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Turkish Women Explore Modernity

Modernity is not a one-way street. The pursuit of a more just, equitable and modern society often falls back on pre-existing conceptions of what constitutes progressiveness. Attempts to establish something novel come freighted with the past.

Female Turkish artists explore this paradox in a new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts titled “A Dream … but not Yours: Contemporary Art from Turkey.” Drawing on iconic images from Turkish culture and politics, the women whose work is on display seek to locate a space for Turkish women in a society that bends its gaze forward but remains firmly anchored to history.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the architect of modern Turkey, ascended to power after World War I and enacted sweeping reforms to more closely align Turkey with the West. In addition to implanting an emphasis on secularism into Turkey’s political institutions, he made Turkey one of the first Middle Eastern countries to accord women the right to vote, expanded education for girls, and enacted a civil code that banned polygamy and recognized women’s legal rights in matters concerning divorce and inheritance.

That was nearly a century ago. Turkish women today, while enjoying the fruits of these unprecedented freedoms, still find themselves caught between the outwardly imposed Western conception of a woman’s role in society and the tenacity of traditional Turkish culture. The exhibit’s curator, Istanbul-based artist Esra Sarigedik Öktem, assembled a catalogue that captures the tension of women trying to locate their place in contemporary Turkey.

“Her theme that she articulated is about this new generation of Turkish women, this new vision of what a dream life can be like, rather than falling back on a stereotype of what a Turkish woman should be,” said Kathryn Wat, a curator of modern and contemporary art for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Two photographs by Selda Asal question the narratives of future happiness that Turkish girls imbibe. The first, “Everything is Ok,” presents an aerial shot of a girl, face obscured, grasping small bride and groom figurines, the type normally found atop a wedding cake. The second, “Hard to Die,” displays a girl, her arms crisscrossed with the scars of self-inflicted wounds, grasping a drawing of a stereotypically idyllic domestic scene. The vertigo of the first photo and the violence of the second suggest a deep uneasiness with a life defined by milestones of marriage and motherhood.

Other works incorporate now-outmoded images of Turkish women in idealized Western roles. Gülsün Karamustafa’s “Chronographia” constructs a circle of framed covers of “Radyo Haftasi,” or Radio Weekly, a popular 1950s magazine whose covers are graced by beaming radio personalities dressed in Western clothes and makeup. There is a sense of nostalgia but also of irony — the ability to appear on these covers, once considered liberating for Turkish women, from a modern vantage point seems to constrain them to imitating their Western counterparts.

Inci Eviner’s animated video “Harem” reaches further into the past to challenge dominant representations of Turkish women. The animated video begins with a German artist’s early 19th-century engraving of a harem, women solicitously attending to men who lounge around a decadent space. The figures in the engraving then melt away, giving way to women who are dressed in gray rags and occupy themselves with solitary, repetitive tasks. Sinister laughter and moaning issues forth. Rather than a house of carefree hedonism, the harem has become an insane asylum.

In choosing the harem for subject matter, Eviner’s work critiques a particularly insidious icon of orientalism. Similarly, Ipek Duben’s “What is a Turk?” examines the lens through which the world views Turkey by juxtaposing photographs of Turkish families with postcards bearing phrases — written by historians, journalists and diplomats — that attempt to distill Turkey into a few simple sentences. One phrase, from the 1896 book “Constantinople,” declares that the Turkish “contribution to the art, literature and science of the world is practically nil.” Another postcard bears the admonishment, “Don’t behave like a little Turk!” On an adjacent wall is a video of Westerners who have lived in Turkey relaying their experiences.

The question — “What is a Turk?” — could just as well be the name of the exhibition. Every piece explores how identity is molded by exterior forces, whether the pull of history or the pressure of a society striving for a new shape. The women whose art is on display use the resources lent them by Turkish culture to forge something new.

“Terakki Remix” by Leyla Gediz challenges the status quo by subverting a piece of political propaganda. She takes an image from a political advertisement of a man crouching behind a young girl, arm outstretched and pointing to some promised point in the future, colors it a garish orange and splashes it dozens of times on a large piece of wallpaper. The inverted, brightly colored images undermine the initial picture of a patriarch guiding a young girl forward to suggest the artist’s agency — and by extension, the agency of Turkish women in any endeavor, creative or not.

“A Dream … but not Yours” runs until May 16.

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