Part performance art, part sculpture, Ataman’s “Sılsel: Letters to Turkey” consists of hundreds of pieces of cloth inscribed with messages written by visitors, then stitched together to form a giant patchwork draped over a scaffold of wires.
“Sılsel” opened this month as a parliamentary commission writes articles of a new constitution to replace the current authoritarian charter drawn up after a 1980 military coup. The commission, made up of parliament’s four main parties, invited citizens from all walks of life to provide input on the new charter. Representatives of Turkey’s widely differing religions, ethnic groups, unions, sexual orientations and others participated.
“When the government announced it would ask every segment of society to contribute to the new constitution, it occurred to me ‘Sılsel’ could be done as a civil demonstration of the process,” Ataman, 51, said in an interview. “We’re not used to a civil tone in our politics,” he said. “This may be the first time in Turkey that a political act has been turned into public art.”
Turner Prize-nominated Ataman, who also makes films, is one of Turkey’s most politically outspoken artists. “Sılsel” took shape when he was travelling across southeastern Turkey to neighboring Syria in 2011 to film the seeds of the uprising that has now claimed almost 10,000 lives. His crew and driver refused to continue to Syria after hearing reports of the violence while in the Turkish city of Mardin. As a diversion, Ataman was taken to the home of a local textile printmaker, Nasra Simmeshindi, 87. On her ceiling was a blue zigzag motif she called sılsel, which Ataman later learned is Aramaic for “sky” or “fluttering of wings.” Simmeshindi, a Syriac Christian, told him sılsel stood in for the sky during those times when violence outside made her brethren too fearful to leave home. Simmeshindi provided the first piece in the installation.
Letters to Turkey
With less than a week left in the “Sılsel” show, some 400 visitors have contributed “a letter to Turkey.” Messages within the winding ribbon include “Don’t fear and don’t cause fear,” and “Heterosexism is the opium of the masses. I want free and fair streets to kiss.”
“’Sılsel’ symbolizes the challenges of the constitutional undertaking in Turkey and the accumulated problems of a culture of nationalism,” said Levent Çalıkoğlu, chief curator at the İstanbul Modern, which hosted Ataman’s first retrospective in 2010. “Like much of Kutluğ’s works, it tackles social, cultural and political issues but with a focus on the individual and personal stories.”
A filmmaker by training, Ataman’s video and photographic narratives of the personal and political are in the collections of London’s Tate and the Musuem of Modern Art in New York.
Openly gay, Ataman has criticized Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s government’s stance on homosexuality, as well as the treatment of other minorities, even though he has backed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Since sweeping to power in 2002, AK Party has sought to reshape Turkish society, easing restrictions on religion, reining in the political power of the military and expanding Kurdish rights. “For a conservative society to change, it had to come from the conservatives,” Ataman said. “I am happy with important steps the AK Party has taken and disappointed with others.”
Ataman himself was arrested and tortured in 1980 after the army seized power, because of his ties to a left-leaning youth group and films he made of street demonstrations. He fled to the United States, where he studied film at UCLA, and was eventually acquitted of charges of political violence.
Now Kenan Evren, the 94-year-old retired general who led the coup and installed himself as president, has been indicted, part of efforts by a secular Muslim democracy to confront a past littered with bloody military interventions. Evren’s trial “is a denouement. I don’t care if he dies, is set free or is sent to prison,” Ataman said. “It’s important for our society to see that someone in that position can be tried.”
Last art project
Ataman compared “Sılsel” with the Aids Memorial Quilt as a form of community art and to the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France, as a document of a historical event. He wants to continue collecting pieces for the expanding bolt of cloth and tour it abroad before returning to filmmaking. “‘Sılsel’ is my last big art project. I will now do my storytelling through film,” Ataman said, citing difficulty raising funds for his artwork. “Sılsel” occupies the auditorium of the Galata Greek Primary School, whose last kindergarten student left five years ago. Meri Komorasono, an ethnic Greek and head of the foundation that now runs the school as a cultural center, sewed a piece of fabric emblazoned with the badge of the alumni association. “We are sharing our common values here. To me, ‘Sılsel’ is symbolic of this new spirit of cooperation,” she said.