read about: Keep Quiet-Hold On
A Project for Liesbeth Lips Gallery. Rotterdam

Oriental Fantasies - New works by Gülsün Karamustafa 

 By Sanne Kofod Olsen

During the last few years Gülsün Karamustafa has been investigating the subject of orientalism seen from a "oriental" point of view. Her specific concern in her most recent works has been that of the representation of woman in orientalist imagery, emphasising at the core of this concern a complex conception of outside/inside. A dichotomy, which is being dissolved in the questioning of who and what is inside and who and what is outside.
Her first step into this specific field of representational criticism was taken in 1996 with the picture "Presentation of an early representation" showing a slave market from the time of the Ottoman Empire. A motif frequently chosen by the Century orientalists. A traditional scene with all the implication of cultural values, morals and norms, and questioning its own identity as a bearer and witness of culture of the past. A past, however, which is still quite dominant in the conventional and stereotyped understandings of the East in the Western world. As Karamustafa has stated herself that "the gaze on the orient has never changed since the 16th Century until today". 1
This remark must be seen at the basis of the analysis of her tripartite new series on the representation and self-presentation of oriental woman in orientalist painting and oriental writing: "Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies", 1999; "fragmenting/FRAGMENTS", 1999; and "-from the outside-", 1999.


"Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies" is a piece consisting of three tableaux'. It is female figures cut out from reproductions of orientalist painting from the 19th Century. A school of painting originating at the French Academy, but popular in most of Europe and also in Turkey, where this type of painting was practised till quite late in the 20th Century's Modern Turkey.
The display of women in Orientalist paintings is here a significant issue as it departs from the usual representation of women in 19th Century painting in many ways. She represents the objectified woman (or the woman-as-image) as she often appears in representations in Western art history, but is still implying something different or something more in terms of sexuality and the male gaze. The often presumably innocent female nude in Western painting, the Venus figure, has a counterpart in Oriental painting, who is her opposite. Using the term of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, she is the "Other side of Venus"2. Not a goddess of love, but a goddess of desire as the representation of woman in pornographic imagery. The pornographic connotation of the female nude in Oriental painting is based on the studies of pornographic imagery in 19th Century by Solomon-Godeau in which she shows, how pornographic prints and photography can be seen at the basis of the objectification and commodification of the female nude in popular representations. There is an obvious similarity between the pornographic image and Oriental painting in how the female nude appears as an unquestionable object-of-desire. This makes it possible to point out, how the female nude appears as a pure sexual body and how the power structures are displayed as almost sadistic sexual domination in the fantasy of the Western male.
Looking at the female nude in Orientalist painting one sees a woman displayed in front of the eyes of the beholders not only outside the frame, but also inside the frame, often as a centre of several men, who are mastering and measuring her with acknowledging and appraising gazes. She is represented in a fantasy world, either in a women-only world of equivalence or as a sex slave being judged by serious looking (but still desiring) men, judging her body as though she was cattle on the market.
Unlike the Western female nude she is not woman-as-ideal in terms of beauty but rather in terms of sex. She is something forbidden, something to be used and something other than the well known. She is an Other, since she is not only woman, she is the exotic stranger of desire, a sexual creature, obtainable and accessible, she is simply to require as a commodity; a sex slave in its real sense. She signifies a desired loss of innocence, because she is beyond Western norms and standards, welcoming to the Western male who displays his own desire (unknowingly), projecting his sexual fantasies onto the canvas.
In the images of oriental woman, one discover not only a loss of innocence but also a loss of history: the loss of history is to be discovered in the glossy imagery, very often confused in its historical punctiliousness in costumes and interiors and in the nakedness of woman. The loss of innocence is obvious in the representation of the Oriental nude as she is heaped with the signs of desire, subjected to the male gaze. Another aspect comes into account considering this loss of history and innocence: the deprivation of culture. The image of the Oriental woman is quintessential of Western patriarchal gaze, as she is woman as pure nature, deprived of any kind of culture of the Western world. An object of desire and even a commodity as she is often shown as a kind of slave (sometime even in chains), with her black maiden at her side, taken care of her body as though she is the most precious object to obtain and preserve. Thus lacking the slightest bit of culture, she is the sublime object of sexual desire, a pure fantasy based on the fascination of the possibility of possessing women as was the case at the Sultans court. In fact, the fatamorgana of the Western male's desiring gaze.


