A few weeks ago Istanbul Modern opened an exhibition called “Harbor”. On the botton floor near the end of the exhibition I came across a very interesting installation called “Neworientation” which led me to stare at it for almost 20 minutes. Not a joke. There were white, light pink and dark pink ribbons tied to sailing ropes with little digits and initials on them. There was a fan blowing wind from the back of the installation and it was causing a very quiet sound and wavy movement within the ribbons. The artist behind this artwork was Gulsun Karamustafa. And the story behind it was of course the real stories of women. Lost women, women who fled their homes and were never to be found minimum 20 years ago in that same area of where the installation was shown. Gulsun Karamustafa first created this artwork in 1995 for the 4th İstanbul Biennial curated by Reneé Block. In 1995 Istanbul Modern museum was yet not built, the same space was a harbour and the biennial took place in the harbour by the sea. 22 years have passed. And today the artwork is settled in the same spot only the harbour is now a museum.
In 1995, when Karamustafa first looked at the sea through the windows of this building she focused on the women working in the brothels of Galata, which date back to Genoese times, and their encounters with arriving sailors. She decided to shed light on another aspect of the port city: the Fates of women who went missing in Istanbul and its environs in the last two years. Through this work she “summons back” women listed as missing in police records, which only give their names and the dates they were last seen. She fastens sailors ropes from the ceiling to the floor by means of large eyebolts and ties colorful ribbons around the ropes. Stamped on the ribbons are the names of the missing women along with the dates they were last seen. Gulsun Karamustafa thus sanctifies the point where the missing women met the sea. We met with the artist in her studio in Balat to talk more about her artwork and learn the story behind it.
There are the initials of the lost women as well as the date they got lost on the ribbons. Why did you use ribbons?
When we were kids there was a trend. In primary school we used to wear black uniforms and we would wear white ribbons in our hair. This is a trend that no longer exists. Sometimes the ribbons could be exaggerated in size and it would signify “cuteness” or “innocence”. The transition from white ribbons to ink ribbons is parallel to the transition from girlhood to womanhood.
And I guess white ribbons symbolize innocence?
Yes sure. The story is so real and strong, those white ribbons can also be read as band aids to the women wounded souls.
When I first faced your installation it reminded me of Spivak’s article, “Can the Subaltern speak?” In a way you are making the subaltern speak with this artwork. What affected you the most in this process?
These women surely did not have a voice if they had we would have known by now why they were never found. The one fact that I discovered in the making of this work was that there were some surnames that turned out to be lost on the same day. These were sisters. No matter what reason caused them to run away, the fact that they ran away taking all risk as a resistance without thinking the aftermath is the important point.
It is the second time you are showing the same installation in the exact same building after 22 years. Do you think you managed to make those women speak louder 22 years ago or now?
I believe they are less talkative these days.
When you look at the stories of these lost women from present day distance, do you still have question marks waiting to be answered?
What I question the most is was social resistance stronger in the 70’s through the 90’s? Were these women getting lost because they wanted to live up to their drams and chose to run away or were they running away from some kind of pressure?
Which do you think?
I think it can be both. People wouldn’t speak about incest stories in those days. That’s what makes me think. What was the issue to make these women run away from their homes? What kind of a social structure let them run away? Do and can the women of today also run away or are they beaten up and held captive once they dare to escape? These were all the questions while I was installing the work again after 22 years.
The full interview was published in March, 2017 issue of Istanbul Art News in Turkish, by Gülben Çapan.