Turkish artist Selma Gürbüz has a fascination for shadows.
Shadow is strength. Shadow is invincible. Nothing can dominate it. The shadows follow you; they change, ”Gürbüz said in an interview with Global Voices.
Gürbüz was born in 1960 in Istanbul, where he works today. He graduated from the Marmara University School of Fine Arts in 1984 after studying Art and Design for two years at the University of Exeter. Since its first exhibition in 1986, Gürbüz has been part of numerous solo and group exhibitions in Turkey and abroad.
Gürbüz's works create worlds with imaginary creatures, ghosts, and brushstrokes from Arabian Nights, and are inspired by history. Although his works appear to have no relation to the outside world or current events, they are essentially interested in subjects such as race, women, love, identity and nature.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Omid Memarian: How do you perceive the current position of Turkish contemporary art in the general international arena? Have art events like the Istanbul Biennial boosted the visibility of local artists?
Selma Gürbüz (SG): Economic and political instability in Turkey have long affected the local art world. Collectors' interest has slightly declined compared to previous years. However, I see this as temporary. A number of our important artists continue to produce works that make waves in the global art world. So, the interest that was shown in the works of Turkish artists both nationally and internationally remains. The Istanbul Biennale is one of the most important such events anywhere in the world.
Arter, a non-profit initiative that brings together artists and audiences in celebration of today’s art in all its forms and disciplines, relocated to a new venue last year. This new space boasts 18,000 square meters of indoor area and houses, exhibition galleries, terrace, performance halls, learning areas, library, conservation laboratory, arts bookstore, and a café.
The Odunpazarı Modern Museum opened in the city of Eskişehir. The Istanbul Modern Museum will soon move to a new, much larger building. There is no doubt that all these developments will greatly benefit the visibility and production of contemporary art within Turkey.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on the art world, internationally and within Turkey. International organizations will continue to be adversely affected, including through the impact on international travel, and therefore I think it is important that countries show more support and take an interest in their own artists, helping them to overcome these difficulties. The art markets will localize for a few years and this, in turn, will give a different kind of motivation to artists.
Selma Gürbüz (SG): Economic and political instability in Turkey have long affected the local art world. The interest of the collectors decreased slightly compared to previous years. However, I regard it as temporary. Several of our prominent artists continued to create works that capture the attention of the international art world. Therefore, the interest shown in the works of Turkish artists both nationally and internationally still endures. The Istanbul Biennial is one of the most important activities of its kind anywhere in the world.
Arter, a non-profit initiative that brings together artists and audiences to celebrate contemporary art in all its forms and disciplines, relocated to a new venue in 2019. This new venue is proud to have 18,000 square meters of interior space and residences , exhibition galleries, terrace, rooms for artistic performances, learning areas, library, conservation laboratory, art book store and a cafeteria.
The Odunpazari Museum of Modern Art opened its doors in the city of Eskişehir. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art will soon move to a new and larger building. There is no doubt that all these events will greatly benefit the visibility and production of contemporary art within Turkey.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the art world internationally and within Turkey. International organizations will continue to suffer, even through the repercussions of international travel. Therefore, I think it is important that countries show more support and concern for their own artists to help them overcome these difficulties. Art markets will be focused on the national level for a few years and this, in turn, will give artists different motivation.
OM: The color black predominates in many of your works. You have even been called “the painter of black magic, black ravens, people, fairies and black eyes.” What is your connection to this color?
SG: Black, for me, is fundamentally, shadow. In life, I've always enjoyed looking at shadows. My discovery of shadows is influenced not only by my interest in the shadow theater of my own country but also of the Far East, such as China, Japan, and Indonesia. Some of these shadow plays are quite vocal in their political discourse.
My first piece of shadow theater was an installation I prepared for the Kuandu Biennale in Taiwan. The papier mâché figures I created moved among themselves and I projected their reflection onto the wall. As well as their own movements, they threw black shadows onto the walls. Their movements transformed into an erotic theater piece.
Later, I prepared other shadow plays for an exhibition of mine in Yokohama in Japan. In these plays I was also there within the shadows. It was a difficult piece. I was in front of the curtain this time, with the shadow puppets in my hands. They were animal puppets, roosters, ravens and suchlike. Along with my puppets, I entered into a performance that resembled a battle, an actual physical fight. It turned into a play in which the ostensible struggle was between such emotions as jealousy, passion, and vulnerability. In time, these black shadows made it into my paintings. Shadow means strength. Shadow is invincible. Nothing can overpower shadow. Shadows follow you; they change. Along with the movement of light itself, the position and form of shadow also changes. Shadow can change the shape of an object. Shadow lends length. That which is real does not change, but its shadow can change. Shadow is a two-dimensional representation. It shows us ourselves.
SG: Black for me is primarily a shadow. In life, I have always enjoyed watching shadows. My discovery of shadows is influenced not only by my interest in shadow theater from my country, but also from the Far East, such as China, Japan, and Indonesia. Some of those shadow puppet works are quite expressive in their political discourse.
