Revisiting the Ottoman Legacy Through Art And Scholarship

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Two artists teamed with two historians to tackle issues connected with the Ottoman legacy on June 15 at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan. Two of these speakers specifically dealt with Armenian topics, while the other two spoke on broader Ottoman issues. All four were descendants of peoples living in the Ottoman Empire. The plan was for a novel interdisciplinary approach bringing together intellectuals who often work in different spheres and may not even be aware of the value of approaches in other fields.

According to the formal announcement for the event, the speakers were to question “some of the myths or fixed narratives” of the “Ottoman legacy,” and examine the mechanisms of Ottoman imperial control, its relationship to Western colonization and its positive contributions to world culture. They were to discuss how the Ottoman Empire’s “abrupt and violent reformulation into a nation-state affected the linguistic, ethnic, religious, political and other ‘minorities’ in modern Turkey.” Finally, how do the artists involved deal with “the lingering effects of the Empire’s unresolved legacy on contemporary life”? An audience of more than 40 people was present on June 15 — not bad considering that schools were out of session (and most of the attendees were Turks).

The evening event was the third in a series of ongoing public discussions organized in conjunction with the Blind Dates curatorial project directed and co-curated by Neery Melkonian with Defne Ayas. Several years in the making, with a number of forthcoming public events and workshops, this project will culminate in an exhibition consisting of approximately 15 collaborations between Armenian and Turkish as well as other artists who come from the post-Ottoman lands and are matched up by the curators for the first time through actual encounters, hence the name Blind Dates.

The first speaker, Assistant Prof. Christine Philliou of Columbia University, is a historian specializing in the Ottoman Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. Her forthcoming book, Biography of an Empire, examines changes in Ottoman governance in this period while focusing on the role of the Orthodox Christian Phanariotes. Philliou presented the parable of a play in order to open up a discussion on the rupture with the Ottoman past created in the new Kemalist Republic of Turkey. Refik Halit Karay (1888-1965) published the play “Deli” [Turkish for mad, crazy] as an exile in Aleppo in 1929. An Ottoman gentleman named Maruf Bey wakes up after years of unconsciousness and though now in the new Republic of Turkey, still believes Abdülhamid II is sultan. He is shocked by all the changes in appearance (no beards and mustaches for men, and Western clothing), the changes in roles for women, who attend school and are active in public and play sports, the use of the Latin alphabet and the dominance of Turkish nationalist ideology.

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Ruptures with the immediate past are emphasized, and changes in society criticized. The play raises the question of who is the fool — the one with amnesia, or the one who remembers the past. Philliou commented: “This would have been a trite and boring play in a different context, but since the obvious is not allowed to be said, it was possible just over the border in Syria for a Turk to break the silence and discuss what is happening.”

The second speaker, Hakan Topal, is a media artist and a doctoral student in sociology at New York’s New School for Social Research. He works with Guven Incirlioglu as part of the Xurban Collective. Topal showed slides from past projects, largely images of landscapes from Turkey, while talking. As an artist, he forthrightly proclaimed: “I am not a historian. I feel closer to archaeology. Archaeologists analyze the objects of a locality.” Together with his colleague he has been working on projects that deal with the Anatolian landscape for the last 10 years: “Looking at the landscape in Anatolia is a political act. Whatever you see is layers upon layers of unwritten history….where the earth becomes a sort of dissident too.” His collective’s participation in the Blind Dates project is called “Building Blocks” and revolves around examining the remains of homes in ‘abandoned’ Anatolian villages in order to better grasp broader contemporary issues: “For me, the outcome of this project may be to understand the possibility of justice, or the impossibility of it.”

Topal also talked about several aspects of justice. The first, in contemporary Turkey, concerns democracy: “You have to have participation of people in the political system. In southeastern Anatolia thousands of votes are being bought by the big parties.” Furthermore, without economic equality, you cannot have justice. Another aspect of justice is cultural recognition: “Until recently large sections of Anatolian population were not being recognized as cultures or nations.”

