On a regular Tuesday night in the fall of 2016, the emergency room of a central hospital in Istanbul echoes with a scream. Hardly understandable, in a foreign language. Not Turkish, not completely English, possibly Arabic. A woman demands help for her toddler, who’s burning up, unconscious. The doctors are trying to explain to her, in English, that she brought her child to a private hospital and she needs to pay a lot of money before her child gets treated. Being a refugee, desperate for help, but not getting any, the woman leaves the cold hospital corridors for a less expensive state hospital. A heavy air of despair hangs over the ER. In one of the metropolises of the global world, a mother is abandoned with her ill child. It is the fall of 2016 and a person, who has fled from war, is left to suffer. It is the fall, 16 years into a new millennium, and the world is still full of war refugees.
A friend of mine, an ER surgeon, recounted this story to me, in tears, a few weeks ago, and it hasn’t left me. Her words continue to haunt me now as I contemplate the artwork of Nil Yalter. Yalter’s Istanbul retrospective Off the Record arrives in a time of need—a need for remembrance and acknowledgement. It is a salutation for the people who are “off the record” in this world: invisible people like the refugees, women, children, people of color, immigrant workers, domestic workers, sex workers, trans-people, people who are brutally murdered and left on the streets, people who are massacred by armed forces or by state dictatorships, all people and subjects neglected by official histories.
Yalter was born in Cairo, raised in Turkey, and migrated to Paris when she was 27. Her work “explores individual’s strategies for survival in the face of society’s control mechanisms and norms, focusing on omitted facts, invisible people, enclosed places and repressed emotions,” as the exhibition text reads. Spanning installations, painting, photography, writing, collage, performance, and video, Off the Record, on view at Arter in Istabul, is the most comprehensive exhibition of Yalter’s works in Turkey to date.
Nil Yalter, Temporary Dwellings, 1974, Mixed media collage. Joan Bonet Collection. Photo: Aras Selim Bankoğlu
Yalter uses ethnographic methods to address issues of immigration; she observes and documents, and as a Marxist-feminist, she is devoted to the struggles of oppressed groups. The series Temporary Dwellings (1974–1977), for example, comprises archival board panels on which Yalter has recorded the lives of immigrant communities in Paris. Poetic texts, drawings, and collages are accompanied by documentary interviews complementing the work. As one of the first artists to survey the living conditions of these people—people on the outskirts of the city, people who live in abandoned dwellings, people not listed in any official consensus—she documents cultural memory, giving an account of history and lives existing outside of national records.
Akin to Temporary Dwellings, La Roquette, Prison de Femmes (1974) lends a sociological and conceptual approach to issues dealing with identity, gender, and migration. In collaboration with Judy Blum and Nicole Croiset, Yalter documented how the state executes control over bodies, implementing the panopticon on masses. The work is based on Mimi, who was an inmate at the women’s prison La Roquette, in Paris, before it was closed and demolished in 1974. La Roquette brings together drawings, photographs, and performances by Yalter, Blum, and Croiset as they reenact Mimi’s daily life in prison.
Nil Yalter, Estranged Doors (from Exile is a Hard Job series), 1983, Photographs, oil paint, bronze pigment and rubber stamps on carton, 150 cm (diameter)
In the installation Exile is a Hard Job (1983), Yalter combines photographs of immigrants with a poem by Hasan Hüseyin Korkmazgil, who was a leading left-wing Turkish realist poet. “Other people’s homes are roofs of slavery; the brave becomes the vassal,” reads one line of the poem. She expresses the moments in which people feel like a slave in a foreign land: a slave who has no rights, and a slave who is forced to work in the most demeaning jobs. In one video recording, a man explains the problems immigrants face, including their lack of language skills, education for their kids, and proper settlements to live in: the problems of immigrants and guest workers all around the world.
Narrative is a key device in many of her works, with documentation leading into storytelling. Including drawings, a 16 millimeter movie, and Polaroid photographs, The Orient Express (1976) documents a train ride Yalter took on one of the last Direct Orient Express trains between Paris and Istanbul; Deniz Gezmiş (1972) is about the execution of three young revolutionaries during the time of martial law in Turkey; and Rahime, Kurdish Woman from Turkey (1979, in collaboration with Nicole Croiset) tells the story of Rahime as she makes the wrenching transition between her village and a shanty town in Istanbul. Not all of her artworks center on narrative, however—Yalter is also a forebearer of new media in Turkey. Her work Pixelismus (1996), made in collaboration with David Apikian and Nicole Croiset, comprises an interactive CD-ROM and paintings on canvas. Rethinking canonized art historical narratives, the piece references the mosaics of the Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul as well as the work of Kazimir Malevich.
Nil Yalter, Immigrants, 1976-2016, Installation with 10 videos, C-print, variable dimensions, Installation view at Arter, Istanbul. Photo: Aras Selim Bankoğlu
Documenting and counting are critical acts, but so is personalizing, storytelling. Today, there are over sixty million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. More than twenty million of them are refugees, living outside the country of their nationality, many with little or no access to basic human rights like shelter, food, healthcare, education, and employment. As my friend’s chilling report from the ER emphasizes, people whose lives and homes have been destroyed, their loved ones murdered, tortured, and humiliated, are among us—2.5 million refugees, in fact, in Turkey alone. Yalter’s four decades of work in Off the Record show us the importance of becoming narrative. They are able to tell stories of the untold and hidden, recording the undocumented into history.
Pınar Üner Yılmaz is a writer, curator, and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently based between Istanbul and Chicago.
(Image at top: Nil Yalter, Rahime, Kurdish Woman from Turkey (detail), 1979, Installation with photographs, video and drawings, 11 framed works, fabrics, plinth, TV monitor, Variable dimensions. All images: Courtesy of the artist and Arter Space for Art, Istanbul)
Tags: refugee crisis ARTER Istanbul art Nil Yalter feminist artists, mixed-media, installation, photography
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