My first shadow play was an installation I prepared for the Kuandu Biennial in Taiwan. The papier-mâché figures I created moved with each other and I projected their reflection onto the wall. In addition to their own movements, they cast black shadows on the walls. His movements were transformed into an erotic play.
Later, I prepared other shadow puppet works for an exhibition that I held in Yokohama, Japan. In those works I also introduced myself together with the shadows. It was a very difficult work. On that occasion, I stood in front of the curtain holding the puppets in my hands. These puppets were shaped like animals: roosters, crows, and such animals. Together with my puppets, I began to perform something like a battle, an actual physical struggle. The play became an apparent struggle between emotions such as envy, passion, and vulnerability. Over time, those black shadows became my paintings. Shadow means strength, shadow is invincible. Nothing can dominate it. The shadows follow you, they change. With the movement of light, its position and shape also change. The shadow can alter the shape of an object. Gives length. What is real does not change, but its shadow can change. The shadow is a two-dimensional representation. It shows us ourselves.
OM: Women have a strong presence in many of your works. What kind of women do you talk about in your works and what do they mean to you?
SG: I usually portray myself in my depictions of the figures of women in my paintings. The vulnerability, courage, caprices, and smiles of my female figures are reflections of my own feelings. They are the innocent figures of an undefined time. They are vulnerable. They are flirty. Instead of being in dialogue with the viewer, the viewer can instead form a strange closeness with them. They are mystical and naïve while also being courageous and intelligent. They have been trained in the ways of both the east and the west. Each one has a different story in my world. And I'm not talking here about a story as a product of fiction. These, instead, are stories that play out in an impromptu fashion; stories that have broken through into the free movement of the imagination. Every story gives birth to a new one and they all have this element of discipline and sustainability. For them, nature is extremely important, they feel the yearning for nature. They miss nature. These women see nature in its tiniest details, they study it, paint it, and wish to be consumed by it: to be lost in nature. It is this courage that gives them the power to be free.
SG: Generally, I portray myself in representations of silhouettes of women in my paintings. The vulnerability, the courage, the whims and the smiles of my feminine silhouettes are reflections of my own feelings. They are innocent silhouettes of an indefinite time. They are vulnerable and flirtatious. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with the observer, the observer can form a strange proximity to them. They are mystical and naive and at the same time brave and intelligent too. They are competent when it comes to the particularities of East and West. Each one has a different story in my world. And by this I do not mean a story as a fictional product. These, instead, are stories that unfold in a spontaneous way; stories that disrupted the free movement of the imagination. Each story sets the tone for another and they all have this element of discipline and sustainability. Nature is extremely important to them, they long for it. They miss nature. These women observe nature in its smallest details, study it, paint it and want it to be consumed: they get lost in it. It is this bravery that gives you the power to be free.
OM: Many of your paintings seem to be created by a writer. How do you develop your stories and how do they end up as paintings?
SG: It starts with a mental picture. Then I ponder on which images I can use to compose that vision within a painting, and the kind of dramatic effect it will have. I have often felt that people who look at my paintings can read them like a story and that I have somehow enabled them to do so. But we have to distinguish here between this kind of storytelling and the compositional coherence of a literary author and the written tales that they build up through their layers, the gradation that takes place from start to finish as they compose drafts, erase, and rewrite.
In my creative process, the continuation of a spontaneous flow is clearly visible. I open up the doors to impromptu creation. There is nothing in my pictures that I cover up with something else. For example, I'd never say, “this part hasn't turned out quite as I'd have liked, so I'll change the paper.” Whatever I do is represented there. This is an idiosyncrasy that makes me, me. But at the same time, this can be a drag. The process requires the highest degree of concentration. What's more, I have to know from the outset exactly what I want. Then again, that's not to say that I will sit in front of a painting having toiled and performed every calculation. I like to leave myself to be free. My free form associations can cause the painting to flow in a new direction. And I feel it's these surprises that make a painting a painting.
SG: The process begins with a mental image. Then I consider what images I can use to shape that vision in a painting and what kind of dramatic effect it will have. Often, I feel that people who look at my paintings can read them as a story and I somehow make it easier for them to do so. But we have to make a difference between this type of narration and the coherence of a literary author's writing and the written accounts that they produce through their stages, the progression that takes place from start to finish as they write the drafts, the process of deleting and rewriting.
In my creative process, the continuation of a spontaneous flow is clearly observed. I open the doors to improvised creation. There is nothing in my paintings that I cover with something else. For example, I would never say, “This part didn't turn out the way I would have liked, so I'll change the role.” Anything you do appears there. This is an idiosyncrasy that makes me who I am. But at the same time, it can be a hindrance. The process requires the highest degree of concentration. Also, I have to know from the beginning what I want exactly. On second thought, that does not mean that I will sit in front of a painting after I have worked and performed each calculation. I love allowing myself to be free. My free associations can cause the painting to flow in a new direction. And I feel like those surprises are what make a painting.
