Nil Yalter, Untitled (Black Veil), 2018, ink-jet prints on Dibond, polyester fabric, 68 7⁄8 × 55 1⁄8".

Nil Yalter, Untitled (Black Veil), 2018, ink-jet prints on Dibond, polyester fabric, 68 7⁄8 × 55 1⁄8".

Nil Yalter

Half a century ago, Nil Yalter broached issues that others dare not touch even today—female genital mutilation, for example. Her video The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance, 1974, shows her writing on her body, the text spiraling over her naked belly an excerpt from the French poet and historian René Nelli about the clitoris as the center of female sexual pleasure and the persistent practice of cutting it. Then the artist, a native of Cairo who was raised in Istanbul, performs a belly dance, her marked-up torso epitomizing the contrast between the oppression of female sexuality and the aggressive pursuit of erotic delectation on the part of men.

The Headless Woman was one of Yalter’s first videos. Moving to Paris in 1965 at the age of twenty-seven, she started out as an abstract painter. Influenced by the Russian Constructivists, she painted circles that represented the female element. Then, on a visit to Istanbul, she learned of the death sentence against the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary Deniz Gezmiş. Agitated, enraged, she wanted to take a stand, but how? She made a series of five Conceptual abstract drawings. Then she began modifying newspaper clippings and taking photographs of her surroundings. The result, completed in 1972, was the complex installation Deniz Gezmiş; in Cologne, it takes up an entire room by itself.

The experience led her to take an interest in outcasts—in the subaltern, to use the term popularized by the scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Yalter visited Anatolia’s nomads and built a yurt, decorating the outside with drawings on sheepskins and quotations about freedom from the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov and the Turkish writer Yaşar Kemal. Among the nomads, women are in command inside the tent but are not allowed to leave it. Their home becomes their prison. This ambivalence is reflected in Topak Ev (Round House), 1973, in which the yurt is a symbol of both empowerment and oppression.

In a work made in collaboration with artists Judy Blum and Nicole Croiset, La Roquette, Prison for Women, 1974, Yalter turned to women who were literally incarcerated. Photographs of objects that made their daily routines a little easier to bear—an extra blanket, a hand-rolled cigarette, a personal soup bowl—as well as drawings and a video introduce the viewer to these women’s lives. Adopting its method-ology from forensics, and bringing together video interviews, drawings, text, and collages of detritus found in situ, Temporary Dwellings, 1974–77, documents life in immigrant communities on the urban peripheries of Istanbul, New York, and Paris.

Ambivalence is a pervasive element in Yalter’s oeuvre. In “Turkish Immigrants,” 1977–2016, black-and-white photographs of Turkish women are paired with black-and-white drawings in which the faces are replaced by blanks. In moving to a different country, Yalter says, these women have lost their identities. But there’s also something else at stake. The human figure, the central motif of Western visual culture, is frowned on in the Islamic tradition, which instead prizes ornamentation: And indeed, the faceless drawings often take on an ornamental quality. In the most recent work in the show, Untitled (Black Veil), 2018, a photograph of a woman wearing a black chador is multiplied in a kaleidoscopic manner, transmuting the sitter into an abstract pattern.

Spivak argued that when the subaltern begins to speak, no one listens, because the language operates outside the hegemonic discourse. Yalter’s works, however, give voice to women in prison, migrants, and—in Diyarbakır, 2005—residents of the eponymous Turkish city who cannot read or write, letting them share their stories in a way that has us listening spellbound.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.