Miniature paintings, big trouble, not a damn given: the artist formerly known as Canan Şenol
In Turkish, the word for the Bosphorus Strait also means ‘throat’ – fitting, given that the water churning through the river is like blood feeding into Istanbul’s carotid artery. Look one way, and you can see the historic peninsula of the Golden Horn, the massive dome of the Hagia Sophia dominating the horizon. On the right, a ferry cruises near a 15th century fortress that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II used to stage the conquest of what was then Constantinople. Turn a little more, and you can glimpse new office buildings and cell towers rising on the Anatolian side of the city, and hear the dull roar of Turkish Airlines jets descending towards Atatürk International Airport. On a recent spring day, I sat on the ferry and looked into the shockingly blue water flecked with the bits of bread my fellow passengers were hurling at the seagulls wheeling overhead. The 360-degree view can leave the casual observer slightly overwhelmed; a boat ride across a river becomes an inadvertent trip through time.
On that particular Saturday, I was crossing the Bosphorus to speak with an artist with a reputation for connecting the past and the present. For the better part of 20 years, the artist CANAN (formerly Canan Şenol) has been creating art probing history, myth, and gender politics in a variety of shifting media. A feminist artist of Kurdish descent based in Istanbul, she made her reputation working with miniatures of the Persian and Ottoman traditions, as well as photography, video, needlework, and sculpture; yet, the artist lives in a remarkably mundane neighbourhood: Kurtuluş, a former Greek quarter near the Osmanbey metro stop, where apartment buildings are in muted pastel shades of beige, pink, and light green. Turkish flags, flying in commemoration of the national sovereignty holiday, waved in the breeze, and the sound of clattering dishes drifted out onto the sidewalk as people tidied up after lunch.
I was anxious to meet the artist CANAN that afternoon at her studio. From what I’d seen of her artwork, I was expecting someone who was serious – even severe – with an intimidating oeuvre tackling thorny subjects; but, talking over black forest cake and coffee, I found CANAN, with her wide smile, razor-sharp wit, and knowledge about the history, methods, and media of her work, to be just the opposite. CANAN’s home studio was spotless. Within was a long desk next to the window, and a sewing machine, while on each wall were prints from It was Worth the Evil Eye into My World, a public photography series advertising a heavily made-up CANAN. ‘Sometimes, it’s like isolation: I don’t go anywhere, and I spend all my energy for my project’, CANAN told me, ‘and I’m working 24 hours [a day]. I’m thinking and trying to use different kinds of materials and media, so it’s [easier] to have a home studio.’
CANAN works without an assistant or any outside help when creating a miniature or video piece, instead concentrating on learning the technique herself. Her process begins with sketching at the table in her studio, followed by deciding on which medium works best for a project – video, miniature, performance, or something else. ‘My videos are very long – anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, or an hour’, she explained. ‘In these, I am able to tell a long story; but with miniatures, there’s only one frame.’ The difficulty in this, according to the artist, is having to narrate an entire story in only one image. ‘It’s a challenge, I feel. In that way, I tell a story.’
In last year’s Shining Darkness series, CANAN sewed scenes onto fabric hung a metre in front of a blank wall. A light mounted on the ceiling shone through the fabric, simultaneously reflecting off the shiny paillettes on it and throwing enormous shadows of her figures onto the wall behind. I found the effect disconcerting, and wasn’t sure whether to focus on the colourful, sequinned scene, or the hulking shadows behind it. CANAN told me the aim of the series was to illustrate how a bleak world continues to turn. ‘One moment, a bomb explodes, but on the other side of the event, we continue with our daily life.’ The bombs CANAN described are anything but figurative: ‘Bombs have exploded two streets away from me, and in Taksim [Square], a bomb [also] exploded; yet, the next day I continued to live my life. The name Shining Darkness and this dualistic position of light and dark spectacles comes from this.’ The series isn’t only limited to Turkey, however. ‘Around the world, many places are experiencing the same moment of a lack of security and safety’, she noted, ‘but our environment of insecurity is not an absolute obstacle. We are passing through a dark period, and I wanted to speak about the darkness surrounding us; but we can [also] turn to the lighter matters shining through.’
