İsmail Acar’s depictions of İstanbul often bring new life to historical elements of the city. Byzantine colors, Ottoman heritage and the current panorama of the old city are once again intertwined in Acar’s newest collection, which went on display last week at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski Art Gallery, located in Ortaköy.
Acar, one of the most famous representatives of contemporary art in Turkey, is showcasing a wide range of his works, starting from 1993 to more recent ones in this new show titled “Üç İstanbul” (Three İstanbuls).
The 50-piece collection is made up of paintings grouped under such sections as Eastern Rome, Ottoman, The Republic, and Fairytales for the Future and will remain on display until Jan. 4, 2011.
The 39-year-old artist -- known internationally for his exhibitions on themes such as the Hagia Sophia, calligraphy, kaftans, the women of the Turkish War of Independence, portraits of sultans, Byzantium, ancient gods and kings of Anatolia and icons of the East -- is largely focused on the ideas of cultural heritage, geography and the world in the present day.
“This exhibition reflects my entire experience as an artist,” says Acar in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “There are paintings here created about 10 years ago as well as other works that I painted this year. The themes I depict in my work are always fresh for me, and they always occupy a place in my mind and my memory. I’ve been living in İstanbul since I was 15 years old, and İstanbul has a great influence on my art.”
Acar also highlights what he calls a cultural “break” in the city’s history through this show. “I can’t see any synergy between the three İstanbuls,” says Acar. “There are very serious distinctions. Interestingly, there is no break between the Byzantium and Ottoman [periods], although one is Christian and the other is Muslim. The Ottoman Empire preserved many concepts belonging to Byzantium and embodied this into the memory of İstanbul, as in the case of the Hagia Sofia. So, there was continuity [in the Ottoman era]. The [architectural] forms used in the Byzantium and Ottoman [periods] never contradicted each other. However, when you look at the Republican period, there is no identity of the city. Does İstanbul now resemble New York with its skyscrapers, or is this multicultural city losing its identity day by day? I think, the Republican period [administrators], particularly after the 1960s, were not concerned much about this, but Sultan Mehmet II was.”
‘Disidentification’ of İstanbul
Acar indicates that more recent building construction such as skyscrapers, plazas and gigantic shopping malls should not be located in the historical areas of İstanbul. “Unfortunately, we’re acting as if we won this city in a lottery or something, but we didn’t,” says Acar. “When Sultan Mehmet first conquered the city, he didn’t want his people to settle near hilltops overlooking the Bosporus in order to maintain its beauty. He used the Hagia Sofia without making any changes [to its architectural structure] or he never intended to construct a greater mosque because it already embodied greatness. What we are doing now stems from [an inferiority] complex: Who cares if you construct the greatest shopping center in Europe,” he says.
Acar believes the collective memory of the city should be revived before it’s too late. “This is a city where different architectural identities exist. And this is a city through which a sea passes. If we don’t claim this city, others will do so and we will raise diffident generations in the future as we’re already witnessing this loss of memory in society.”
Acar relates this loss of memory to migration and how this fact is manipulated by politicians who care for nothing but votes.
“I think society is in a state of trauma about the future,” says Acar. “And as an individual living today, I feel like I am in the middle of this trauma. We need a cure, and for this reason artists take responsibility for the age they live in. And the best way to find a cure is to look back at history. The Turkish people have many things to learn from their own history.”
Constructing concepts for the future
What Acar tries to imply in his work is not the reproduction of the past or a mere nostalgia for the past. “I draw what I see from my window,” he says. “I see the Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, the sea, the Bosporus strait. I can’t draw the skyscrapers of New York. What I see is my own history, and I want to portray that awareness. The history lying here is valuable for me. I’m not talking about revisiting the past. This is about conveying these refined values to the present time and even to the future.”
At this point, Acar draws attention to the significance of creating new and potent concepts and recognizing the difference between modernization and occidentalization. “While you are searching for something new, you have to find what you have in the past and construct a new value on the existing values. This is like the steps on a gradual path, and we have to convey a part of ourselves to the future and this is what will make us special. The prescription of progress is modernization with our own values, but not with occidentalization. In this sense, I have the same concerns with a Japanese or a Chinese person because we are the East. We do not create concepts to destroy the West, but instead we do for ourselves to survive.”
What Acar gives as an example for his ideas is also quite interesting. “Just as Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ or ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci are the icons of Christianity, we have our own icons. People form long queues to see these works, and I witnessed one of these queues in İstanbul,-- in front of the Sacred Trusts. Conscious or unconscious, ignorant or intellectual, it doesn’t matter, but this is a social reflex. So how can you shut your eyes to this?”
This has been the point of departure where Acar combines different traditional styles with occidental techniques in his works. “I used the traditional arts and the values of the past since I wanted to symbolize them and give a new form to them. I am trying to liaise with the two cultures -- the stylization and the formation because İstanbul itself is the most important bridge between the East and the West.”