole culture and use of an identifying adjective and proper noun have become entirely off limits.
In sum, the journey of the Ottoman Princess has taught me two things:
Lesson No. 1.: That one figure was really loaded with meaning! Without it, the exhibit presents 8 ‘types’ of women (paired by attire, with one ‘covered’ and one ‘uncovered’ woman per pair – with certain intentional variations in the type of head coverings worn) and refers to eight examples of eight legal cases in Turkey in which the concept of ‘unjust provocation’ was used to reduce the sentences of men who murdered their wives. It addresses the issue of how women are subjected to violence solely because they are women, and because of society’s view, reinforced by the state via the legal system, that men should have power over women. It also points out that there are many different types of women’s identities, none of which either incline or prevent women from becoming victims of violence, and it invites people to ‘try out’ all of these different identities for themselves. But with just that one extra ‘princess’ figure, the exhibit, in my mind at least, addresses the more complex concept of identity-formation itself, particularly in terms of how women are perceived and not only how these perceptions are created, but also how they create expectations regarding women’s roles and behaviour in society. Without that one figure, the piece doesn’t raise the question of what it means to be a ‘princess’, or why I, as a woman, am supposed to want to be one.
Lesson No. 2.: We here in Turkey are at the point where we are ready to publicly address the issue of violence against women. However, we are not quite ready to address the much messier issue of identity.
And now for some good news:
I sat outside the municipality’s cultural centre on the afternoon that the ‘8 Cases’ were exhibited, and I am happy to say that they attracted quite a bit of attention – which, the aim was to raise awareness, is a good thing. True, for about three-quarters of the people who interacted with the figures, they were just a good diversion, a bit of entertainment for a Sunday afternoon. However, I’d say that the remaining one-quarter were more deeply affected by trying on an identity and then reading that it was the identity of a woman who had been murdered by her husband – who was later excused, in part, for his behaviour – murder – on the grounds that his wife had dared to exercise her own will. I’d also say from the expressions on the faces of the people who read the information that they were not aware of these court decisions – and that they were not okay with them.
A number of businesses in Foça, as well as the gentleman in charge of the cultural centre, were enough appreciative of the piece that they agreed to keep the ‘8 Cases’ on view for a little while longer. Six cases will be in the centre of Foça (two at the cultural centre, two at a design shop, two at a cafe), one in the village of Kozbeyli and one in the village of Bağarası); I’ll get y’all a map by next week, just in case you’re in the neighbourhood…
*Immediately before the opening of the 2015 Bodrum Biennial, I was ‘requested’ to remove the installation ‘Have Your Photograph Taken as an Ottoman Princess’ from the Bodrum Castle on whose grounds the work was being displayed. If not, I was told, the entire Biennial might be closed down. According to the women responsible for the organisation and the female bureaucrats at the castle , either (there were two different stories) my name had somehow not been included in the exhibition list sent to the Ministry of Culture in Ankara, or that the Ministry had not been aware that the installation included text describing court cases in which judges reduced sentences of men convicted of murdering their wives because the women’s ‘assertive behaviour’ – e.g. asking for a divorce, wearing pants – was considered ‘unjust provocation’. Either way, they blamed ‘Ankara’ for the removal. Given that I was later informed by the ‘responsible bureaucrat in Ankara’ that ‘he had no idea what I was talking about’ and that ‘Ankara gave permission for the group exhibition, and any other decisions are made by the local museum’ – which is in line with what I was told by a long-term museum employee – and given the fact that in removing the figures in the exhibit, the museum personnel took special care to ensure that no one could see the female figure veiled and covered in black from head to toe by an Islamic ‘chador’, I suspected that the women involved found that figure personally offensive and did not want to see such a representation of ‘that type of woman’ in Turkey, and/or they were worried that ‘the modern women of Bodrum’ might complain about it, so they ‘made up a good story’ to make sure that didn’t happen. I have suggested this version of events to all of the women involved in the removal of the piece, and none of them has denied that, in fact, this was the case. I have provided this detailed explanation because it pains me to know that women are many still unable to put their differences aside and work together in spite of them.