IN THE SADBERK HANIM MUSEUM:
THE TIMELESS STORY OF BIRDS
Sadberk Hanım Museum, the first private museum in Turkey, is hosting a contemporary art exhibition for the first time in its history. Within the framework of the exhibition organized in parallel with the 17th İstanbul Biennial in September 2022, Sadberk Hanım Museum’s Archaeology Department is bringing together 21 contemporary sculptures by glass artist Felekşan Onar, from her series “Perched”, in addition to 5 new pieces crafted by the artist especially for this exhibition, and a meticulously-made selection from the collections of Sadberk Hanım Museum.
This installation, which summons different artistic traditions, forms up around three main components: the glass sculptures created by Felekşan Onar, for whom the refugee crisis was one of the biggest issues in her time and region, and inspired by Louis de Bernières’ novel Birds without Wings, a selection from the museum collections in dialogue with the sculptures, a contemporary play referring to “The Birds” by Aristophanes, and a monograph expressing the inner journeys of the artist, and the curator Arie Amaya-Akkermans. Felekşan Onar’s series “Perched”, which was exhibited together with museum collections such as the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, brings life to the main characters of the contemporary play, constituting one of the exhibition’s three pillars. Brought to life by Felekşan Onar’s allegorical approach, and together with the artifacts that are in an ongoing migration from one place to the other since antiquity, the birds offer the visitors a multilayered narrative.
They invite the audience to question phenomena such as identity, belonging, heritage and border by blending with the metanarrative of their temporary nest, the Sadberk Hanım Museum, one that offers a continuous chronology from the Anatolian Neolithic to our days.
The exhibition represents the dialogue of the birds, their coexistence, timelessness, and remaining in limbo together with the inhabitants of their new perch, the Bronze Age marble Kilia figurine, a terracotta inscribed votive nail that witnessed the erection of an ancient temple, a ceramic vessel painted with water birds, a partridge-shaped ceramic rhyton belonging to the Old Assyrian Colonies Period;
An amber-colored glass bowl belonging to the Late Hellenistic Period, and a cobalt blue Roman janiform bottle; a Seljuk bowl with an embossed harpy, a ceramic tile belonging to the İznik tile workshops, the most important ceramic production center of the Ottoman Period, decorated with the paradise spring flanked by antithetic birds in the gardens of Paradise, and a ceramic tankard decorated with Ottoman galleons. Together with the physical and intellectual duality they present, the artifacts establish a relation with their iconographic language and ancient manufacturing techniques. Birds, usually associated with freedom, become a dual metaphor of binary opposition in the sculptures of Felekşan Onar.
While they offer a vibrant and entertaining image to the viewers with their physical presence, they also intrinsically bring along a sorrowful narrative with their intellectual existence. The play accompanying the exhibition strengthens the notions of migration and population exchange implied by the birds. While the fictional framework of the play is shaped as a migration to a utopia imagined by Aristophanes and governed by birds, the narrative focuses on the impact of the population exchange of 1923 between Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War on the Karamanlides (Καραμανλήδες) people who lived within the borders of Turkey, wrote their Turkish language with Greek letters, and embraced the Orthodox Christian faith.
We, as Sadberk Hanım Museum, experience the pleasure of providing a space for the birds to narrate their timeless story. During the laborious yet enthusiastic preparation process of the exhibition “After Utopia: The Birds” and the catalog immortalizing it, extraordinary teamwork took place. I felt lucky being a member of this team and participating with my team in this exhibition bringing together contemporary works with ancient ones. Trusting that the artist Felekşan Onar, whose enthusiasm I have always felt and shared, will have a touching, successful and much-visited exhibition. I offer my gratitude to all those who contributed.
INTERVIEW WITH ARI AKKERMANS
You just opened the exhibition “After Utopia: The Birds”, at Sadberk Hanım Museum in Istanbul, in collaboration with glass artist Felekșan Onar, a multidisciplinary project across theater and contemporary art and film and sculpture set in an archaeological museum, which was in preparation for two years. How did the research for this project begin?
