Gülsün Karamustafa, Körebe (Blind Man’s Bluff), 1974, acrylic on paper, 23 x 17 3/8". From the series “Prison Paintings,” 1972–78.

Gülsün Karamustafa, Körebe (Blind Man’s Bluff), 1974, acrylic on paper, 23 x 17 3/8". From the series “Prison Paintings,” 1972–78.

Gülsün Karamustafa

SALT | Beyoğlu

Gülsün Karamustafa, Körebe (Blind Man’s Bluff), 1974, acrylic on paper, 23 x 17 3/8". From the series “Prison Paintings,” 1972–78.

At a time of political instability in Turkey following the large-scale protests over the intended demolition of Gezi Park in the center of Istanbul—protests that have come to symbolize issues from gentrification to democratic rights—Gülsün Karamustafa’s “A Promised Exhibition” (curated by Duygu Demir and Merve Elveren of the SALT Research and Programs team) is timely and pertinent. The informative presentation is the artist’s most extensive to date and would be compelling even without the backdrop of recent events. Over more than four decades, Karamustafa has explored her country’s history, politics, and social transformations through painting, sculpture, and large-scale installations that often deal with the impossible division between politics and everyday life. Consider, for instance, the series “Prison Paintings,” 1972–78, only now exhibited for the first time. Following the coup d’état of 1971, Karamustafa was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for “aiding and abetting”; subsequent to her release, she painted images of her time in prison to retain her memory of the experience. The guileless pictures feel markedly private; it’s easy to understand why she has been reluctant to exhibit them. With scenes of fellow inmates sleeping, playing games, or cooking, and portraits of others literally behind bars, the inclusion of the series here seems to allude quite deliberately to the many who now face similar fates following the ruthless crackdown on the Gezi protestors.

With her sentence, Karamustafa’s passport was revoked until 1986. No wonder mobility has been one of her key subjects. Mystic Transport, 1992, for instance, evokes the wave of urbanization, mobility, and migration that began in the ’70s in Turkey and continued into the ’80s. The work consists of large metal baskets on wheels, like those ordinarily found in the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market, stuffed with colorful quilts. The baskets can be wheeled around by visitors; Karamustafa means for the quilts to evoke the Turkish saying, “If you have one in your bag, you can go anywhere in the world.”

One of the most touching pieces is the installation The Monument and the Child, 2010, which recalls the early years of the Turkish Republic, when foreign artists and architects were invited to conceive the new nation’s visual vocabulary. The Austrian architect Clemens Holzmeister, for one, was, in 1931, asked to design what is today known as the Güvenpark in Ankara and collaborated with Anton Hanak to design a monument dedicated to the police within it. But after Hanak died suddenly, in 1934, one side of it was completed by Josef Thorak, an official sculptor of the Third Reich. Karamustafa’s installation, which takes up an entire room, is based on a snapshot her father took of her as a child, in which she is pushing against the monument as if trying to bring it down. The image, woven into a carpet hung on the wall and incorporated into two mirroring black-and-white photomontages, is juxtaposed with a group of kitschy assemblage statuettes placed on pedestals across the room: for instance, some porcelain angels on top of a kettle, above which is projected a video loop of a young girl dancing. Ultimately, it is Karamustafa’s own literally childish opposition that comes, in these times, to bear the most significance, as it reveals the impossibility of toppling the monument with a mere push. Yet the gesture of resistance, however futile, remains inspiring.

Theodor Ringborg