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Ahmet Güneştekin is a Kurdish Istanbul-based visual artist known for “narrative abstraction” in painting and sculpture, often geometrically relating found objects and historically-charged motifs like Ottoman furniture, carpets, and cookery. He strives in his work to bring tradition to bear upon the present which unfolds from it, whether in resistance or remembrance.
His recent and most explicitly political show, “Memory Chamber” (2021), exhibited coffins marked with the initials of Kurdish victims and painted in traditional Kurdish colors, a massive and moldering black hill of rubber shoes and an equally grim wall of furniture and debris retrieved from the rubble of imprisoned and dead civilians’s homes, a wall of street signs bearing their initials, and videos with archival footage bearing witness to the silencing of their experiences through the loss of their language. It was hosted by Pilevneli Gallery, Istanbul in a historic bastion by the city walls of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city and one which has borne ruin and strict police control since conflict reached the province in 2015. This effort to highlight and reverse decades of erasure met with nationwide criticism and acclaim; the government closed it prematurely.
Güneştekin has been reckoning with history through the medium of art since his childhood and is currently developing “A City of Names,” an exhibition which will highlight unrepresented stories from the polytheistic, multilingual, multicultural city of Istanbul. Whitewall spoke with him about “Memory Chamber,” the role of history in his artistic practice, and future projects.
WHITEWALL: In your work you’re constantly returning to memories of childhood. What about this state, or what specific memory in particular, drives you?
AHMET GÜNESTEKIN: I remember painting in the garden of my childhood home in Batman. I remember hanging oil paintings from the saddle of my bike on the way to my first exhibition in the halls. I remember my teacher Pervin, Kurdish storytellers, street games, the sheer dense color of the world that surrounded me, dreams of jumping and flying over ruined houses.
Sometimes our imagination throws a net over one colored thing, but the threads of this net are tied to a larger heap of images. These images allow me to return to the furthest moments of my childhood, when I dreamed of giving form to the light I saw. Our worlds have no complete image. We can only remember the past, alone, piece by piece. We decide which stories will be seen and heard. I’ve always listened to the history most difficult to face. I tell it through the experiences of those who witnessed it. The first shapes I drew as a child were wrapping spirals, from a tree’s rings to water’s ripples to the layers of the sun. These planted the seed that bloomed my later work. I played with colors and lines as a kid and this game has kept me going forever.
WW: You have mentioned conducting ethnographic research in Kurdish regions during your youth and being greatly influenced by Dengbêjs, Kurdish singing tale-tellers. What stories or sounds most inspired you?
AG: Piro Zarife. “Piro” means “old” in Kurdish. She was 13 years old during the Armenian deportations, and my grandfather took her in. She was the eldest in my family when I was a child. I used to call her my grandmother. She would tell me stories every night; the tales formed our bond. Because we were a crowded family, it burdened my mother. Piro raised me with her closeness and tales. She was a Dengbêj, too; the first myths I heard came from her mouth.
I listened to Kurdish bards and poets of various origin on my trips through Anatolia. It was the threshold of life, to experience the sonic worlds they emulated. Years later, I developed my own stories through studies of those I heard. Experience turns into narrative. The driving matter of my work always pertains to these historical and fictional narratives. These symbols were the fount of my own expression.
WW: You were also mentored by Yaşar Kemal, a Nobel-nominated writer who never shied from confronting silenced histories of Kurdish oppression. How has his approach to this influenced yours?
AG: I began to read Yaşar Kemal’s novels in my youth. His characters seeped into everything I thought and influenced everything I saw. He’d come to my exhibition, “Colors After Dark,” and we first met there. A bond formed. He’d come to my studio and we’d discuss art and literature. He’d watch me work, sometimes we’d paint together. I’m incredibly lucky to have received the atmosphere of his presence; he’s a truly global writer who melds oral and written tradition.
He was interested in direct human experiences. In expressing them, he stretched the limits of language. Humanity is the highest value in the worlds he wrote, and folklore and myth is a vehicle for humanity because it can challenge as much as create power. Kemal believed in dignified coexistence, freedom of language, and the uniqueness of cultures. He believed that the painful experiences of Kurdish people were a problem of democracy. He viewed the world as a cultural garden where a thousand flowers grow. Throughout history, cultures have grafted each other. The loss of a culture is the loss of a fount. Anatolia has always been a mosaic, filling the world with flowers and light, and Yaşar Kemal wished it to be the same today.
WW: Your earliest work used more conventionally painterly methods (canvas, figuration) than its current state. What drove its evolution toward the abstract multi-media work you now create?