The Shining Darkness series came about in a year when Turkey was wracked by multiple terrorist attacks, including the October bombing in Ankara that killed over 100 people at a rally (calling for an end to the violence in the country’s southeast), and successive bombings in the city as well as in Istanbul, Bursa, and Gaziantep. In one of the artist’s works from the series, The Eye of Big Brother: Ankara, flames lick at naked figures, while an eye, lidded with fire, looms in the background. ‘Shining Darkness depicted what happened in the Ankara bombing … The depictions of hell in miniatures seemed to fit completely. After that, all my work started to move in this direction.’
CANAN told me that making art is a kind of therapy for her, and that she has no choice but to work though the pain and horror of seeing Turkey descend into the kind of violence it hasn’t witnessed in decades. ‘There is no chance for daily life not to impact what you create in your work’, the artist said. ‘[The violence] affected me directly, and I came to ignore everything else; I didn’t have a chance to produce any other work. Besides, I generally produce work close to my life stories.’
It was in 1998 that CANAN began working with miniatures. After undertaking research on the subject, she felt it was necessary to dive deeper through academic study. ‘I only loved it more’, she said, describing her feelings at the time. Yet, for much of the history of modern Turkey, miniatures were hardly ever revisited by Turkish artists or even art historians, making CANAN amongst the first to bring them into the realm of contemporary Turkish art. ‘After the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the [miniature tradition] became ostracised during the period of Westernisation’, the artist remembered. ‘This policy against previously-produced traditional works of art was a discontinuity.’
CANAN, though a visual artist, sees herself more than anything else as a storyteller and interpreter of the past – whether that past is myth, forgotten artistic traditions, or oral history
Pelin Tan, currently an associate professor at Mardin Artuklu University’s Faculty of Architecture and a visiting research associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University worked with CANAN on miniatures in an art history postgraduate programme at the Istanbul Technical University. According to Tan, CANAN was impressed by how miniatures differ from paintings in the Western art tradition in their two-dimensional perspective and the way power is represented. ‘Far fewer painting rules apply in miniature painting’, Tan told me, ‘and yet, in terms of the stories, characters, and little gestures, [they] are powerful’. CANAN echoed Tan when describing how ‘On one hand, miniatures simply interested me; on the other, I started to learn about visual history because written history was missing something, or didn’t correctly communicate some things. To me, oral history and visual history seemed complementary.’
An example is the pair of miniatures by CANAN depicting protests in Istanbul. Istiklal Street – Resistance and 1 May, 2010 both depict protesters clashing against riot police near Taksim Square. As with Ottoman miniatures depicting festivals, there is a certain joy to the scene, with people waving colourful flags despite the grim subtext of political repression. And, because of the representative power of miniatures, these works show different times or moments in a single picture – a scene of fear and joy unfurling before one’s eyes. ‘In both, there are policemen and protesters, but [Taksim Square] has always witnessed the whole of history’, CANAN noted. ‘[In the pictures] there are policemen and other things, but I modelled the May 1st gathering after the euphoric celebrations in miniatures depicting war [scenes].’ 1 May, 2010, in particular, uses the miniature technique to warp time and show what Taksim Square has witnessed on two different May 1st celebrations: the left half shows 1977, where dozens of protesters were killed, and the right depicts a 2010 rally, with water cannons and riot police lined up in a phalanx. CANAN’s characteristic meticulousness was on display when making these pieces. For both works, she photographed each building around Taksim Square and depicted them in the miniatures accordingly. ‘Istiklal Street was modelled on the past, and in this way I [depicted] it between the past and present. The same method was used for 1 May, 2010: all the buildings were photographed one by one and represented in the picture.’
At times, CANAN combines photography and miniature for a mixed-media presentation of state power versus the Other. ‘Miniatures represent the Other-ised, the East, or other alienated people. The soldiers, represented using photographs, are shown as more powerful. [This] creates a collage effect’, CANAN explained. In Village Square, men depicted in the miniature style disrobe in a village where soldiers, rendered using photos, stand by. CANAN told me that this work originates from her 2009 video project, Exemplary, in which a young girl moves from eastern Turkey to Istanbul. In it, the artist touches on subjects of feminism, migration, Kurdish identity, and the urbanism of Istanbul, ‘which are all nowadays the reality in the Turkish public sphere, and are all related to each other’, according to Tan.