Since the density of the very earth leads it to preserve layers upon layers of unexamined facts, Topal’s artistic approach tries to uncover vestiges of histories which have yet to be written. He gave the example of looking at and seeing only the landscape, not the individuals, in pictures of the Armenian Genocide. Where are the people whose traces remain in these same landscapes that exist to this day? Why don’t professional archaeologists consider these remains in Anatolia worthy of study?

Archaeology used to rely on creating a kind of “rupture” in the earth to uncover certain facts about the past. This type of work is now considered a criminal act in Turkey. Today, non-intrusive methods must be utilized. “Our project for Blind Dates aims to look at things from a geological timeline in order to understand the Anatolian landscape in terms of its ruptures and fault lines. We can find remains of the earth at the end of the 19th century when what appears to be barren landscapes in these recent photographs [that he was projecting on the screen] are examined closely.” A research trip is planned by the Xurban group in August of this year to the northeast of Anatolia to continue this work and make it ready for the exhibition.

The third speaker, Lerna Ekmekcioglu, has just completed her doctoral dissertation at New York University. It is entitled “Improvising Turkishness: Being Armenian in Post-Ottoman Istanbul, 1918-1933.” Ekmekcioglu focused on the transitional period of the Armistice years after World War I, when for a brief period of time Armenians had hopes of “rescue” by the Allies, who would recreate “historical Western Armenia, what we now call Eastern Anatolia,” as part of a sovereign state.

From 1918 to 1922, anti-Turkish Armenian nationalism was dominant and accusatorily sought retributive justice for the Armenian Genocide. Ekmekcioglu relied heavily on the Armenian press of the period, along with some memoirs, for her analysis. The emphasis was on what the Armenians had just lost. The newspapers of Istanbul were full of pictures of dying children and victims of the Genocide. This was a period of fervid activity. In 1919 alone, 25 Armenian periodicals were started in Istanbul.

The burning of Smyrna in 1922 affected Ottoman-Armenian attitudes and self-perceptions greatly. With the withdrawal of the Allies from the new Turkish republic by 1923, and the loss of all hope of outside support, during the course of roughly 10 months local Armenian intellectuals changed their public discourse to become pro-Turkish in tone: “They understood that they are going to have to live with these people [the Turks], even though they don’t love them.” This was a necessary form of self-defense, since “From the Turkish perspective, they had clearly betrayed the Turks during the armistice period, and before it.”

Armenians stopped publicly mentioning their orphans, ignored discrimination, forgot about the “historical homeland” and exhibited “exaggerated loyalty towards the Turkish state.” This was a case of public forgetting and selective memory, “a communal survival strategy.” Ottoman Armenians became transformed into

Turkish Armenians, one of the official minorities recognized in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923: “Armenians tried to camouflage themselves — those who stayed behind or could not leave.” After 1924, public Turkophilism intensified almost to the degree of self-negation: “Some Armenian writers even argued that Armenians are actually Turks, and how nice it was that they would have Turkish last names now.”

Ekmekcioglu focused on the work of the Istanbul-Armenian writer and editor Hayganush Mark, born in 1884, to illuminate the changes that soon took place in Ottoman Armenian society. She edited the journal Hay Gin [Armenian Woman] from 1919 to 1933. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the journal published much less political thinking, lost readership and revenues, and became more of a women’s journal, with articles on cooking and housework. The Turkish government closed down the journal in 1933. Ekmeckioglu argued that it was probably because of her writings during the Armistice years. Mark avoided writing about the war years in her autobiography, which was published in 1954 in Istanbul.

The editor considered Hay Gin to be the daughter that she never had, and would count its age every year. When it was shut down, for Mark, it was as if her child was killed: “This traumatized her. She could not touch a pen for years.” Ekmekcioglu concluded, “Something that began during the rupture continued with her to her death.”

The fourth speaker, Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian, came from Lebanon as a young man to San Francisco in 1984. While introducing himself, he pointed out that he immigrated to the US “after the second Israeli invasion. Sabra Shatila [the 1982 massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims] was a reminder for us Armenians that things still happen in broad daylight.” A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, in 2005, he moved to Los Angeles. Eulmessekian is an artist who works in various media like film, video, silkscreen, photography and painting in order to explore “history and identity as constructs.”