In every major project, the starting points are always many. At first, I think there were two trips to Athens for the Fast Forward festival in 2018 and 2019, during which I became fascinated with two Athenian museums–the Benaki Museum, founded in 1873 and whose permanent collection covers art and objects from the Paleolithic to the present day, and the Museum of Cycladic Art, centered around magnificent but poorly understood sculptures from the Bronze Age Aegean. Both museums bear a relation to Sadberk Hanım: Benaki was the inspiration for Sadberk Koç to create her own museum, which was opened by her family after her death. The Museum of Cycladic Art has in its collection one artifact with an incredible story behind; the “Stargazer”, an Anatolian type of Chalcolithic idol, which is clearly not Cycladic, and one whose strange journey goes back to the beginning of modern archaeology, with the excavations of Schliemann in Troy.
Upon my discovery of this curious artifact, I returned to Istanbul intending to find one in a Turkish museum, and there it was, a smaller idol, at Sadberk Hanım, which is how I discovered the museum. The archaeologist of the museum, Cihan Andaç, is an old friend and on my first visit to the museum, we had a reencounter after almost a decade, so it was a natural place to start, or rather, to end up. A few years later, in the middle of the pandemic, another reencounter took place: I knew Felekșan Onar from the art scene in Istanbul, but it was a visit to her studio by a journalist friend that would bring us together again. She had recently opened an exhibition at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, for her project “Perched”, a series of wingless glass birds, inspired by Louis de Berniéres’ novel “Birds Without Wings”, and at the same time reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis in Istanbul.
She wanted to show the project in Istanbul, but after being exhibited in reconstructed oriental interiors at the Pergamon Museum and Dresden, the context was so loaded that the project could no longer be shown in a generic white cube space. We began searching for a new place and context, from a Byzantine secular building, to Orthodox churches, cultural institutes, abandoned palazzos and even private homes. At the same time I began to think about Aristophanes’ play the “The Birds”, not necessarily because it deals with birds, but because it deals with the impossibility of utopias, which is a timeless topic, but one especially poignant for us at a moment of so much turmoil, grief and instability. New pandemic restrictions sent us home again to continue researching, and eventually the idea of showing “Perched” in Istanbul became a whole new project, and Sadberk Hanım was the perfect context for it.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a play that you wrote, and that is loosely based on Aristophanes’ The Birds. How did you arrive at this performative element of a play and what is the role of this play in the exhibition? After the play was turned into a video work, how did it shape the exhibition in a context so charged as an archaeological museum, and how did the artist’s work change in this context?
“After Utopia: The Birds” is a strange project in the sense that my role as a curator is not that of simply mediator between art and a context or institution, but an interpreter and cultural producer as well. During our months-long research with the artist, we read together many texts related to the Hellenic past of Anatolia, from prehistoric art to the end of the Ottoman Empire, in an attempt to find a moment in history that could retell the story of the birds in a context much larger than the present. A minor voice in Turkish literature stared at us from faraway: We became interested in Karamanlidika literature; Karamanlidika is a small and nearly extinct dialect of Turkish, spoken by a group of Orthodox Christians in the Karaman and Cappadocia regions of Turkey, written in the Greek alphabet with a number of unique orthographic, lexical and grammatical conventions.
Its speakers, the Karamanlides, are a little known group of uncertain origin, known since the 15th century, bearers of a truly ambiguous identity. At the beginning of the previous century, when Turkey and Greece exchanges their Muslim and Christian populations respectively, with the exception of Istanbul, they were included in the agreement last minute, even though technically they were not Greek or Greek speakers. Their songs of exile were popular poems written to be heard rather than read, like the Homeric epics, and few manuscripts survive. Upon their arrival in Greece, they published a number of newspapers containing short shadow plays in the style of Hacivat and Karagöz (a classic Ottoman theater style), telling the story of their displacement. At that point we knew that we would base the exhibition on a play. I wanted to write an adaptation of Aristophanes’ play, but it proved too challenging.
