Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015)

Cengiz Çekil, Diary, 1976, seal print on diary and cardboard box, 8 1/2 x 6 3/10”.

A SMALL NOTEBOOK in a vitrine at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial caught my attention. It looked innocent enough: a light blue cover with an image of the Pink Panther on its front. At first sight, it resembled the diary of an eleven-year-old girl, not a conceptual artwork. But when opened, the all-caps rubber-stamped text reveals that this book registers not the private thoughts of an adolescent but the stark reality of a country in turmoil.

BU GÜN DE YAŞIYORUM (I am still alive today), ran the text across each page, accompanied only by the date, stamped on top. The diary marks a watershed moment in Turkish art, a gesture of local political commentary executed with utmost conceptual economy. And its inclusion in the 2009 Istanbul Biennial marked a late discovery of its maker, Cengiz Çekil, by a wider international audience.

Çekil was born in Turkey and spent several years in his twenties and early thirties studying art in Paris. By the time he returned home in 1976, he found his country in the grip of increasing violence and unrest, culminating in the 1980 coup d’état. It was in this climate that he decided to stamp a page in his small diary each night before going to bed with those humble words, a prayer of thanks and a talisman for the day to come. After two months, the last page reads simply ASKERE GIDIYORUM (Today I am enlisting).

Çekil’s return to Turkey and his decision to teach in İzmir for over three decades, far away from the tensions of the capital Ankara and metropolitan Istanbul, made him a major influence over several generations of Turkish artists. Those mentees were increasingly familiar with the languages of conceptualism and ready to employ the power of art to comment on Turkey’s fragile, changing, difficult political landscape, and during these decades, Çekil’s own art changed as well. The works of protest and resistance from the 1970s gave way to a mystical language of symbols and letters, and ultimately to sculptural installations of everyday objects, shirts, jackets, and fabrics. Throughout, Çekil remained a generous spirit, a trusted teacher and moral compass for Turkish artists, many of whom are still working today.

I met Çekil in 2011, the same year I acquired his notebook for the Museum of Modern Art. I remember his warmth, and, despite his historical importance, the same expectant spirit of the new and the next that all artists share. He did not want to speak much of his work of the ’70s; he preferred to discuss works yet to be produced. In November, a few days before the terrible events that shook Paris and Beirut, those words in Çekil’s diary became history.

Christian Rattemeyer is the Harvey S. Shipley Miller Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.