In his video work Metamorphosis Chat, on view at UMMA through March 27, Turkish artist Ferhat Özgür offers a warm and intensely personal experience of what has become a complex moral debate within Turkish culture: wearing the headscarf.
Colleen: In Metamorphosis Chat, one woman chooses to wear a headscarf, while her friend has chosen to remain uncovered. Do you think that the headscarf necessarily represents traditional times, or do you feel that it has a place in the modern world?
Ferhat: In general we tend to classify people according to their figure & dress. If I consider, in the religious context, the traditional headscarf is used to function as a complementary decorative element of a person’s attire. It was a show of your respect to your values. Additionally, headscarves have often been worn by nobility, regardless of religious background. But one should also consider the fact that there are two controversial varieties of wearing headscarf in terms of their descriptions as well. The first (as a modest adjective) could be ‘headscarf’, which is a sign of adapting or respecting your own tradition, here mainly in a religious content. The other one (as a definite uniform, a symbol or a message) is ‘turban’, which is worn entirely differently to the ‘headscarf’. Here, turban stands as a compulsory fact for women.
I would like to emphasize that the use of the headscarf, in both ways, doesn’t necessarily represent the past. Sometimes the association of the headscarf with religion can be overstated, over emphasized, made symbolic. My mother used to sometimes wear a headscarf but it was there to serve a purpose: for example - to keep the hair out of her eyes or to keep the hair tidy or to cover your head whilst praying, etc. Why is there never the same comment or criticism made about men wearing headgear or hats - e.g. various kinds of caps! Over time both the turban and headscarf have been unfortunately associated with one another as a controversial topic especially in Western modern countries. In this sense, the headscarf could have a place in the modern world but it is inevitable that women with headscarves are subjected to prejudice or discrimination.
Your artwork often deals with the tension between traditional and modern times. Other than the appearance of women, how have you felt this tension in your life?
I have felt this tension ever since I decided to study art. I grew up in a neighbourhood where there was a big gap between modern and tradition, poor and rich, even left and right - they were all so tangible. Over time it was also touching to witness the ongoing gentrification in our old district that is full of unforgettable memories. Whilst studying art, apart from women rights, domestic violence and political traumas, I became more engaged in interrogating urbanization conflicts. I can say that more than half of my works are based on the realities of our neighbourhood. From there I try to interpret the individual and social stories which are another face of Turkey. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if the tension is between the past and modern times. There were tensions within past societies and also in the present ones. Don’t we all feel tensions? For instance: old versus young; rich versus poor; those who are well fed as opposed to those who are malnourished; migrants and those who are in settled communities. I don’t think we would be ‘humans of the contemporary world’ if we didn’t feel and experience tensions.
The debate over headscarves in university and professional settings has been a hot topic in Turkey as well as other countries such as France and Mexico. Do you think that the government has the right to make decisions regarding religion, or should these conclusions come from religious authorities?
I must admit that there were academics who were imprisoned because they did not allow turban wearing students to attend their lessons. In the mid 2000s for instance, when I was the head of the department of painting, I was given an authority by the rectorship to refuse or to banish those wearing turbans from classrooms - which I did not deliberately implement for it was not fair. I believe that in a truly democratic country people should be able to experience freedom and therefore there should be religious tolerance. However, any symbolic ornamentation should not seek to impose itself on other people. It should not adversely affect the health and safety regulations and it should also allow people total equality for opportunity. Neither should it seek to marginalise people. But, for instance, in my current position in the fine arts faculty what I ask those with turbans on is whether they are sufficiently courageous to draw from live nude models or to analyze nude paintings that might be presented visually?
Your work deals with many controversial subjects. How have Turkish audiences reacted to this? Have you ever felt that there was a danger in presenting these divisive topics?
Danger - yes! If an artist is true to himself or herself then there must be times when you ‘push the boundaries’ - both your own and those of the audience. Maybe even to make both groups uncomfortable. Art has sometimes got to challenge people rather than always provide the comfort of a 'fireside armchair’! In 2008 when I shot the video ‘It’s Time To Dance Now’, a performance of a young girl in black chador (burka-like dress) dancing to techno music in vivid public domains in Ankara, I was aware of the danger approaching because I had not previously obtained any official permission from the municipality. But I knew that if I ever applied I would most probably be turned down anyway. When shooting the video illegally we were suddenly surrounded by police. Somebody watching us must have reported that there were youngsters insulting Islamic values. According to them any Muslim girl must not be expected to perform this way in public spaces. Police asked for my permit. Despite my convincing explanations we could not continue. But in the following days we finalized it by using other venues outside! What I tried to expose in this work was how to invalidate the adopted conservative approaches towards the ‘turban’ or ‘headscarf’. Furthermore when the video was shown as part of the exhibition it was facing into main street in central Istanbul. Over the course of the two months there was no public reaction!
The actors in your films are often acquaintances or relatives. Did the women in this film have any reservations about participating?
If they did have reservations they didn’t show it (except for one of Pakize comments). At one level it has the same qualities as a children’s 'make and pretend’ game. Friends/relatives can be the best people to encourage to go 'the extra mile’ but their personal boundaries should always be respected.