Gülsün Karamus­tafa


November 14, 2013

Gulsun Vk Hero Gülsün Karamustafa, <i>Heimat ist, wo mann ißt</i>, 1994<br />
Gülsün Karamustafa, Heimat ist, wo mann ißt, 1994

Gülsün Karamustafa’s works from the last fourteen years could be surveyed as a singular project the references of which were not predicated by artistic situations elsewhere although it came into an increasing contact with them since 1991. Daughter of a famous radiopersonality, educated in a private English high school followed by along stint at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, Karamustafa is no naive. But, a keen sense of discomfort as well as the lack of any intelli­gent recognition of her works at the time they were created, contributed to her isolation and the singularity of her proposal. When we became friends in 1990, she kept on telling me how lonely she was although she seemed to know everyone. I am neither in adoration of this isolation (it is a well-known art-historical trope), nor will I admire her ethical efficacy because even the talk of ethical integrity implies a luxury of choice, and I have no intention to promote her even further to the accepted echelons of the cannon of contem­porary art, no, Karamustafa’s work and the conditions of its creation simply captivate me. The singularity of her work was originally related to a lack of communication. The conditions of that time and that work made possible porosity outside the realm of com­munication, a porosity that she still maintains (paintings produced before 1985, Double Reality (1987), Create Your Own Story with the Given Material (1997)). Karamustafa’s need to make possible a different kind of pre­sence in her silence, trailed by a leakage of the »other« presence whom she had chosen sides-with, resulted in remarkably acute works such as the modified wall-rugs and textiles of 1985-88. More than any honest and ethical politically engaged young middle-class person with a prison story (although she experienced all that), and unlike many other middle-class women artists of her generation, who were busy divorcing themselves from the »Social« and opting for a rarefied art production, she was so severely aware of another possibility. She registered a world in flux, joy, self-pity and perpetual displacement. She worked most of those years in literal isolation, (the State denied her a passport to travel between 1970 and 1986)1; and metaphorical isolation. Turkey was isolated from the rest of the world in all aspects for a full decade starting at mid 70’s, and there was a lack of capable wri­ters and critics who could articulate, disse­minate and discourse around the work.

Few at the time were able to not shun the cul­tural situation, brought about by the massive influx on inter-city immigration, entrench­ments and the new urbanism that ensued, as an inferior alternative to the middle-class high culture and its machinations. Meanwhile, the new cultural situation had already created its characteristic subject in writers like Latife Tekin or in the profoundly vital area of socio­political and life-style cartoons, but it lacked a comparable proposal in the visual arts. Having been created against this rather hostile and at best unresponsive atmosphere, the paintings of the late 70’s and early 80’s, and the so-called »kitsch« period that follo­wed (paintings, wall-rugs and textile based work, and there presentations of collected objects) predated much of the neo-conceptual movements elsewhere. Karamustafa’s works having been shown once, were folded and stored away.2

I remember her saying that she used to weep as she worked and worked as she wept. This sense of empathy motivated by her displacement (from her social caste) is radically criti­cal to the understanding of her work in its best examples. The pivotal work was Courier originally shown in 1991, and later Mystic Transport (1992), and Heimat ist, wo mann ißt (1995), that dealt with displacement, exile, and change in such tender and intelligent terms.3 Courier and Mystic Transport were summaries and pointers to her future and past works. Mystic Transport recapitulated pre 1989, and Courier projected most of the new work. In a conversation, she had told me that Courier was the starting point of a larger negotiation and finally settling of accounts, but was also when her moment finally found its voice. The shift that brought Karamustafa in the last 10 years from local hero to an artist in the Central European and North American circuit of contemporary art has made possi­ble certain strategies, created openings for the work and the possibility to go on, but has created also certain drawbacks (situation-spe­cific works that are not the most memorable. Illustrated History (1994), and NEWORIENTATION (1995)), produced in response to international curatorial requests within a paradigm of globalism. The problem remains that being part of the global groove is not necessarily and absolutely a positive thing, and that a contamination of the work, or a relaxation of certain densities in favor of audience legibility, affordable mutuality, and Central European and North American noti­ons of multi-culturalism and post-colonial expectations is a grave possibility. The questi­on remains that neo-conceptual, mostly installation-based work as a cultural manife­station, came into a central position, and empowered peripheries in synchronicity, catapulting them to the center stage as a glo­bal diasporan elite. All this was present in utter authenticity in Karamustafa’s works from early 80’s on in a situation where there was no audience, no reception, no space of articulation but total insularity. Very much like a writer, she had been conspiring in pri­vate, developing the larger picture, a picture that we were lucky to have realized years later.