I settled for a sequel, a contemporary play that would begin after the end of the classical comedy, including fragments of Karamanlidika poetry in lieu of a chorus. Once the play was written, Onar created the characters as birds, inspired by two birds from Seljuk-era Iran, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and then we began recording the play as a sound piece with Mairi Pardalaki and Barıș Yapar. Subsequently, the filming began based on the sound, between stop motion animations and in-situ shooting in places connected with the Karamanli story, such as the Rum Balikli monastery in Istanbul or the village of Mustafapașa, but the truth is that we really didn’t know what shape it would take, or what it would look like at the end. Sadberk Hanım changed the context of the exhibition rather than the other way around. Neither of us had worked with theater before, and yet this is the very heart of the exhibition.
The exhibition is hosted at an archaeological museum that had never hosted contemporary art exhibitions prior to this occasion, and there are a number of archaeological artifacts displayed as a part of the exhibition, spanning between the Bronze Age and the Ottoman period. Since you’re a contemporary art writer and curator, what is your interest in archaeology and where does it come from?
This goes back to my trips to Athens in 2018 and 2019. I traveled there in 2018 to cover the exhibition “Unconformities”, by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, on show at the Acropolis Museum, the first time the museum exhibited contemporary art. I have a background in classical languages, and after this visit to Athens, I felt I wanted to engage with antiquity more, from an interdisciplinary perspective that would encompass contemporary art, but also other elements such as critical theory and hermeneutics. I had been very engaged in the ancient past through the work of artists such as Greek-Armenian artist from Istanbul Hera Büyüktașçıyan, or Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, but I wanted to dig deeper. It seemed to me that what I wanted to articulate wasn’t just the pastness of something, but the way in which time passes, and the inaccurate ways in which we measure it, almost hopelessly.
Sometimes time gets lost, in the way that some artifacts are forgotten and never resurface or their meaning is completely unknown, but also some other times, time comes back in full force; cities become reconstructed, reimagined, rebuilt. In that sense, what happens with time is very political because it deals with the foundations of memory which are also the foundation of communities and forms of social organization such as the state. Archaeology lets us see into our deep past, and helps us understand that our human story is far from finished, and it is rather, an ongoing tale, in which radical changes–abandoning agriculture, or religion, or a certain economic model, are still possible. We have not only forgotten but abandoned our political imagination under capitalism. Art makes these encounters possible; with the other, with the past, with other worlds, with other possibilities, with other life forms.
I view contemporary archaeology less as a science of the past, and more as a tool to see the ways in which the past survives (and sometimes doesn’t) in the present. In the exhibition, the archaeological artifacts create not only a rich context, but a kind of temporality in which objects and phenomena that seem so dissimilar, so removed in time, become very close just for an instant, and in this instant we can observe the traces of the deep past in our present and how are we contemporary with everything else that came before us. On the one hand, the Stargazer, for example, though its meaning and function is lost, has a journey from an unknown excavation to the museum that overlaps with the histories of colonialism and archaeological violence in the region. On the other hand, Onar’s contemporary glass sculptures, contrasted with Roman glass artifacts, are almost indistinguishable from each other, opening a gap in time, a question mark.
One of the central themes of the exhibition, both the film and the monograph, is the possibility or impossibility of utopias. Why make an exhibition about utopias, at a time of so much political turmoil, instability and ‘collapse’? With economic recession, rigid borders and political nostalgia looming in the horizon, it seems as if we’re faced with dystopias rather than possible utopias.