OM: Do current events affect your work and creativity?
SG: I don't make political paintings. I don't sit in front of a piece of work and feel the pressure of daily politics. The themes of the paintings, the subjects and contents are separate and are not influenced by everyday events in life or current developments. And therefore I can't really say that I feel subject to a definite effect coming directly from that context. However, I am affected indirectly, there's no doubt. And not only as an artist, I am affected first and foremost as a person. The disappointments I suffer in the outside world due to events that occur tend to turn me deeper into my own inner world. This is not a form of submission but can be better thought of as a stronger impulse to bring out the artistic powers. I say that I do not get directly affected, and then I suddenly remember a painting I made some three years ago. In the name of defending the rights and freedoms of those people who are oppressed in so many places in the world I painted a Statue of Freedom. The Statue of Freedom was only symbolic here of course. And to look at that painting again now in light of what is currently happening in the United States gives rise to new readings of it in totally new contexts and I personally find that very interesting.
SG: I don't do political paintings. I do not install myself in front of a work and I feel the pressure of daily politics. The themes of the paintings, the subjects and the contents are independent, so they are not influenced by the daily events of life or current events. Therefore, I cannot really claim that I am susceptible to a definite effect that comes directly from that context. However, it affects me indirectly, there is no doubt about it. And not only as an artist, it affects me mainly as a person. The disappointments that I suffer in the outer world because of the events that occur tend to plunge me deeper into my inner world. This is not a form of submission, rather it can be seen as a strong impulse to arouse artistic powers. I mentioned that it doesn't affect me directly, but I suddenly remembered a painting that I did about three years ago. For the sake of defending the rights and freedoms of people who are oppressed in many parts of the world, I painted a Statue of Liberty. Of course the Statue of Liberty was only symbolic. Observing that painting again now taking into account what is happening in the United States gives rise to new readings of it in totally new contexts and that personally seems quite interesting to me.
OM: You were born, raised and live in Istanbul, Turkey, a country with vast history and culture. How can one look for the references of your roots and cultural identity in your works?
SG: Istanbul was the capital city of three huge empires: the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. It has a vast, rich, history and culture that very few other world cities can challenge. Istanbul's rich identity results from a synthesis of “east” and “west”. When you take a walk on the historical peninsula of Istanbul you can see Ottoman miniatures, Byzantine mosaics, historical mosques and churches all of which are hundreds of years old, in just one day. Being born and brought up in a city such as this has had very direct effects on my art. For example, the Ottoman hunting miniatures or the paintings of Byzantine saints are only a few of the subjects I have portrayed. At the same time, the lands of Anatolia, which countless civilizations have made their home throughout history, are a place of incredibly rich mythology. Some of the references I go back to frequently for my paintings are those such as Kybele, the goddess figure whose roots we find in the Hittite and Phrygian civilizations. In addition to this, I love to return to universal myths, such as those of Adam and Eve or Medusa. I always find that I discover new points of view, new aspects, every time I go back to them.
SG: Istanbul was the capital city of three major empires: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman. It has an extensive and rich history and culture that very few other cities in the world can challenge. The vast identity of Istanbul is the result of a synthesis of “East” and “West”. When you walk through the historical peninsula of Istanbul, you can see Ottoman miniatures, Byzantine mosaics and historical mosques and churches that are hundreds of years old, in just one day. Being born and growing up in a city like this has had very direct effects on my art. For example, Ottoman miniatures depicting hunting scenes or paintings of Byzantine saints are just some of the subjects I have portrayed. At the same time, the Lands of Anatolia, home to countless civilizations throughout history, are a place of rich mythology. Some of the references I often turn to for my paintings are like those of Cybele, the figure of the goddess whose roots we find in the Hittite and Phrygian civilizations. In addition to this, I love to reexamine universal myths, such as Adam and Eve or Medusa. I always manage to discover new points of view and aspects every time I return to them.
OM: What are you working on now and when will we see your new works of art? Will they be the continuation of your previous works?
SG: Two years ago I visited Tanzania with my friend Burak Acar. We went on safari in the Serengeti and took videos and photographs for a whole week. Africa opened new doors of inspiration to me. I've been working in Africa for a very long time. In November 2020 I will launch my new solo exhibition at the Istanbul Modern. In the exhibition my paintings and sculptures inspired by Africa will be exhibited. Alongside these we'll be setting up various video installations showing the films that we took whilst in the Serengeti. At the moment I am directing a team and we're working to get it all ready. I am really excited about this.
SG: Two years ago I visited Tanzania with my friend Burak Acar. We went on a safari through the Serengeti National Park and we recorded videos and took pictures for a whole week. Africa gave me new sources of inspiration. I have been working in Africa for a long time. In November of this year, I will present my new solo exhibition at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. In this exhibition I will show my paintings and sculptures inspired by Africa. Along with these there will be multi-video installations in which we will screen the films we made when we were in Serengeti. Right now, I lead a team and we are working to get everything ready. This excites me a lot.