  • 1.
    She and her husband were charged for hiding a political fugitive at their home. This activity was known legally as »to provide your bed for someone«. While, providing your bed for a fugitive was not uncommon at the time, it is important to understand that the notion of »protecting« from any force that obliterates, be it the state or modernism in general, has been a strong tenor in her work. As much as the little words and sentences are woven into the fabric in the children's vest in away that one cannot read it, making communication impossible. As such Karamustafa's works are not based on com­munication, they are based on a logic of protection.
  • 2.
    In the mid to late 80's when the intelligentsia tagged public manifestations of cultures on the move dismissively as kitsch, she embraced it (Double Reality (1987), Monument 1 and 2 (1988), Fallen Variation of the Last Supper (1984)). She then later turned to research-based inquiries on her story (Chronographia (1994), Notebook (1993)), and women's stories (Genealogy (1994), NEWORIENTATION (1995)), and reception stories (Presentation of an Early Representation (1996)).
  • 3.
    Courier was not about real exile. The text of component of the work read »As we crossed frontiers, we used to hide what was important for us by sewing them inside children's vest.« As much as this may have been an account of real events passed on to Karamustafa by her grandmother in reference to the exodus of her family from their Balkan homelands to main­land Turkey, there is nothing in the work that indicates such a specificity. Courier is a recapitulation of a number conti­guous events: The collapse of the Soviet system and along with it the belief that Karamustafa had subscribed to earlier; the fall of third worldism, and the qualitative shift towards the global economy. But the most important of all, the work forecasted the makings of a new tragedy that we were all too distracted to realize in the euphoria of 1989. Ethniccleansing in Bosnia was as related to Courier, at least as much, as the tumbling down of the wall. Thus the delivery of the texts, ima­ges and things (or letters, photographs and family memorabilia) in this fragile form of closure and protection has another import today. It was a work that both closed and protected a past. The Mystic Transport maintained a joyful streak that belied its seriousness. The form of the containers is derived from the wood-mesh baskets used by porters in public shop­ping bazaars. Here, the baskets are made of iron and roll on wheels. They contain colorful quilts. The porters were often first generation city dwellers from the land ready to take on the first job offered. They were paid next to nothing and were demanded the most strenuous and dangerous labor. The quilts are objects associated with displacement. First item to be carried away when forced to move (Turkey has seen several of these forced resettlements in the last century and continues to exercise them), they are also about reverie and sexuality providing the only semblance of privacy in single-room homes for crowded families. The quilt protects, covers and hides. It is an enclosure and an opening. »Heimat ist, wo mann ißt« is a face off. Three spoons of different size and shapes, seem to imply a mother, a father and a son/daughter. The three is a basic unit, not an extended family, but a frail one. The frailness is all the more emphasized in that the work was originally shown in the context of double-displacement of the guest-workers in the land of gluttony (Germany). The three spoons are delicately connected with soft tissue on a textile base is however not about a beginning: Where you eat may be impor­tant but the instrument of eating is the spoon, the spoon of sharing at the communal dinner eaten on the floor, the spoon as the traditional utensil of home, and the spoon as the shape of one's palm (unlike the unpleasantly selective gesturing of the fingers as the fork). In thus, the evidence proves that Heimat ist, wo mann ißt denies its name, and as such, links up with both Courier and the Mystic Transport to make three extraordinary works.