Nil Yalter: Interview of the Month, July 2024 – Paul Carey-Kent

Nil Yalter

At 86, Nil Yalter is a star of this year’s Venice Biennale, where she is showing ‘Topak Ev’ and has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. She also has a solo show at Ab-Anbar Gallery in London, ‘The Story Behind Each Word Must Be Told’. Much of the work engages with people on the move who are often seen as of no consequence: Turkish immigrant communities in France (where she has lived since 1965); nomadic musicians from Turkey (where she grew up); and the Roma (with whom she has engaged consistently since living in India in 1957-8). Yalter brings analytic, poetic and political concerns together: in the gallery’s words ‘What she witnessed she expressed in her works; an amalgam of abstract modernism with elements of Byzantine and Ottoman heritage later transformed into installation and video works’.

PCK: How did you come to engage with immigrant communities in France?

NY: I settled in Paris in 1965. Coming from Istanbul, where there were no museums, no art books, I had about seven years of learning – I wanted to know about modern, conceptual and minimalist art, about everything that was going on. I met Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli’s ex-wife, in her gallery and that was a fantastic schooling for me – she introduced me to everyone. I made abstract paintings. Everybody likes them now, but they didn’t then. By 1971 I was ready to make a jump, and went to Istanbul, which had a military government. I met three young activist men who were prosecuted under martial law as members of the dissident People’s Liberation Army of Turkey, and hanged in 1972. I made very conceptual work about their story, showing day by day what was in the newspapers.

Topak Ev, 1973, as currently installed in Venice

Can you say something about your seminal work ‘Topak Ev’?

As I come from central Asia, I wanted to work on nomadism, so I made a yurt – a woman’s tent. A young woman makes her own tent, and when she gets married, her husband comes to it, but she cannot go out anymore. She has no outside life. I made my tent – ‘Topak Ev’ (Turkish for ‘Round House’) – and showed it at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 1973. I was researching the Central Asian collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, with the help of anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Bernard Dupaigne, and in the field in Niğde, in central Anatolia, with still-existing nomadic communities. I built the structure in aluminium and covered it with felt and sheepskin. I painted abstract forms on the skins and stitched excerpts from Yaşar Kemal’s novel ‘The Legend of the Thousand Bulls’ (1971) – an ode to the nomadic people of Anatolia – alongside Velimir Khlebnikov’s futurist poetry about the itinerant peoples of the Kalmyk Steppe.

What followed from that?

The women said everyone had a son or brother or husband who left the tents and went to the big cities, mostly to work in factories in France and Germany – they were like nomads. So I decided to do that work: I went to the local authorities and social workers to connect with the immigrants, and that has gone on ever since.

Estranged Doors (Exile is a Hard Job), 1983 – Photographs, oil, bronze pigment, pencil, and rubber-stamped ink on cardboard, 150 x 150 cm Courtesy of Ab-Anbar Gallery, photograph by Amin Yousefi

The exhibition opens with ‘Exile is a Hard Job (Estranged Doors)’, 1983, a collective portrait of Turkish-speaking immigrant workers. They are set in a geometric form resembling Islamic ornamentation, and ranged around words in the centre. What do they say?

They are an extract from the poem ‘Estranged Doors’ by Hasan Hüseyin, which became well known when sung by the protest folk singer Ruhi Su. ‘Exile is a hard job’ was my second show at the Museum of Modern Art. It features a video of my conversations with Turkish speaking immigrants working for textile ateliers in Paris. ‘Estranged doors are doors of slavery’ because the immigrants have to work very hard to send money back home. At that time there was no work in Turkey, that’s why the men left. The women were left behind – only years after could some of them who had papers and better situations have their families back. Today’s emigration is different, but the result is the same – I know a Tunisian who cleans for the City Council, and he can’t get his wife and son to join him.

Still from Nesrin (video), 2001 – Single channel video, 8 minutes 14 seconds

The film ‘Nesrin’ mixes dancing and computerised geometric effects with footage of what Nesrin describing what her life is like (‘I brought up my children in poverty. I carried wood and coal on my back. We were ten people in a room. Six of us slept in one bed…’). Who is she?

She is also an immigrant, but a Roma, from India. She’s talking about her condition. I have been studying the people who used to be called ‘gypsies’ – which some of them still prefer – for 30 years, looking into their beliefs and traditions, including the medical traditions. They have animals they believe in, and the serpent is very important – it is Lilith, as in the Old Testament – but connected to medicine, too. I have depicted two kinds of serpents, one with several heads surrounded by the Roma names (‘Nesrin II & III)’. They are itinerant because a house should not be tied to the earth. When people say gypsies steal, by the way, that’s an obligation on them – if they don’t take something of wherever they go, they will go to hell. It is more a religious attachment.

Nesrin II & III, 1982 – Mixed media on canvas, 95.5 x 64 cm each Courtesy of Ab-Anbar Gallery, photograph by Amin Yousefi

Two of the works feature you performing as a shaman?

Yes, the entrance wall has a sequence of screen shots from ‘The Shaman Woman’,1979, when I performed with real shaman mask, objects and music from Afghanistan – not a song or a prayer, but a ritual. I have studied shamanism closely, including research on masks and costumes in the Musee de l’Homme and in-depth reading of Mircea Eliade’s ‘Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’. That has allowed me to position myself as a translator and communicator between languages, communities, political positions, and entities.  I also found out about female shamans in Siberia. The film ‘Lord Byron Meets the Shaman Woman’ is an homage to them. I perform in a coat of Siberian fox fur, as my own version of the shaman. I use the computer and new technologies to mix up the real and the made-up, to introduce Byzantine form, to expand the trance-like experience through the multiplication of the image. My story connects the shaman to Lord Byron, whose poem ‘The Giaour’ talks about a shaman woman. He was no friend to the Turks, though.

Nil Yalter

La Chora, 1993 – Pencil, oil, gold paint, and acrylic on canvas, each painting – 47 x 42 cm

Installation dimensions variable Courtesy of Ab-Anbar Gallery, photograph by Amin Yousefi

What inspired ‘La Chora’, the series of geometric paintings? 

La Chora is the name of the last small Byzantine church in Istanbul – though it was turned into a mosque last year. It’s a masterpiece, and the forms come from the frescoes inside. It is interactive in that the 4 x 4 paintings can be arranged in different ways – change them, and it becomes another painting. So it’s about there being many possibilities. I have made an interactive video showing the arrangements changing. The paintings also echo Malevich, who came from Byzantium – an amazing and didactic artist, whose writings are very much part of today’s analysis. I also find a parallel between them and the pixels of computerised images. That may sound as if I’m theorising everything, but my approach is more biological – the theory comes after.

Top Photo: Nil Yalter in a still from Lord Byron Meets the Shaman Woman, 2009 – Video, 11 minutes 16 seconds All Photos Courtesy Of The Artist

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‘The Story Behind Each Word Must Be Told’ is at Ab-Anbar Gallery, 34 Mortimer St, London W1W 7JS to 10 August. The Venice Biennale runs to 24 November.