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After many years, the Turkish contemporary art scene has been developing another generation of strong woman artists, as is evident in the exhibitions opened in young galleries in recent years showing more and more women artists. The issue of visibility is still relevant not only in Turkey but also in many centres of the international contemporary art scene. And this was again made clear when WHW  curated the 11th Istanbul Biennial, where perhaps for the first time such a large number of local women artists participated, among them the Istanbul- and Vienna-based Nilbar Güreş. Actually, Istanbul's first serious encounter with her work was a group exhibition at Outlet Istanbul called Emergency Exit in 2008. Later, her Unknown Sports (2009) series presentation of staged photographs and mixed media collages during the Biennial proved that the local presentations she had had before constituted only a small part of her big promise: the wise, humorous and taboo-breaching way she translates what she has experienced and witnessed in her body as a woman and in her life around women into an oeuvre that has a strong base in the will to struggle and survive. Her individually queer tone of imagining and scripting alternative scenarios for daily life makes open-ended identifications possible. Her potential to expose and transform vulnerabilities experienced under societal norms becomes nodes of strength.
Nilbar Güreş' first solo presentation in Turkey opened at Rampa Istanbul in April 2011. The well-designed and informative exhibition covers not only her recent production ÇırÇır (2010), commissioned and first shown at the Berlin Biennial; TrabZONE (2010), appearing for the first time; and the freshly finished collage Yüz (2011); but also two earlier and fundamental works she produced in 2006: Undressing, a performance video, and Self-Defloration, a collage. The invitation card - a camp wedding invitation selected by the artist that displays two androgynous figures as bride and groom inside a pink, glittery heart - can obviously be counted as part of the exhibition. It is an exemplary gesture of the gallery to support Nilbar Güreş' flourishing production with a solo exhibition at this point in her career. On the whole, this solo statement is a great opportunity to see the origins of the artist's strongly sensitive practice towards the pressure and violence that patriarchal, authoritarian and heteronormative societal codes exert to subordinate what is different and where it is heading. Güreş' main issues always interconnect in different forms of performance, photography, drawing, collage and video. Each character appearing as part of her open-ended narratives acts as herself. Each series works with a strong desire to de-territorialize and re-code the spaces and locations they took place in; the artist believes that unexpected performances of the body may alter its surroundings.
Walking around the gallery, the first work viewers come across is Undressing, displayed behind the window of Rampa's upper gallery on the street. During this video performance, the artist uncovers each layer she wears on her head, uttering the names of women she lived with, thus carrying the biographical experience of daily life into this locally and internationally politically charged topic. The work was produced as a reaction to post-9/11 Islamophobia, especially that targeting women during a period in which anti-immigrant groups in Europe used “the covered thus disempowered” Muslima figure to justify their racist politics. It unravels the Vienna- and Istanbul-based artist's potential to position herself looking from here to there and there to here, a potential that enables her to pass beyond limited geographical borders in her conceptualization. One of the interesting reactions in the opening days of the exhibition came from a middle-aged male passer-by, who anxiously asked how far she would uncover herself.
Inside the upper gallery is Self Defloration, probably the most fundamental work for understanding how the artist positions herself in this world. In the collage openly challenging limiting gender codes, the woman declares ownership of her own body by committing the act of self defloration, which points to a revolt that takes its very power from the body and adds this (for some) unimaginable alternative to the state of mind taught to women, regardless of class and education, that "the woman has no name" and must wait for the man. This body-empowered revolt lies behind not only Unknown Sports and its predecessor drawings, but also ÇırÇır and TrabZONE. The empowerment appears as a strong gesture of highlighting visible and invisible restrictions that women experience in private and public spheres. Supporting each other in solidarity is the main solution that the artist wishes for and imagines.
ÇırÇır is staged in a setting in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Istanbul recently bought by the state as an investment. And only then was it possible for the women of Güreş's family, all playing themselves in the series, to get their own shares from the property to start their own lives; previously, the patriarchal order always protected men. Curious scenarios of liberation and solidarity among women from different walks of life are realized around this condemned house with a subtle hint of mischievous desire, as depicted in an older woman watching a young woman pulling the stocking of another who sits over a fridge in Front Balcony in a dreamlike moment or in a moment of triumph and happiness for the lesbian couple with their baby in Ask For More. An out-of-the-ordinary family invites us to take a closer look at them, shaking us out of our daily norms, in Family Portrait - Hidden Women. Watering the Roots depicts a metaphorical gesture of nourishing what was there before, which is celebrated in the joyful moments of singing and playing in Gathering. While Promise asks us to imagine these girls’ dream of improving their lives, the surreal gesture of Mirror acts as a mysterious key to this collective dreaming.
Güreş' recently finished series TrabZONE is engaged in re-enactments of some scenes she remembers from the summers of her childhood. For the artist, always looking for what is hidden behind the traditional structures, the north-eastern city known for its conservative values - where women have little social visibility, as in many other Anatolian cities - proved to be a productive setting. The re-enactments open up a humourous field of imagination, forcing the viewers to pass beyond what they have already been taught. Beekeeper offers us a cinematic feeling of a phantom moment in four photos: What do you imagine the beekeeper woman might have disappeared to while spreading her protective covers? In Worship, the artist makes a unique portrait of two women praying in the men section of a central mosque in the city, one behind the other, with one's head under the other's skirt, revealing desire in the most unexpected moment, where it actually belongs. The scarf tightened around the heads of two women going in opposite directions in Junction shows the tensions hanging in the air of Turkish society, the difficulty of breaking away from where you are taught to belong.
Nilbar Güreş managed to break away from where she was taught to belong, but she never forgets where she comes from. Her fury against the injustices of the system nourishes an open and honest relationship with the personal and political. Her voice never loses its pitch, continuously discussing how unjustifiable it is to violate the rights of those who are different and fall outside of the regular norms constructed just for the sake of order. Like the women she portrayed in ÇırÇır, she imagines and hopes for a better future. A better future may arrive some day, I believe, as long as artists like Nilbar Güreş continue to propose alternative realities with curiosity, will and imagination to survive.
Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu
Independent curator and writer. Lives in Berlin, Germany, and Istanbul, Turkey.
Nilbar Güreş at RAMPA
9 April - 21 May 2011