In "Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies" Karamustafa places these problematics in a contemporary perspective. The tableaux are mirrored, so that the images are repeated as their own double. A mirroring which indicates a complex construct of significances relating not only to the image of woman, but to the overall image of the Western understanding of Oriental culture. One could see that in the perspective to Luce Irigaray's theses of women's place in Western society in "Women on the Market", that the participation in society demands that the body submits a mirroring, which make woman an "utilitarian objects and bearers of value" , a standardised sign, an exchangeable signifier, a "resemblance" with reference to an authoritative model. 3
Despite its exclusively feminist impact this thesis can be comparable to contemporary attitude towards Eastern culture, which demands the non-western world to mirror the patriarchal morals, neglecting cultural differences as respectable, and makes prejudices against the order of things in Middle Eastern, Islamic cultures. Especially when it comes to the understanding of women, women are indeed, and still today, understood as deprived of cultural importance in the stereotyped understandings of how contemporary Muslim women live their lives. This submission from the Western world is not only directed towards women but Islamic culture, which is very often misunderstood or not understood at all, since the whole aspect of modernisation is not taken into account. This goes especially for Turkey, which should actually not be compared to Middle Eastern countries, because it is not, since a part of Turkey is geographically European, and culturally very influenced by Western European modernisation through the reign of Atatürk in the first half of 20th Century.
When Karamustafa states that the gaze on the Orient has never changed since the 16th Century, it is a remark on cultural ignorance and stereotyped understanding of a culture, that might be living with split identities in the confrontation and differentiation between countryside and city and the whole aspect of immigration. Immigration problematics is very present in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, where cultural differences exist from one neighbourhood to another. When it comes to the female figure and female identity relating to history and culture, these problematics becomes very relevant in relation to Karamustafa's work. Partly in the reference to women's history, and partly in reference to an identity crisis which is implied in this history of oppression, that today has become a broader cultural phenomena in Modern Turkey. Within the country as well as from outside (especially Western) the country an ideological oppression takes place, which is based on patriarchal structures of domination. In this mirrored ideological battlefield stands women who has been denied her voice by history construction, searching for cultural as well historical understanding, enslaved by patriarchal society in a double sided conflict of being exoticized woman.
The exotic female figure still exists in people's minds when they are confronted with Turkish women, who often experience, Karamustafa notes, a surprised attitude from Westerners, who believe them to be wearing scarfs, be faithful Muslims, and to lead a completely different life from women in the rest of Europe. The lack of cultural understanding has seduced people to believe that Turkish women live in an exoticized world apart from our own, and mirrored their fantasies as a projection of the exotic, or psychologically speaking, the Other. This "othering" is the double exposure suggested in "Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies", which implies not only the typical "othering" of woman in patriarchal society, but a culturally "othering" of non-Western (in a very limited sense) cultures.


"fragmenting/FRAGMENTS" is another piece in this line of work, that develops the idea of prejudicial expectations of Oriental woman and the objectification of woman. The fragmented body implies the idea of "woman-as-image" as did the image of woman in "Oriental Fantasies"4. The body parts constitutes a fragmented view of the body in such a way, that attention is particular made at the sensual zones of the body: hands, breasts, armpits, feet, mouth, ear, as well as body clashes, skin against skin, in a very sensual manner. In the fragmented images one spurs the hand touch sensibility, the attempt to visualise the utmost tactility of skin and soft material, that arouses the atmosphere in the paintings. The woman is no longer a woman but body parts. An almost sadistic and murderous attempt to visualise the absolute control over woman, who has no longer got her own identity, but is deprived of any subjectivity and transformed into pure objectification. This exposes a veritable murder of the female subject in the harems, where she became a collective, a giant female body, without individual identity, at least seen from the point of view of ottoman society and admired by men from the Western world. (It should not be forgotten, that Orientalism took place at the same time as the modernisation happened in Europe and early capitalism and consumerism turned woman into a product of desire.) This lack of identity and subjectivity of the odalisque, confined in her luxury imprisonment, is shown in its extreme through the cutting up of the images. She is shown as nothing but flesh and blood, and ultimate commodity or an animal kept in her golden cage. This degradation of the female subject was the fascination of the Western world, implied in the concept of the Odalisque and the various representations of this "woman-without-subject" (that have appeared with a high frequency in visual arts of the 19th and 20th Century) was the patriarchal fantasy of domination over women, clearly practised to its extreme in the Harem, and fantasised by the Western man with great envy, because of the fact that he could not practise this domination to the same extend in his own world.
"fragmenting/FRAGMENTS" is installed like a mosaic using the fragmented images as tiles. The aspect of decoration and reference to decorative arts, which needless to say is the art of the Islamic countries, put together the double aspect of this work: on the one side the representation of woman seen through the desiring Western male gaze, and on the other the traditional, non-representational art of Ottoman Empire. This juxtaposition of Western and Oriental arts exposes the objectification even "deco ratification" of women in Western art, and the character of pure fantasy of these paintings, which could not have had a correspondent in the Sultan's empire.


"-from the outside-"
To whom belong the history of Turkey, who are the constructors of history? This seems to be one of the questions in the piece "-from the outside-", placing at the core the identity crises of the female subject in her contemporary split position between if not Turkish culture and Western European culture. In this piece, Karamustafa places herself as the outside voyeur, who looks at her own history through the gaze of the Western male and in opposition at the same time places herself by the side (in prolongation) of the historical voice of the Turkish woman who experienced the (traumatic) life at the harem.
The piece consists of a row of Orientalist images from the hamam (in the harem, presumably), where women with their black maids drift around, naked and with strange phallic form all around them (from shoes! to water pipes). One image shows a woman at her den flanked by a small deer. She appears as a satisfied odalisque with her maid and her child on the floor in front of her. She is represented in a traditional odalisque pose, accentuating the idea of passive woman in waiting in her hedonistic paradise. And Paradise it also seems to be, in the beautiful and seemingly pleasant surroundings of the hamash, something to wish for and something to dream about, either you take part as a woman or looks at it as a man.