AG: In my view, the form is complete wherever the intellectual and spatial limits of an artwork reach. It’s about how I choose to formulate my thoughts across surfaces different from canvas at a given moment. The use of historical surfaces in “Memory Chamber” creates a space for ideas which are difficult to face in present reality. I let the historical content guide me. It’s a subconscious act. I don’t distinguish between the development of a thought and its concrete application, I want each to influence the other. Objects appear as charged reminders of the past. The space created by their presentation expresses counter-images to official historical narratives.
WW: In describing your installation works, you quote Pierre Nora’s claim that the arrangement of objects can turn space into “a site of memory.” Were you reckoning with history and memory before this sculptural turn (and if so, which memories), or did sociopolitical concerns change your focus?
AG: My thoughts on memory are the root of all my work, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. The fact that history and memory pertain more immediately to my installations and moving images owes to the nature of those mediums. I display an unexplored yet recent past through destructions and confrontations of my lived geography as they are set in memory. At first glance you see a mass of rubble; you decipher the objects as you near them. The traces which speak to the past are buried in the wall. These alone remain to remind us of whole lives.
When you see the remains of life under rubble—a wheelchair, a kettle—you see how worthless human life has been rendered. With every ruined testament, it’s denied. Space becomes the ferment of memory. The memories that I have witnessed attest that it is not only the spaces of the living but the dead which are colonized. Their lives were razed by conflict, then buried by construction, the scent of charred homes and carbonized bodies ripped from memory. Unless they are faced, the sounds, words, and colors which linger in the folds will hound the present.
WW: As polarized responses to “Memory Chamber” have highlighted the political polarization of Turkey, you’ve maintained friendships with many former ministers and advisers of President Erdogan. Do you foresee a greater willingness to address Kurdish histories among opposition parties ahead of next year’s elections?
AG: Many of these people are childhood friends, but nearly all are political in differing ways. I’ve befriended people in the ruling party and those in other parties like the HDP and CHP. When “Memory Chamber” was exhibited, it naturally attracted conflicting opinions and some of these garnered much attention. While I created the works, I considered how they would allow me to confront a yet-unresolved past. I wanted the show to open the space we need to rethink this past, to voice experiences which would otherwise remain forgotten. My study of these experiences spans the last twenty years. I wanted the discussions surrounding them to add to this opportunity.
The Kurdish issue comprises a network of problems which ease when we orient them around historical discussion, and rise when we orient them around violence. That’s why I prefer to read election debates through a sociological lens which is broader than populist scenarios. The perspective of youth is decisive, because the context in which the conflicts are resolved affects their lives the most. We’re in a devastating economic crisis, and youth unemployment is at an all-time high. The HDP electorate, which consists mostly of youth, will be key to the 2023 elections. Young people are clearly dissatisfied with the established order. They’ll base their decisions not along political trends but according to what they have witnessed. This is why politicians need to take these individual stories into account.
WW: How has the pandemic altered your work, whether individually (with changes in your practice) or politically (with changes in Turkey and the reception of your work)?
AG: During such a shocking process, you reorganize life itself. You have to. The pandemic has definitively changed my work, perspective, and pace. I aim to use my time in a different way. During the lockdowns, I had to cancel my shows. I worked completely within the bounds of my studio. Over the past two years, I’ve been experimenting with the use of ceramics and mixed-media, and from it emerged the ceramic and bronze works of Gelene-ek (2021) [“Gelenek” denotes “tradition”; the suffix denotes a development to come]. I began a new cycle of canvas works which I call the "Corona Series."
The art world has experienced a digital renaissance since the pandemic, but I don’t believe that this has changed the way that my work is received. The loss of spaces and exhibition opportunities has accelerated the digitalization of the art world. This solution was necessary, but I believe that art begs to be confronted in a solid space and time, through direct communication with its viewer. As restrictions eased, galleries, museums, and fairs reopened; some physically, some online. Artists have come together as they used to, but the conversation has changed to a hybrid one where physical interactions depend upon digital solutions.
WW: How do you plan to integrate this focus upon memory and silenced histories into upcoming work? What future projects do you have in mind?
AG: I gather the sounds and words of my own time. The human soul enthralls me, and I concern myself with its lived experience. I seek to voice lost pasts and lost lives that given histories deny.To reflect them, we need a reconstruction which does not close us within it, which we can resolve, which will not repeat itself. Only a politics which does not confuse forgiving and forgetting, a memory which does not harden, can bring the past to remedial justice. The sole moral and freeing act for me is to swim against the waves of established history.
This will always govern the thought behind my work. I’m developing shows which will be opened this year along these lines. The first will open on August 27 at the Samogitian Art Museum in Lithuania. The other is scheduled to open November 30 at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMoMA). I’m creating sculptures and installations for accessible, outdoor display, grand-scale works in metal and natural rock, stone in tandem with steel. I’m also working on an exhibition which will be a divergent extension of “Memory Chamber.” It will open in a wide area in Izmir, and it will likely be my largest solo show to date.