As a prelude to discussing his Blind Dates audio-visual installation called “Solemnity,” Eulmessekian presented examples of his past work which dealt with issues of language and its relation to representation. Often, he layered transparencies of pictures to form new images. “It is the same idea of compressed time.”

“Bruitage,” a 58-minute video from 2006, combines images with sounds from his family’s house in Beirut before the civil war, where the viewer barely notices any movement. Eulmessekian is using a similar approach to create “Solemnity.” He is collaborating with Anahid Kassabian to produce the audio component. Kassabian, not present at this event, currently holds the James and Constance Alsop Chair of Music at the University of Liverpool, England.

Eulmessekian is interested in the journalistic concept of “deep background” when the
information divulged cannot even be directly paraphrased, “so language itself becomes forbidden. Similarly ‘Solemnity’ deals with the impossibility of narrating or ‘documenting’ catastrophic events. In many ways it feels like while searching for a meaning there is all along a conspiracy or a cover-up. In this case, I as the artist am forbidding or covering up in order to reveal that there is no narrative which can do justice to the actual experience of calamities.”

“Solemnity” contemplates questions particular to the Armenian Genocide: “What remained after this march of annihilation was debris in Anatolia…a debris of suffering, a debris of pain, a debris of grief that can’t be captured by a single photograph, single testimony, single poem, novel, memoir, documentary or history text.” Thus, “Solemnity” is a critique of attempts to recreate or represent the trauma of the Genocide “in documentary-like verisimilitude, of embellished sense of authenticity that pretends to foster fantasies of witnessing, of suffering in the present, and of understanding.” The representation of the past which lies in ruins is impossible, according to some literary theorists and writers. Here, Eulmessekian and Kassabian draw from the works of Hagop
Oshagan, Marc Nichanian, Krikor Beledian and David Kazanjian.

The intent of the artwork is to make us consider “how to mourn without marching and remarching [through] the death fields.” Eulmessekian wants the viewer to explore the distance between the event itself and its representation, and what we can understand in a moral capacity. This is a very different approach than that of historians. In a prior written statement, he explained: “It aspires to create a new subject position where only “bare humanity” can be recovered, and hence “mourned for” in solemnity, in compassion, and “tebi gyank” (toward life), as Vahe Oshagan would put it.”

There will be two parts to the “Solemnity” installation at Pratt in November: an extremely slow moving video projection at the granular level of an archival photograph of individuals from the Genocide, and an array of mini-speakers directed towards a wall, not the audience: “The sound usually comes to you from the source — we are sending the sound to the picture.” Consequently, the sound will be muffled. The projection of the archival image will be onto the array of speakers.

Discussion

After the four presentations, Brooklyn-based visual artist Nadia Awad attempted to link together the issues raised and stimulate conversation amongst the presenters and the audience. Awad pointed out that “three things kept on coming up — the idea of the orphan, the artifact and the story. These three things are in conflict with one another.”

She asked which specific values were Ottoman in the societies created on the territory of the former Empire. How were the ruptures in Lebanese society that Eulmessekian dealt with part of the Ottoman legacy? Awad pointed out that some of the difficulties of dual identity faced by Turkish Armenians might be similar to those of Jews in 19th-century Europe (as described by Karl Marx’s article “On the Jewish Question”) or African-Americans in the US (as in W. E. B. Dubois’s famous concept of “double consciousness”). She also felt that “all of you as scholars and artists, you are approaching history and culture from this idea that we need to focus on what is not there.” She gave as an example the Armenian identity in post-1923 Turkey, as being the identity of “I am not really here” which developed as a survival mechanism.

In response to a question from this writer, Topal elaborated his thoughts further: “What is justice when based on property ownership? You do something, and property is taken away from you. What does this mean? Is justice possible, if land can be owned by Armenians again? If we pose questions like this we end up in a dead-end. The problem itself was ownership of land. Who can own the land? I would like to pose another perspective that we don’t own the land — the land owns us. Because history is about ownership of lands, what I am proposing is to open up the possibility of thinking of a new condition. We have to look to the earth, for a new ethical position.”

