The guest of the July issue of Narratives Interview Series is Nur Koçak, one of the first representatives of the Photorealism movement in Turkey. We talked with Koçak about her childhood, education, and production process that have shaped her art. We had the opportunity to reflect on many of her series, which seem to prove that she is a brilliant observer, selective, and narrator.
“This attitude, which steers women to be young, beautiful and sexy, and depersonalizes, so to speak, materializes them was unacceptable.”
Your interest in art started at a very early age. You received education from important teachers of that time in the cities like Ankara, Istanbul, and Washington. You went to Paris in 1970 with a state scholarship. You were both a student and a teacher at Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts. Your photorealistic understanding of painting, on the other hand, was on a different course than the Academy’s. A period of your education coincided with a very intense ideological time. Could you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of your education and the process of your existence through your paintings during these times?
Yes, my interest in art, writing, and drawing emerged at a very young age. I was an independent kid, but a good student. My family saw this situation and didn’t come down hard on me. My elders used to say that I was a mature, responsible child for my age. They always stood behind me. I didn’t disappoint them either.
Throughout my education, working with teachers from different professions in different cities, countries, and schools had brought me benefits, not harm. I observed them, focused on the environment, and listened to my inner voice. Beatnik, the environment of freedom in the 60s, hippies, French Cinema paved my way. At one point, I even dreamed of taking the bus from Lale Pudding Shop and going all the way to Kathmandu.
It is true, the 60s coincided with ideologically turbulent years all over the world. However, it was as if we were living in a glass bell at the Academy! Events were not reaching us. We were not learning much at school, but we were having a lot of fun. We were fed by the dansants every Saturday, plays by the school theater club, literary matinees to which famous writers are invited, classical films that were shown by Club Cinema 7 (founded by Sami Şekeroğlu, who later also founded and headed the Cinema-Television Institute!), pop and jazz music concerts, decorated fancy dress balls held on every 3rd of March, the foundation date of the school. We were collecting some things without noticing!
“The Paris Youth Biennale in 1971 set my path as an artist. The main part of the exhibition was devoted to Conceptual Art and Photorealism. I was mesmerized by what I saw.”
I graduated from the Academy in June of 1968. In 1970, I won the European Competition opened by the Ministry of National Education. In August of that year, I was in Paris to specialize as a scholarship student. The city seemed to have already recovered from the trauma of the May ’68 events and plunged into a new decade at full throttle. I quickly kept up with the pace. On the one hand, I was going to school, and on the other hand, I was trying to watch every exhibition, film, play, and concert. I was addicted to the two cinematheques on two different sides of the city. Yes, I was collecting again without noticing.
I have said this before: The Paris Youth Biennale in 1971 set my path as an artist. The main part of the exhibition was devoted to Conceptual Art and Photorealism. I was mesmerized by what I saw. The exhibited works were in contradiction with the understanding of my “Late-Cubist” teachers at the Academy who stated that “The artist is not an eye that copies what he/she sees, but the eye that interprets!” No comment also meant to comment after all! I left the exhibition venue saying that “I can work like this too!”
Nur Koçak, “Collage”, 1-3, Mixed media on paper, 29.5×21 cm, 1973, Artist’s collection.
And in 1972, I started with small photo collages. I was mixing various machine parts with images of children. The subject was the relation between machines and society. In 1973, this time, I decided to transfer the machine images directly to the canvas. The dimensions enlarged, and paint and canvas had come into play. With these paintings, I also participated in major exhibitions such as the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Artistes Français, but I was not pleased with the result I obtained using acrylic paints and brushes. I was not satisfied. At the beginning of 1974, I bought an aerograph and a compressor. I was going to spray the paint. This time the theme was “objects used by women/the use of women as objects”. I locked myself in my room, and within six months I completed my perfume bottle painting, “Vivre”. The result was very close to the image in the photo, so it was exactly what I wanted.
Nur Koçak, “Vivre or to Live”, Acrylic on canvas, 162×130 cm, 1974, Artist’s collection.
In the second half of the 70s, I returned home and this time I started working (barely) as a lecturer at the Academy. My friends who won the same scholarship as me also returned. No one welcomed us. On the contrary, they were up to something not to accept us to the school. It’s best to drop the subject now because volumes of books could be written on what I would tell. Meanwhile, in the country, the environment of freedom of the 60s gave way to anarchy, and everything turned upside down. Right and Left were clashing, almost 30 people were being killed in the streets every day, funerals were seen before the school, students were calling for boycotts, studios were evacuated due to bomb threats, and classes were suspended indefinitely. Although the school was entirely left-wing, this time various tendencies were at odds with each other. In the middle of this turmoil, at the beginning of December 1976, I opened my first solo exhibition titled “Fetish Objects / Object Women” at the Mimar Sinan Hall in the school. I can’t say that my debut on the art scene was acclaimed. I wish I could say. On the contrary, I was perceived as a petite bourgeoisie artist who was alienated from the realities of Turkey. Looking at my “Vivre” perfume bottle, one of the few gallerists of that time suggested placing a huge turd in the middle of the canvas. He would mention that Turkey was smelling turd, not perfume. According to him, If I wanted to sell my art, I would have to make small, cheap paintings with peasant figures, if possible. I was never concerned about selling! And there was not a single line about the exhibition in the few art publications of that time.
