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Defying Authority | Interview with Şeyda Özdamar

By Oğulcan Ekiz

Turkish visual artist Şeyda Özdamar is best known for her work with found imagery that successfully combines photography with painting, collage, and stitching techniques. Through various methods of disassociation, she gradually amends the found photograph’s material surface, thus transforming its nature and intention. Özdamar's artistic practice is concerned with systems of repression, identity and the relation between freedom and authority. Found images of families, political figures, students and soldiers become the starting point of her research, while she allows herself to experiment without any drawbacks and defines them as ‘moments unclaimed’. A good example is her "Student" series which is based on found photographs of schoolgirls wearing the 'black apron'. These images which were once likely valued for their referential point to the apron as a symbol of equality, become ambiguous representations of the uniformization in the educational system of the period. The focus of this conversation, originally held in Turkish and translated by the author, lies in Özdamar's reflection on the oppressive power of the uniform as part of her critique on authoritarian systems and her approach to her work with found photography.

 "Çocuk" (Child), 2017

Şeyda, how are you? How are you dealing with the quarantine?

Thank you. Interestingly, I am doing well. It has been almost fifty days since I started self-isolation. The fears and worries of the first days surrendered to calmness. I started to live in the moment as a result of not being able to foresee the near future. I guess our human side adapts rather quickly.

My first question is about the uniform, which is a recurring symbol in your work. The more obvious one is the soldier's uniform. But there is also the black apron you often go back to. It is an alienating visual experience, with the white-collar being the only other element isolating the darkness of the uniform. What makes you go back to it?

The uniform deprives one of her ideas, freedom, and identity. It then fills the void with the rules of the institution that it represents. The soldier uniform, as well as the police uniform, represent the power, the status, and the sanctity, whereas, the student uniform represents obedience. These symbols are about authority, and the way I defy that authority is my art.

İsimsiz (Untitled), Diptych, 2017

Seeing those two uniforms repeatedly in your work indispensably reminds me of the 1980's coup d'état when the Turkish Armed Forces took hold of the democratically elected government. The coup was followed by executions, assaults and hundreds dying in prison. As far as I know, you lived your childhood in its aftermath. How do you think this period finds reflection in your work?

I am born in 1983 and grew up in post-coup d'état Turkey. I went to elementary school in the 90s. Back then I was not aware of what was going on, but naturally, my feelings from that period are carried into my work. Many of my ideas about the coup which I reflect on, come from the books, films, and documentaries I encountered in my youth.

Darbe (Coup D'etat), 2016

 

 

How did you start working with found images?

I experiment with different materials. The era images are the ones that intrigue me the most. What excites me is the contrast between those images and the images of today. The contemporary person is in a continuous mode of ecstasy, failing to grasp the multiplicity of stimuli. In this state of failure, the act of taking a photo normalizes or simplifies the desire of seizing the moment. This was not always the case. People were taking photos to document or honor special days, their togetherness, or to celebrate their achievements. They were more selective in their choices. I am looking for that selectiveness. That is my material.

 

I am curious about your treatment of these images. You use paint as well as other materials.

I choose the material based on the content of the image because I am crafting a transformed image with a new narrative out of the old one. The material varies from paint to stitches, glass, fabrics, etc. The surface changes as well. Sometimes I copy the image, other times I use the original. It can happen that I draw its subject in a different size. The image decides the dimension; I usually know it when I see it for the first time. For the most part, it is an intuitive process.

Öğretmen (Teacher), 2017

How do you collect the photographs you work with? Do you try to locate the photographer or anyone represented in them?

I look for images in second-hand dealers, old curiosity shops. I also get some of them from abroad. Afterward, I use search engines to research the notes on the back of the image. I have found many people through this.

Kontak (Contact), 2017

What is your motivation when you search for these people?

I am curious about these people’s lives. What kind of life do they live now? What do they share on social media? I guess I became quite good at stalking people. Of course, this is rare because most of the time the people in the images I use have already passed.

Has anyone from the images you use or their photographers contacted you?

During the "Demans" (Dementia) group exhibition at GaleriBU in 2017, someone from the audience recognized a friend of hers in one of my works. We talked for a while. She said her uncle, a Frenchman, was still alive, living in France. We wanted to contact him but it was not possible for me back then. Eventually, the curator of the exhibition contacted the man and they had a video call, that is how he saw the work.

"Toki"(abb. Mass Housing Development Administration), 2017

In copyright discourse, found images would be referred to as ‘orphan works’ because their creator or original rightsholder is near impossible to find. Fittingly, Joachim Schmid uses the word ‘adoption’ to define his reconceptualization of found snapshots. Do you agree with these metaphors? What kind of role do you feel endorsing when you work with found images?

I agree with Joachim Schmid, the German artist. I also think that what I do is akin to adopting the found images. I do see myself as an adopter and the photographs I use as moments unclaimed. And since I adopt them, I do not feel any drawbacks. I de-identify most of them and re-interpret them in the context of my work. Nevertheless, sometimes I receive interesting messages on social media about my soldier photos. People are telling me that I could get sued. I think this is more about the current state of paranoia in Turkey. In my work, I do not hesitate to express my reflection on what is happening.

İsimsiz (Untitled), 2017

There is a transformative aspect about the work with found photography. These images were created for a specific purpose, at some point, by someone. Sadly, it is unlikely for us to ever be able to find their author. But to a certain extent, in an act of defying Barthes’ claim of ‘message without a code’ we are able to deduce their purpose. There could be no uncoded message because the act of perception itself is a decoding operation. We know, for example, when we see a photograph of students with their teacher that this image was most likely taken for documentary purposes. Likewise, a smaller group of people situated in a living room, looking more or less similar to each other is probably from a family album. When you work with these images, they become incorporated into your artistic vision. Do you think they carry on their initial purpose to the end?

I am chasing the emotions reflected in the found image and I erase almost everything else to feature these emotions. I try different expressions while altering family, women, children, or soldier photos when I deal with current topics that bother me personally. The found images are not artworks themselves. But when an artist intervenes, they can reflect an expression and start an intellectual discussion.

"Aktif Hafıza"(Active Memory), 2017

 

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