Co-curator Neery Melkonian asked Lerna if similar studies were available on other groups, and how the latter experienced or internalized the new identity imposed by the modernist Turkish state. What happened to women, to religious minorities, the Assyrians and Greeks in Turkey, so that the Armenians are not studied in isolation when one talks about the Ottoman rupture.

Melkonian stressed that the event was designed to bring scholar and non-scholar/artist together to learn from each other and to inform the curatorial process: “Artists are overlooked when we think about these questions. Artists help us see the world in ways that social scientists can’t, or are not trained to do.” Ekmekcioglu responded that she was open to this idea, but “as to how we would speak with each other, I am not sure.” She also pointed out that because so little research was done on Ottoman and post-Ottoman topics, especially on non-Turkish peoples like the Armenians, that despite the interconnections necessary to be understood, initially basic work had to be done, and time and resources were limited: “As scholars, we have only one lifetime to focus on something.”

Co-curator Defne Ayas later conjectured in writing: “Can an artist work in the position of the outsider with no inhibitions? Can an artist act as a historian who deals with not only facts but also speculations? Is that a possibility?

When you look specifically at a given situation, there’s often a gap between the existing, written, accepted history and other versions that have been erased because they didn’t fit in a given regime’s agenda. History is always written with a purpose. Can this platform allow for alternative points to be made, either to de-construct an existing myth, or building up a non-existing narrative?”

Conclusions

The ambitious goals for the evening may not have been fully realized. The academic speakers stuck to relatively specific topics of their own research without addressing many of the broader questions pertaining to the Ottoman legacy. The artists expressed their dissatisfaction with traditional historical approaches but did not grapple with specifics in that realm.

Nonetheless, important questions were raised, and this evening showed how difficult it is to answer them. The event also is part of a longer-term project, and cannot be judged until fully materialized. The artists’ projects are still works in progress. They will be inaugurated as part of the Blind Dates exhibition, which opens at Pratt Manhattan Gallery in November along with 10 other artistic collaborations. When seen together, they aim to put forth a more nuanced understanding of what remains of the Ottoman rupture today. Current aesthetic and philosophical approaches are being applied to explore the topic, including the Genocide, for this innovative exhibition, which hopefully will travel afterwards to other parts of the US and abroad.

Co-curator Defne Ayas later further expatiated on the innovative element to the Blind Dates process: “These series of public programs are very important to us and to the process. As you know, an exhibition is a relatively closed system, and we are fully focused on turning it into a process in progress in which the idea of culture, as something that exists in and through dialogue, and could be re-imagined and practiced. Can we really represent a larger, more diverse vision of culture, asking ‘What can it be? Where is it in the USA and beyond? How does it get constituted?’ We have yet to see.’”
Re-evaluating culture is a constant necessity, but it’s not easy to be the messenger carrying critical stances. The role of art/artist is to question, keep things in motion. If we can do it both through the exhibition and public programs, all the merrier.”

Nick Battis, Pratt Institute’s director of exhibitions, immediately after the event, declared to this writer how pleased he was with this event, and the Blind Dates series to which it belongs. In fact, he felt the project pioneered the useful idea of pairing scholars and artists, and said would like to use this approach in other contexts and exhibitions: “We have things to learn from one another. The role of the artist has not been understood in contemporary times. A lot of these people do serious research into their topics.” The artists thus can learn more of methodologies for exploring factual backgrounds, while the scholars get a deeper understanding at different levels and disciplines.
Battis also pointed out that neither he nor the co-curators expect that the Blind Dates project would lead to peace, reconciliation or forgiveness between peoples with complex and troubled histories: “That is too big a goal. Our aim is to reveal and understand that complexity.”

(For further information, see the following websites: http://blinddatesproject.org/; http://www.umich.edu/~turkish/links/mouseover/mad/mad.html; www.xurban.net and www.ehrayr.com.)

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