Nur Koçak, “Red and Black”, Acrylic on canvas, 162 x 130 cm, 1976, Artist’s collection.
Movie images, pages of women’s magazines, what family albums show, what postcards say, and popular culture are among the subjects you focus on. The main issue related to all of these shows and are based on is women. Your works are shaped by images of women. We think that you are a very good observer, selective, and narrator. What is the point of view that directs you to address the subject of women through these images?
The students in the Department of Painting at the Academy who took the European exam with me in 1970 and went to Paris on scholarship in accordance with the law numbered 1416, were all male. So I was the only female student out of six. They had opened exhibitions -except for Şükrü Aysan- and formed more or less an identity and a name as an artist in their own way. Şükrü and I were going to set our path and course in Paris. Şükrü, under the influence of the 7th Paris Youth Biennial, turned to Conceptual Art. While I decided to use photography as a source in my works.
“It was time to stand out as a woman (since I was the only woman among my classmates!) I would do what they did not do. My path would be very different, both in form and content.”
For years I lived in the heart of consumer society: First in America as a student, then in Switzerland as a draftsman, and now in France again as a student. I was very sensitive to the social structure. I was attentively observing what was going on around me. Mechanized human relations were reflected in my first tryings, which I find technically inadequate. It was time to stand out as a woman (since I was the only woman among my classmates!) I would do what they did not do. My path would be very different, both in form and content. I felt responsible for our poor state (which really was at the time) that gave me scholarships. When I returned home, I had to create a completely different atmosphere in the art environment!
The advertisement photos in the women’s magazines that I was constantly leafing through were the source of the series that I would later call “Fetish Objects / Object Women”. In these photographs, it was underlined that women should be very beautiful, young, and sexually attractive. Femininity should not be reduced to what is said in these slogans, and the female body should not be turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. My rebellion was that money was the supreme value. My rebellion was against the consumer society.
When I returned home, starting from 1979, this time I got my hands on our family album. My new series, which is mostly based on photographs taken for special reasons (such as holidays, birthdays, starting school), also aimed to refute the argument that I was detached from the realities of Turkey and alienated from our society. I was looking at a time of society that had rapidly entered the stage of capitalization. Just as I loved leafing through magazines, I also loved leafing through the albums. The series “Family Album”, which reveals our middle-class, urban family structure, is open-ended. I may make new additions to the series at any time.
Nur Koçak, “My Mother, My Father, My Sister and I”, 1, Acrylic on canvas, 162×130 cm, 1980-83, Artist’s collection.
As for the path I followed for my “Your Blissful Souvenirs / Manipulated Postcards” series: I found myself in the “Mail Art” phenomenon in the early 80s. I was receiving exhibition invitations from all over the world. Mailable things like letters, postcards, and small packages were requested from the participants. They would exhibit, maybe publish them, but they would not send them back. It was not necessary to be an artist to participate in these exhibitions. No one from Turkey but me received invitations. Again, I felt very responsible. How could I best represent my country? What did we have of our own? First, I manipulated the mass-produced military postcards I collected from the market with paint and collage and sent them to the exhibitions. It would not matter if they didn’t come back. Then, I turned the photographs of soldiers and civilians, which were published in the “Your Blissful Souvenirs” column of Kelebek Newspaper in the 70s, into pencil drawings on postcard-sized paper. I did not have the heart for the fact that the original drawings could be lost in “unspecified” collections. I started sending to exhibitions the postcard album that I had printed with the first six. I was jumping from the multi-colored photographs at the market (Manipulated Postcards) to the black-and-white photographs (Your Blissful Souvenirs) taken in the studio environment, emphasizing the gap between dreams and reality. The soldiers hugging their lovers in the postcards at the market were hugging each other in the studio photos. There was a total exclusion of women from social life. I presented the work as a project titled “Mail Art” to the 3rd Istanbul Art Festival The New Trends Exhibition in 1981 and won the Gold Medal.
Nur Koçak, “Manipulated Postcard”, 1-16, Pencil on paper, 15.2×10.3 cm, 1981, Artist’s collection.
“As much as I love leafing through magazines and going to the movies, I also love looking at shop windows that I see as the mirror of society.”
