Erkan Özgen, Wonderland, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 54 seconds.

Erkan Özgen, Wonderland, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 54 seconds.

Erkan Özgen

In the wake of violence, what we are often left with is language, which foments its own battles—battles without bloodshed, perhaps, but nonetheless haunted by violence. “Today,” said the artist Erkan Özgen in a recent conversation, “language doesn’t work.” The four documentary videos comprising Özgen’s recent solo exhibition all grappled, more or less, with such failures of verbal communication.

The longest video in the exhibition, Purple Muslin, 2018, comprised a series of interviews with Yazidi women living in a refugee camp in northern Iraq. This Middle Eastern minority group—whose monotheistic religion, influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, is one of the world’s oldest—has long been persecuted in the predominantly Muslim regions where most Yazidi dwell. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State denounced them as infidels and perpetrated a genocidal attack—the most recent of many to which they have been subjected over the past eight hundred years. Many of the women in the film endured the trauma of watching their relatives die or else still await the return of their kidnapped mothers, daughters, and sisters, and now they face an uncertain future in the limbo of the camp, with little to do besides routine housework. They have no real chance of ever returning home. They talk candidly about their traumatic experiences and how they are still suffering repercussions, including severe mental illness.

In Wonderland, 2016, Mohammad, a deaf-mute Kurdish boy living as a refugee in Turkey, narrates through sign and body language the horrors he endured when his hometown of Kobanî, in northwest Kurdistan, was attacked by Islamic State forces in 2014. Aesthetics of Weapons, 2018, documents one man’s love affair with his gun. “I see it as an old friend or a life partner,” asserts the nameless protagonist, whose face is never revealed. The deliberately blurred footage of him loading and unloading his gun, aiming it, cleaning it, and practicing shooting is almost erotic. He speaks of how he cares for and maintains it, and of his love of the movie Robocop for its protagonist’s endless supply of bullets. When he finally compares his weapon to a woman’s body, it becomes clear that the piece is about toxic masculinity.

The final video in the show, The Memory of Time, 2018, is notable for its absence of language, indeed of sound altogether. It was filmed on the UNESCO-protected fortress of Suomenlinna, which occupies a group of islands that are now part of Helsinki and has become a popular stop on the global bucket list. In home movie style, Özgen filmed tourists posing, climbing on, and sticking their arms inside cannons that were last used in wars more than a century ago. Özgen himself lives in a city with aUNESCO World Heritage site, Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey, which lately has been the scene of conflict between Kurdish insurgent groups and Turkish soldiers. Will Diyarbakır’s zones of tumult become a tourist site a hundred years from now? The question lingers in this poignantly autobiographical work.

The title of the exhibition, “Giving Voices,” reaffirmed Özgen’s essential activist stance in his project of returning agency to his subjects. Yet it is the title’s second meaning, wherein giving is read as an adjective, that resonates most vividly in retrospect. These voices are a gift to a world that doesn’t deserve them.