In the exhibition book there’s an essay about migration and trans-temporality that I co-wrote with classicist Joel Christensen, in which we turn to a crucial moment in the play, when Tereus, one of main characters drawn from Aristophanes, questions the reality of utopia, in terms of having a cost too high for humans. Although our modern version of utopias dates back to Thomas More in the 16th century, ideal cities and systems of government have preoccupied much earlier authors, including Plato and Homer. Already in Homer, there’s much skepticism over the futility of trying to eliminate human suffering, and all the contradictions that arise from this attempt. In utopias and ideal states, there’s little space for some of the most crucial aspects of human life; spontaneity, unpredictability and contingency. What would be of our lives if we lived like gods, knowing the past and the future, and free from suffering and labor.
At first sight, I would like to think that no utopias are possible, at least for us. In the modern world, every political utopia has ended as a tyranny or a catastrophe or both. Yet, is it possible to live entirely without utopias? The necessity of belief is central to the social construction of reality. I wonder what kind of world would we live in, if we gave up utopias altogether? The answer is that it would be a world very much like ours, where we have completely lost sight of the future and of political imagination as a whole, being trapped in the never-ending present of the Internet, the news cycle and the stock markets. The exhibition takes a third route other than utopian or anti-utopian: It is possible to live without political utopias, for the only possible utopia is the project of the human person; human fragility, contingency, and decency. We can work on our present and improve ourselves and our world without waiting for salvation.
Displacement is one of the central themes in the exhibition, both in the play and for the archaeological artifacts, with their histories of excavation–protracted journeys of discovery, appropriation, recovery and return. The kind of utopia we wanted to present wasn’t that of an ideal city, for Aristophanes’s Cloudcuckooland always ends in tyranny. Instead, in re-telling the story of the Karamanlides with an ambiguous end, we would like to believe that it is possible for people to restart life again, to overcome grief without forgetting the past, and yet build new political foundations that would carry us into the future. But we don’t really have an answer of how this could be done, especially in our region, where we are faced with such a violent present, and where displacement is ongoing. What we want to affirm is the belief in the possibility. It seems like such a minor gesture, but we have completely lost our way as peoples.
After the exhibition, will the birds continue flying?
The exhibition runs until the end of February, so until then the birds will be on the third floor of the archaeological section at Sadberk Hanım, awaiting instructions for their next destination. In the future, we would like to show the film as a self-standing piece in biennials and group exhibitions, and I hope to be able to include it in an upcoming project about the history of the sky which is in the works. The exhibition is the fourth stop of “Perched”, Felekșan Onar’s project which led to this exhibition, and I believe the wingless swallows will continue traveling to other museums, with or without utopias. The exhibition as a whole cannot be replicated anywhere, for the context of the museum is its nest and the archaeological artifacts cannot travel due to laws governing antiquities in Turkey, but we are open for institutional collaborations in an expanded context.
As a researcher and curator, “After Utopia: The Birds” is my first institutional exhibition, and in retrospective, I would have never imagined that my first collaboration with a museum would be anything like this, so in a way it has radically changed the path for how a curator operates or where. I suppose I will be looking into archaeological museums again, once I have digested the weight of this work. At the beginning of the year I began a conversation with a colleague about doing a project on the Sumerian tablets of the royal archives of Nippur, and how they are spread across Turkey, Iraq, Germany and the United States, but that would be a project much more ambitious than this one and that will probably take several years to materialize, for as you know, archaeological artifacts do not travel easily. At some point I also would like the play to be performed on the stage, with real life actors, and perhaps even with the voice actors of our film.
In the near future, I also would like to return to Beirut, for in spite of the many cycles of collapse, small windows of opportunity are appearing now, after my dear friend, colleague and co-editor in the platform Perambulation, Karina Helou, has been appointed director of the Sursock Museum, and other changes are underway in a number of Lebanese institutions. A Lebanese editor told me recently half-jokingly that it would be a good time to come back, since everyone else left, which summarizes well the current situation. But we have to continue believing in the world, in its possibilities, its potentialities, for we have no other alternative, we have no other world in fact. I suppose the message of the birds in the play is something like that. Even in spite of the failed utopias, we need to continue searching, working, writing, producing, making art, and having conversations about the possible futures, otherwise they will never arrive.