Although most Turks would not recognize the name Masist Gül, he is nonetheless a familiar face in Turkish cinema. As an actor of Armenian origin, he played the role of the powerful bad guy in more than 300 Turkish films with his muscular build.
What even those familiar with the late actor’s movies may not know is that he was a fascinating, self-educated artist who worked creatively with a wide range of mediums. His archive, currently being showcased at the BAS initiative in Karaköy, sat in a suitcase untouched for many years before it was found by conceptual artist Banu Cennetoğlu after Gül’s death in 2003.
“I saw the news coverage of his death on TV and it moved me greatly. I don’t remember what the exact image was, but among many fighting scenes from the movies he acted in, I saw something very kind, as if it was trapped in his body and trying to say something else,” Cennetoğlu explains in an interview with Today’s Zaman. That one moment made her want to learn more about Gül and led her to Yeşilçam Street, where people from the movie industry hang out and wait for upcoming job offers.
“His friends told me to find the second-hand goods dealer İrfan if I want to find photographs or posters of Masist. When I went to İrfan he brought out a big suitcase of things belonging to him. It was a huge surprise for me. I had no idea that he was an artist. İrfan thought that I was a dealer or a collector looking for the things in the suitcase and attempted to sell it to me at a very high price that was impossible for me to afford,” she says, adding that for a long time she had to settle for a few pages of photocopies that İrfan randomly picked from the suitcase.
Even though Cennetoğlu attempted to convince him that she is only an artist and wanted to make artwork from the material, İrfan did not believe her for the next couple of years. Eventually Cennetoğlu had the chance to investigate the suitcase one day and came across Gül’s drawings, writings, photographs, collages, prints on copper and wood and finally, to her surprise, a series of hand-made books. Titled “Kaldırım Destanı -- Kaldırımlar Kurdunun Hayatı” (Pavement Myth -- The Life of the Pavement’s Wolf), the six-volume book was prepared in a periodical comic-book format recounting the violent life of an extraordinary child raised by an evil witch who would later become a roughneck vigilante. “When I saw these, I dropped the idea of using his things to create art but just wanted to publish ‘Pavement Myth’ as it was,” Cennetoğlu emphasizes, adding that she finally convinced İrfan to sell the suitcase to her for a reasonable price.
“Kaldırım Destanı” was published in 2006 as part of the Bent artists’ books series, created by Cennetoğlu and Philippine Hoegen. The first exhibition of Gül’s archive also took place five years ago upon the release of the first book. “I am not a gallery owner, a curator or an art historian, yet I have been showcasing Masist Gül’s works for a while. This creates a problem, naturally. And the fact that he does not have a place in art history adds more to that. If we were to only publish his series ‘Kaldırım Destanı,’ the reader could have perceived him as a weirdo, so we were obliged to showcase his conscious process of creation. Due to all of these factors, we made the context as large as possible and chose to exhibit all of his pieces that we have,” Cennetoğlu explains.
Gül’s archive features several notebooks of drawings and poetry, self-portraits, portraits of arabesque singers from the Middle East and collages of various sorts. “He has a plaque collection where he drew images in the middle. He made new songs mixing together various parts of different songs. He puts speech balloons on stills from his films. All of these things show that he was not just a weirdo doing art without thinking, but that he also had a conceptual framework in mind,” Cennetoğlu says, adding that she also wants to publish a thick notebook of his that contains a very long story in a poem that was also a rough draft of “Kaldırım Destanı.”
In his drawings and poetry, Gül combines a passionate love of art with a witty distance from art; he signs his works “uneducated art expert” or “amateur long-suffering art professor.” Although his brother Pascal Gül invited him to live in Paris with him and get an art education, Gül was never interested. “He did not even leave the Tarlabaşı neighborhood and his art comes purely from his guts. His works were triggered by a constant quest and longing, so it makes sense to me that he refused to get a classical education,” Cennetoğlu comments.
After the first show in İstanbul, the exhibition visited Brussels, Basel and Berlin. His six-volume book was bought by a large audience, including artist book lovers, comic book readers and fanzine followers. It wasn’t just Turkish readers who can read the story in a rhymed poetic form who bought the books, but also readers from many different countries due to the power of Gül’s drawings. “There is a significant demand and curiosity about his works, and I found myself in the position of constantly talking about his art, but not showing it. That’s why we decided to make another exhibition after five years,” Cennetoğlu says.
BAS, officially the İstanbul Art Research Association, is an open archive project initiated by Banu Cennetoğlu, that collects and features artist publications from all around the world. Founded in 2006, the space can be visited by anyone who wants to explore its hundreds of publications and periodicals. Apart from presenting them to all comers, the initiative also produces artists’ books in its Bent series, which has released books from artists such as Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Emre Hüner, Cevdet Erek and Atıl Kunst. Apart from the Bent series, BAS also published a resource book titled “An Interrupted History of Punk and Underground Resources in Turkey 1978-1999.” As an editorial policy, prices are kept affordable, ranging from TL 5 to TL 35. BAS is open from Tuesday to Saturday 12 p.m.-6 p.m. The Masist Gül archive will be on display until Nov. 8. For more information, visit http://www.b-a-s.info