And then the horrifying opposition of the history told on a monitor which shows the interior of the Sultans palace. The text is from "The Memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanimefendi; The Imperial Court of Sultan", and tells the sad story of a situation at the Sultans court: Leyla tells the story of a party at the Sultans palace, where "All the young girls were gay and radiant but on the faces of older ladies one could see the sadness which were in contrast to the brilliant festival". There is European dance and music, but suddenly everything breaks to pieces, when it is found out the the Sultans newborn daughter has died. "The baby born to the sultan a few days earlier was physically deformed and had died a few hours later after her birth. This sad news was hidden from the mother to avoid exposing her to dangerous emotions... That evening the sultan asked with insistence to see the baby but everybody was trying to gain some more time. She took the advantage of a moment, leapt out of her bed and dashed into the baby's room..."5 .This inside story from the harem shows the opposition to the romanticising, fantasising paintings. A hard core reality of suppressed emotions, psychological violence and great despair among women in this kind of luxury enslavement. Taken away from them every right to decide their own lives, even the rights to know their own tragedies, and in strong opposition to the hedonistic paradise in the Orientalist paintings. Reality and fantasy are split apart by strong emotional contradictions, that tier down all representational systems and attempts to historicize and romanticise the Harem of the Sultan in every possible way.
This questioning of history is important as a part of the representational criticism in Karamustafa's works. In this criticism a double exposure towards representational structures takes place: on the one side the Western fantasy of the Oriental woman on the other a comment on history as representation in Turkey and the place of woman within this field. The outside/inside problematics inherent in this piece poses the question in relation to representational structure within and from outside Turkey. Where does contemporary Turkish women position themselves in relation to these representational systems? The mixed histories of the 20th Century with the Europianization of Turkish culture in the Atatürk days and still remaining with all its conflicts, places the modern woman in a strange situation, as she relates her life to contemporary more or less European standards, but still must relate to the history/reality of her own culture, with very different female identities.
This does not get any easier by the false and stereotyped reality expected from the Western world toward a contemporary Turkish woman, who has experienced quite a lot of the sometimes traumatic recent history of Modern Turkey. On the one hand the stereotyped expectation of "Turkish woman" that sets up a conflict which is possible to handle through communication (by breaking down stereotypes) and on the other, the reality of being a modern woman in Turkey today with its history of fast cultural changes within the last 100 years. Specifically the history of woman, going from a genuinely suppressed woman figure, to the "woman on the market" within the big cities in a modernised society. And then the present conflict in contemporary Turkey of immigration and modernisation, that put together oppositional cultural identities within one quite limited culture. The woman from the countryside, positioned in her old-school Islamic female role, next to the liberated woman of the big cities, who might have been a part of the 68-student rebellion (like Karamustafa herself) at the universities of Ankara and Istanbul, tell the story of women and worlds apart within one but very ambiguous culture.


read about: Keep Quiet-Hold On
A Project for Liesbeth Lips Gallery. Rotterdam

 1. Conversation with the artist in Copenhagen, April 16, 2000.
 2. This is a reference to a title of an essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau: "On the Other Side of Venus - The Visual Economy of Feminine Display", in ed. Victoria de Grazia; The Sex of Things - Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective, Berkeley: Uni. of California Press, 1996. The point will be emphasized later in this text.
 3. Luce Irigaray; This Sex which is not one, kap ?? Women on the Market, ...
 4. The notion "woman-as-image" is taken form griselda Pollock's essay "What's wrong with "Images of Women" in which she criticizes seventies' representational images by women artists to objectification of women in advertisement.
 5. From Memois of Leyla (Saz) Hanimefendi, printed in the catalogue "Passage du Bosphore - Trois artistes turcs contemporains: Selda Asal, Selim Birsel, Gülsün Karamustafa", Musee de Picardie, Amiens, 24. Dec., 1999 to 2. April, 2000, pg. 38.





Gülsün Karamustafa

Keep Quiet-Hold On
A Project for Liesbeth Lips Gallery. Rotterdam

pict1, pict2

Gülsün Karamustafa will contribute to the main space of Liesbeth Lips Gallery with a video installation.

Keep Quiet-Hold On, consists of a typographic interpretation for the floors of two rooms and a video film in loop, which run on five small monitors at the same time.

The work speaks of indifference, perseverance, endurance and above all patience that still is an appreciated virtue in Eastern cultures.

The young girl in the film, calmly concentrated to her work creates a barrier between the constant commands from the verbs 'to keep' and 'to hold' in imperative form, which cover the floor like a carpet.

The music that echoes through the space is originally composed for the film by Peter Machajdík, a contemporary composer from Slovakia.