Gülsün Karamustafa

Galata Ancient Trade Hall

Gülsün Karamustafa is a chronicler of Istanbul, a crossroads between continents whose multiple—and often conflicting—heritages are visibly and spectacularly piled on one another. For over thirty years, this “Queen Mother of the Istanbul art scene” (in critic and curator Erden Kosova’s words) has been examining her nation’s shifting identity, asking what constitutes its essence and questioning the way it has been perceived and represented by others.

In her new installation, Galata–Genoa (Excavating small windows), 2004, curated by Teresa Macri, Karamustafa turned her attention to the distant past, when Istanbul (then called Constantinople) was commercially linked to the Italian port of Genoa and crusaders regularly stopped in the Turkish city en route to Jerusalem. The installation, originally exhibited in Turin, was set up here in a more elaborate form inside an early-fourteenth-century Genoan trade hall standing in Istanbul’s Galata section on the west bank of the Golden Horn. To suggest that Galata and Genoa resemble each other architecturally—or perhaps to express the desire that they should still do so—the artist juxtaposed snapshots (she calls them “silly pictures”) from the two cities in a kaleidoscopic, friezelike fashion. However, as the artist reminded us, architecture consists both of static structures and the dynamic social environments around them, which together form a crux between the public and the private. Accordingly, for Karamustafa the real connection between the two places comes not as much from the similarities of their historic buildings but from the shared fate of people and their half-remembered, half-forgotten personal histories. To emphasize this, the installation focused on several individuals whose lives were documented in photographs and objects, among them a crude wood carving of a coat of arms produced by a craftsman from Galata; a Plexiglas panel mounted with brass door accessories which the artist purchased in Genoa; and a photo of a grocer from her neighborhood in Istanbul, Giorgio Casagrande, whose family is originally from Genoa. Despite their contemporary feel, the objects were presented as timeless remnants. Ordinary men—an artisan, a hardware merchant, a grocer—were portrayed as fragile but lasting links between the two cities. As if to bring these men together in a symbolic and humorous fashion, at the center of the exhibition space was a table covered with white cloth, on which was set a tray of green and black plastic grapes.

Perhaps unintentionally alluding to the gender gap in traditional Turkish society, Genoa—Galata presented women in their own separate space: A video recording showed the artist’s daughter and a friend preparing pasta while speaking in Italian about their daily lives in Istanbul. Talking about their emotional attachment to the Turkish city, the two women emphasized that it is a place in the making where, despite a long and rich history, things seldom become finite or fixed. They agreed that they could feel at home only in such an atmosphere—because they derive strength from impermanence and its promise of endless possibilities, even if they rarely become reality.

With its loose set of referents forming a dense environment with a meandering narrative, Karamustafa’s installation mimicked the fragmented character of Istanbul itself. The installation’s network of links between the histories of the two cities gave eloquent voice to the desire of progressive Turks to live in a place that derives vitality from its heterogeneity and fluidity past and present.

Marek Bartelik