Ipek Duben: 'THEY / ONLAR' at Fabrica Gallery, Brighton

Artist: Ipek Duben: THEY / ONLAR

Gallery: Fabrica, 40 Duke Street, Brighton, BN1 1AG

Dates: 8 April - 29 May 2017

Website: www.fabrica.org.uk/they

Everyday us and everyday others

Review by Gulnaz Can

The hardest part of being human, is being human. A whole lot of labour goes into it, including the work of hating and discriminating, particularly when it comes to ‘the others.' An exhibition in Brighton consists of oral testimonials about being ‘the other’, either to a whole society, or to one’s own family members. The Turkish artist, Ipek Duben, underlines that this work documents minorities in Turkey in a non-documentary fashion; it is neither journalistic nor sociological evidence.

Fabrica Gallery has invited Duben to show her work They (2015), as a part of the Brighton Festival. The theme of the festival is Everyday Epic, exploring ‘everything about being human’. I was sure that the exhibition would be an interesting experience for me, as I am a half-Kurdish, Muslim woman from Turkey, now living in London. Taking a train to sunny, liberal Brighton to see an exhibition telling the stories of Turkey’s ‘others’, I thought “not necessarily ‘others’ to me”; but I was wrong.

Ipek Duben has been exploring identities in her works since the 1990s. She has worked around the themes of migration, violence against women in Turkey, as well as Turkish identity from a Western perspective. It is not a coincidence that this exhibition has travelled to Brighton in the middle of an international divorce. The discourse of Brexit, or of a second Scottish independence referendum has been over-saturated with ‘us’ and ‘them’, blurring the division between the two and other times rebuilding borders in different places. Liz Whitehead, the director of Fabrica Gallery says that Turkey has become an object of interest for Britain during Brexit as a land of cultural and business opportunities. Paradoxically, I remember one pro-Brexit campaign flyer claiming the horror that 80 million Turkish people would come to the UK if it remained in the EU.

Entering Duben’s installation depicting Turkish social reality feels dream-like, almost surreal. In a pitch black gallery, 6 scattered screens of people slightly bigger than life-size, either standing or sitting close to eye level, tell their stories at the same time. It feels like a crowd: meaningless chattering voices, the possibility of bumping into someone, a little chaotic... One needs to choose one person to approach and listen to in order to hear the English translation emerging from the original sound. There are no subtitles, you just need to focus. Look at the physical acts of telling: their eyes, lips and hands as they almost whisper. Then comes the story, and the chilled sense of reality in this surreal environment followed by an unavoidable step towards stronger empathy.

We see and hear people who have been historically and systematically discriminated against and marginalised: Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Alevis, LGBT, women...

An Armenian woman tells how she never spoke Turkish until primary school. She was only able to speak Armenian at home. She says that it took time for her to understand what being an Armenian meant in Turkish society, and that she could never become a district attorney or a history teacher. An Alevi man talks about how Alevis were perceived in Turkey; he heard people claiming that Alevis were so strange, they even had tails.

Another woman, who comes out as a lesbian for the first time in the interview, tells how she did not know that her father was a Kurd until she was a teenager. Her father hid this unspeakable fact from everyone until he died.  A woman wearing a head scarf says that to secular men in Turkey she does not appeal as a woman, and describes how this makes her feel. All the testimonials are sincere, confrontational and powerful. Ipek Duben stresses that they are not politically correct. None of these stories are unfamiliar to me, but I also realise how easy it is to forget the daily struggles of ‘others’. It is uncomfortable to listen to these stories one after the other.   

On a panel of 3 screens, people appear in a sequence, one after the other as if in conversation. Duben explains that the subjects have never met each other and probably never will. They are from different worlds although it is possible that some of them could live on the same street. Duben creates an impossible dialogue.

One may ask why they should be interested in Turkey’s ‘others’. The work is a sort of oral history of Turkey but it also speaks of today and of tomorrow.  The testimonials are evergreen and they could be from anywhere. Duben says that there is a universal aspect to otherness. Her work confirms this.

Kate Tempest, guest director of Brighton Festival explains that when we are so busy with our own everyday lives, we are numb to ‘others’. So here is the challenge: walk into this dark hall and listen, then go out to Brighton’s Ship Street, turn southwards and see if you view ‘the others’ more or less tolerantly than before.

Ipek Duben (b.1941) is a Turkish artist who lives and works in Istanbul.  She was educated in New York Studio School, University of Chicago (MA), and Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul (PhD). Recent solo exhibitions include: İpek Duben: What is a Turk? The Agency, London, UK (2013); 2012, Galeri Zilberman, İstanbul, Turkey (2012) and Extracted Objects, Cda-Projects, Istanbul, Turkey (2011). She has participated in the 13th Istanbul Biennial (2013); Poetry and Exile: British Museum (2014); European International Book Art Biennale, Moscow (2014) and The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C (2010) among others.

Gulnaz Can is a Turkish writer based in London. After a 10-year career in broadcast journalism, she studied Gender, Media and Culture MA at Goldsmiths (2012-2013). Can has written for newspapers and magazines including Radikal, Agos and Pulbiber in Turkey and the Protagonist Magazine in London.