To the Western gaze, the leaping dance of the Maasai is an iconic signature of exotic, distant lands, where people adorned in entirely distinctive dress are festooned in necklaces as wide as the brim of a safari hat, robed in vibrant reds and blues, their bodies thin as the trees that surround them in the semi-arid ecology along the Great Rift Valley. In her two-minute video, “We Are Here,” curated at the center of her retrospective, “This Place We Call World,” which encompasses nearly four decades of work, Selma Gürbüz adapts the photogenic tradition.
In notes accompanying the piece, the curation by Öykü Özsoy discusses the transformative potential of the ritual and its representation. It has the power to transport its observer not only into a worldview indigenous to the African Great Lakes, but also toward a shapeshifting mentality where reality and fiction coalesce and birth a singular order of being. The scene’s naturalness contrasts with digital collaborations, a pointillist particle animation by Ali Emre Karaçalı and heaving mechanical sound engineering by Kerim Karaoğlu.
The video itself was shot by the poet Burak Acar, who Gürbüz traveled with to the Serengeti, ultimately inspiring her return from a three-year hiatus to the exhibition of her work. There is a moment that she reveals in an interview when a lone lion appeared in the grasslands, moving to the rhythm of the wind. She described the effect of the moment as a shock akin to what she felt on first seeing the Maasai, a spirit of independence that empowered her to create anew in direct dialogue with her prolific past.
With over 100 works selected by Özsoy, a senior curator at Istanbul Modern, the show exemplifies the best intentions of the Women Artists Fund, foregrounding Gürbüz in the ongoing saga of making female Turkish artists more visible.
Gürbüz, born in 1960 in Istanbul, received her initial higher art education in the U.K. at Exeter College before returning to Istanbul to pursue a painting degree at Marmara University. Since graduating in the mid-1980s, she has gone on to enter the world’s most prestigious collections, including The British Museum.
One of the more impressive elements of Gürbüz, which jumps out in a way perhaps comparable to the upward momentum of a Maasai ceremony, is her attention to paper, specifically handmade varieties, as intimately related to the subject matter that appears on their surface. The fibrous material is organic and speaks of its adventure of having been made with a force and grace not unlike her fine approach to painting itself. Yet, the material discourse of naturalism as pure and alive is imbalanced inside the institutional airs of Istanbul Modern.
While respectful to the formidable role that Gürbüz has assumed in Turkish art history, the in-house curatorial practice of Özsoy is about as old-fashioned as the cultural importance of a Western expedition to the African wilderness in the midst of 21st-century globalization. It is problematic to pose Africa as a distant, reliable muse for Turkish art, aligned with native tribes and untouchable lands, while increasing numbers of African migrants work the streets of Istanbul and Congolese photographer Sammy Baloji exhibits concurrently at Pera Museum.
Gürbüz maintains a palette of red, gold and black throughout her works, evoking a mythopoetic world of her own making, alongside the land of the living. While influenced by cultural motifs, such as Greek pottery, Japanese calligraphy and African sculpture, she is grappling with the visualization of the afterlife as it recurs before her alone, as a phenomenon coexistent in the sensual world, accessible through alternate states of mind. Death is a constant theme in her works, yet, it is as if she were painting its hints and whims from the other side.
The red sun blazes in the next world, its rays dangling over a golden sky, under which black skeletons dance with anthropomorphic plants. It is an active, spiritual realm in which the boundaries of life are long transcended, animated by the limitlessness of flight. There is no solid ground to speak of in such works, as “From Where We Left Off” (2019), made with ink on handmade paper, but rather vaguely, the explanatory texts that follow each work throughout the show refer to the anachronistic generality of her integrating “Eastern and Western” aspects.
In an increasingly color-conscious world where racial blindness is an excuse for ignorance and words have unprecedented potency to conjure histories of violence, the near-symmetrically perfect, ancient aesthetics of the piece “Reflection” (2018-2019) are cause for certain wonder. The unmistakably human figures are winged. One is black, the other orange, and both of their brains are exposed, further enunciating their departure from realism, toward a world where myth and art commingle.
But Gürbüz advances a stylization of figurative realism in relation to her early work in the Paris printmaking studio of surrealist Spanish artist Joan Miro, known for his wisps of fancy that delighted in the informality of color over shape. Gürbüz, however, is on the other side of the spectrum in terms of her approachability. Her works are representational, but they also bend reality, particularly gender expression. “Tree Woman” (2019), for example, diversifies human dualism in the same way that she points to the life in death, and the death in life.
The celebration of universal, transcendent unity is sometimes merely a lack of clarity, and such could be said of the curation’s differentiating between creative periods and approaches in the life’s work of Gürbüz, who explored such popular techniques as op-art in a series of ink portraits of women on handmade Japanese paper. Yet, these trials were not necessarily fulfilled of themselves, and seem to have been gateways for her to realize more mature works, such as her oil painting, “Daybreak. Burden.” (2011).
Another series of landscape works of gouache, made in 2006, appear almost irrelevant as they hang in their own hall, on thin paper, slightly off-center. In their naivety, however, is the redemption of the artist’s voice, as someone who has dared to integrate a foreign visual world into Turkish art history, which is too often circumscribed and pigeonholed by domestic issues. And she has come around, through the African wilderness, to such series as “Creatures” (2019), fictive, humanoid animals that she adapted for the video “Chase” (2020), set against observational photography of a female lion emerging out of obscurity, staring back.