You use images from colorful women’s magazines in your “Fetish Objects / Object Women” series that you started in Paris in 1974. In your “The Story of Cahide” series, you discuss Cahide Sonku, one of the stars of Turkish cinema. In “Shop Windows”, one of your latest series, you literally address extreme shop windows. Could you tell us about how your works emerged as a result of encounters and reflections through these examples?
My “Object Women / Fetish Objects” series, in which I use the advertisement photos of the colorful women’s magazines of the West as a source, is the product of my habit of leafing through magazines at every opportunity. I have read Elle magazine for years. The magazine stand of the Drugstore on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris was the place I visited most often. So much so that after a while they put the magazines in plastic bags! Of course, I wasn’t the only one who was leafing through them. Anyway, this is my first series that emerged from my curiosity. I was struck by the advertising slogans I read there. This attitude, which steers women to be young, beautiful, and sexy, and depersonalizes, so to speak, materializes them was unacceptable. Those canvases are the answer to this revolt.
As for my series, “The Story of Cahide” is the product of my other curiosity. My mother took me to the movie theatre when I was four years old. Cinema was the only source of entertainment of that period. Since then, I have adored cinema. Cahide Sonku is our first pop icon. A great name for both theater and cinema. Her date of birth is the same as my mother’s. For me, they both represent our face towards the West, the elegance of the thirties. I had only seen one movie of Sonku in the movie theatre. I had never had the chance to watch her in a play. Her tragic life story, which later became a subject of the tabloid press, and her fall from the peak of wealth to the valley of poverty, constitute the material of this series.
As much as I love leafing through magazines and going to the movies, I also love looking at shop windows that I see as the mirror of society. My “Shop windows” series appeared as a result of transferring the photos I took to the canvas from the second half of the 80s. Gradually, this theme took place in my exhibitions, both as paintings and photographs. I was particularly interested in the Ebrusan shop window that caught my eye while I was wandering on Istiklal Street. The shop was in the heart of Beyoğlu displaying faux leather sadomasochist suits, various panties, and millions of people were passing by them every day that could only be seen behind closed doors in sex shops in the West. Many questions came to my mind: Don’t we live in a Middle Eastern Muslim country? Could we be indifferent to such a shop window? In addition to the photographs on the Ebrusan shop window, the strip canvases I made between 1993-96 are the products of this astonishment. “Shop Windows” is also an open-ended theme. That is to say, I continue to work on the subject with new photographs and paintings.
“It does not change much whether looking at nature or a photograph when you are working.”
As it is known, you are one of the first representatives of the photorealism movement in Turkey. You transfer the photographic image into a surface. Could you mention your relation to photography during this process? What changes or stays the same until you transfer a photograph into the surface?
You know what’s always said about photo-realists: Two different artists make two completely different paintings based on the same photograph and claiming to be very faithful to it. Both of them evaluate the photograph, add and subtract details according to their characters and in short, they achieve completely different results. This is also true for me. First, which photograph I choose reveals my personality, then the changes I make on it (sometimes without realizing)… Sometimes I combine several photos and get a single composition, or sometimes I delete all if I don’t like the details that appear when I transfer a tiny object to a huge canvas. It does not change much whether you look at nature or a photograph when you are working.
Nur Koçak, “Berk Çorap (Berk Socks)”, From the series “Shop Windows”, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 114×162 cm, 1987, Private collection.
“They say ‘The essence determines the form!’ I don’t know how accurate it is, but I like working with different materials.”
Your exhibition “Our Blissful Souvenirs”, which took place in Salt Beyoğlu and Salt Galata in 2019, was also held at Ankara Çankaya Contemporary Arts Center in 2020. It was a very comprehensive Nur Koçak exhibition. In these exhibitions, we had the chance to see your works in different disciplines together such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography. Could you touch on your interest in different disciplines through “Our Blissful Souvenirs”?
In the fall of 2019, we exhibited my drawings from the school years between 1958-68 in Salt Galata, and my painting, sculptures, and photographs from the years 1972-2019 in Salt Beyoğlu. Yet we did not take my drawings from the school years to the exhibition at the beginning of 2020 in Ankara Çankaya Contemporary Arts Center. The titles of the exhibitions referred to my postcard-drawings called “Your Blissful Souvenirs”. They say “The essence determines the form!” I don’t know how accurate it is, but I like working with different materials. I guess this will continue in the future.
Nur Koçak, “Your Blissful Souvenirs, 1-36, Pencil on paper, 10.4×14.6 cm, 1981, Artist’s collection.
Our thanks are due to Nur Koçak
- For more information about Nur Koçak, you may visit her website.
- The photos in this interview are sent by and courtesy of the artist. Portrait photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz, March 2019.
- The rights of all the visual and textual concepts in this interview are reserved. Quotation shall be allowed provided that the source shall be mentioned in the work where the quotation is cited. For the photos please contact the artist.
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