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  • Feb 29, 2012

Güneş Terkol’s “The Main Forces That Stir Up Action”

Installation view of works by G

Güneş Terkol’s fabric collages feel like they are living objects. Made from layers of assorted textiles, hastily cut and sewn together, the edges of her banners are ragged, threads are coming loose, and they hang crookedly on the wall. Her style is economic and sometimes cartoonish, with figures rendered in heavy black outlines. She primarily depicts women, at work or with their families, and animals or hybrid figures—as in Girl with a Snake (2010), a crimson-colored woman with her arms outstretched, showing off a pair of wings, and her lower body comprising a jar with a curled snake inside. Moreover, each object has some story to tell—whether about the artist’s family (Tatar farmers who left communist Russia for China, only to later find themselves under another communist regime, prompting some of them to relocate to Turkey), the struggle for women’s equality and, in several collaborative works, the dreams and aspirations of women.

At Galeri Non, Terkol's exhibition “The Main Forces That Stir Up Action” (showing through March), gives one the sense that Terkol is a prolific maker of objects, whose style is maturing from slapdash to thoughtfully idiosyncratic, as she pays more attention to materials, colors and composition. That progression was on view in Non’s largest room, where on a wall covered with brown fabric, hung smaller pieces from the last six years, beginning with the small, wrinkled, messily sewn and unlovely piece Kendini Sakatlamıştı (Mutilated Himself) (2005). More recent works were handsome and sincere, as in the portraits of a female pharmacist and a woman working in a library, as well as wonderfully weird, such as a floating mouth filled with golden teeth depicted on pink cloth, or the bust of a lion sewn onto animal- and safari-print fabrics (with echoes of Gülsün Karamustafa in the gold-fabric frame).

Terkol’s feminist politics seems not particularly sophisticated by the standards of contemporary-art discourse on the politics of representation. But the issues she is addressing remain fundamental and pressing in Turkey, where (as numerous international and Turkish NGOs and media outlets regularly report) violence and discrimination against women is still endemic and systemically ignored by the conservative government. Terkol directly addresses this hostile culture in İçim Üşüyor (I am Cold Inside) (2011), a fabric collage in yellow, blue and pink, that shows a woman lying alone on a beach, with a crowd of men in the background. She has brought her own heater because, the story goes, a lone woman is so crowded by harassing men that they block the sun.


Her most interesting engagement with politics is at the human level. In a separate room, Terkol displayed three large banners, two to three meters wide, produced at workshops with women in three cities over the past couple of years: Istanbul, Antakya (for the 2010 Antakya Biennial) and in Chongqing, China, during a residency at Art Space OrganHaus. Each of the banners—mounted on wooden frames and ready to be carried out for a protest—was designed by Terkol but filled out with the stitching of the local participants. Created in Antalya, Kadınların Şarkısı (Song of the Women) (2010) has a large green lion as its background, serving as a landscape across which ten women march carrying flags. Workshop participants added their wishes to these flags, expressing, among other things, the longing for their husbands in a city where many men leave to work in Arab countries. In Dreams On the River (2011), a silhouette of Chongqing’s modern skyline is the backdrop for five female figures whose feet are resting on dwarfed river ferries and whose hearts are connected to dialogue balloons, representing their wishes—among them the desire for more children, prohibited for most Chinese citizens by the one-child policy.

These wishes are as simple as their mode of expression—which I didn’t mind in Terkol’s works, given that they are such fundamental human desires to begin with, and yet ones that would rarely find their way into an art context otherwise. Particularly in Istanbul, a city where so much of the art community’s current focus is on “educating” a new class of already privileged citizens (and corporations) in contemporary aesthetics, there remains an enormous reluctance to simultaneously engage with progressive politics, which begins with ensuring equality under the law and also means addressing the pressing social issues that the country at large still faces. If Terkol’s aesthetic is populist and humanist—rather than rarefied and theoretical—that’s because her politics appear to be as well. 

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