Both Exemplary and Village Square can be traced back to the stories CANAN’s grandmother used to tell her. ‘People originate from stories, and these are the pictures I make’, CANAN told me, before explaining one of the stories behind the two works:
In [my grandmother’s] explanation, soldiers went to the village square. They told the villagers there to no longer wear their old and traditional clothes, [but to] instead wear new and different outfits. As a warning, they collected their clothes in the village square; but, since they had no other clothes, the villagers stood there naked.
The tale was explained to CANAN as a comical story, although to her it represented the dark underbelly of modernisation and state power. ‘Things change, and yet here soldiers, or the state, or the army always wound [us] by bringing about [change] by force.’
In Village Square, Istiklal Street – Resistance, 1 May, 2010, and other works, the artist takes tangible, urgent, and contemporary political events and puts them into miniature-based narratives. ‘It is very interesting that [CANAN] tells a story that most artists tell through other kinds of Western art,’ Tan said, ‘but she chose a non-Western style of representation, which is the old style of bygone centuries, and uses it to depict current sociopolitical issues’. In using a medieval medium to represent contemporary themes, CANAN has also been joined by Turkish artist Murat Palta, as well as the Iranian artist Soody Sharifi.
CANAN’s works in miniatures, photography, and video, are inextricably linked. Miniatures transcend the laws of time and space to make all perspectives visible at once. At the same time, CANAN’s visual work seems to make the personal public. In her Faraway Forest Near City series from 2015, she is photographed naked, first in the alleys and backstreets of Istanbul, and then later in the woods north of the city. As part of a performance piece, after learning she was pregnant in 2000, she purchased and installed a large backlit sign above an Istanbul Internet café that read, ‘Finally, you are in me’. It was a double entendre she know would elicit a reaction, which it did: the signboard was taken down, and the artist was fined.
Beginning in the late 90s, as Tan explained, CANAN was a pioneer amongst feminist Turkish artists for the bold, personal quality of her works, and the way in which she cleverly subverted patriarchal and Western norms though them. ‘At the end of the 90s, CANAN [produced] a lot of images of body performance and of the naked body, which were very important for us, because she was the only one doing it’, she said. ‘There were some artists in the 70s [who had done that], but they lived in Paris … they always had the freedom of living in Europe. CANAN was always in Turkey.’
For CANAN, navigating the sensational and the informative is a delicate balance that rests on how she handles controversy, especially in conservative Turkish circles. ‘If you are provocative, you can make people think about and discuss the art’, she said, ‘but if you make sensational things, your aim is not to make people think about or discuss the subject: your aim is to discuss yourself. These are different things for me.’ CANAN also encountered controversy during a 2003 exhibition in Germany, when a gallery displayed works from Fables for Adults, a photography series of Barbie dolls and action figures posed in scenes depicting familial violence and incest. ‘I was trying to [critique domestic] violence, incest, and other issues happening in families. After, I experienced censorship in Germany [when] people complained about my artwork and called the police’, the artist recounted. ‘Afterwards, the police came to my studio and brought me to the gallery. They said, “You should cover all the pornographic photographs”.’ With the help of a lawyer, CANAN’s exhibition reopened. She could laugh about it with me, but it was a painful experience at the time: CANAN was brought to the gallery ‘in all but handcuffs’, and had to explain the situation to her young daughter.
CANAN, though a visual artist, sees herself more than anything else as a storyteller and interpreter of the past – whether that past is myth, forgotten artistic traditions, or oral history. Like the storyteller, CANAN takes a tale and attempts to weave it anew. ‘When I act as a storyteller, I am using oral history, because I collect all this history from my relatives and myself; I try to write new [histories] with my pictures, paintings, and miniatures.’
After our meeting, suddenly feeling very tired, I made my way through the traffic near Osmanbey to head back to the Anatolian side of Istanbul. I was thinking about one of CANAN’s works in particular, an interpolation of a miniature that appears in the Topkapı Palace museum, which I glided past while on board the ferry. CANAN appears as herself in a miniature depicting a scene from a mid-13th century edition of Varqa and Golshah, Ayyuqi’s 11th century Persian romance. In CANAN’s 2009 miniature, Gulşah is Fighting, CANAN takes the place of Golshah, gripping a lance to spear the villainous Rabi ibn Adnan, who slumps backwards on his steed. CANAN charges forward on horseback, unstoppable.
Cover image: from the Turkish Delight series (detail; courtesy the artist and RAMPA Istanbul).