Whether hung in government buildings or in restaurants, portraits of presidents, hung chronologically, are common sights around the world. From these highly circulated images, Amsterdam-based artist Guney Soykan has created much less familiar ones. His recently launched project, Face of A Nation, splices up some of the most recognized portraits of select nations’ leaders and stitches together their features to form a composite face for each country. The series is, as Soykan told Hyperallergic, “an invitation to all of us to question the idea of what a leader is.
“I believe that people tend to vote for leaders with whom they can identify,” Soykan said. “So I thought, if I bring together all the elected political leader portraits in a timeline, that face will be a historical reflection of that country. This visual data might be helpful to perceive how the society has evolved over the decades.”
The individual fragments of each portrait are arranged chronologically to form visual, telling timelines of presidencies over the past 50 years. A leader is only represented if he has served for at least one year; his length of service determines the width of his section. The nine segments in “United States,” for instance, are mostly in two sizes that represent four-year and eight-year terms. In contrast, “Turkey” features a face with little cohesion, consisting of 19 strips of vastly ranging widths. At a glance, you can see the US’s well-established political system that has limits to presidential power; and the political instability of Turkey, which has a history of coups and where democracy is still young and struggling.
Soykan, who grew up in Northwest Turkey, started Face of a Nation after his home country’s November 1st elections, which resulted in an unexpected comeback of Erdogan and the AKP with a major landslide.
“I was trying to understand the reasons behind the results,” Soykan said. “One of the things I realized was that voting behavior is very emotional; the elected leaders are a reflection of their society. And to me, that reflection is not only about the ideas, but also about the personality of the leader.”
In terms of their physical attributes, it’s especially clear from Soykan’s images that men, unfortunately, have dominated politics in recent decades. But these features, when brought together, also reveal information about their countries’ politics. “South Africa,” for instance, is a portrait of a man that is half white and half black, capturing the country’s major social transformations after apartheid. “North Korea” is a near-uniform portrait; consisting of just three fragments of its leaders of close resemblance, it relays the country’s passage of power through familial inheritance.
Soykan sourced many of these images from official portraits, but at times he had trouble finding them and relied on Google searches to find the most widely shared photographs. These challenges, he said, are a reflection of how some leaders were not even in power long enough to establish an iconic image of themselves. On the other hand, for countries where imagery is a key weapon of government officials, his task was simple.
“It was almost too easy to put together the faces of the North Korean leaders,” Soykan said. “Not only because there are only three and they are all part of the same family lineage, but also because their most popular portraits are almost identical. They are all portrayed from the same angle, wearing the same glasses and with a very similar haircut. North Korean propaganda leaves no room for doubt that the ideology of their first leader Kim Il-sung continues throughout his successors.” In compiling the “Russia” portrait, he also realized that Russian leaders are always shown as serious and powerful to imbue them with strong authority. US presidents, on the other hand, appear friendly, always turning to the right and presenting a goodnatured smile.
An ongoing project, Face of the Nation will continue to grow as Soykan creates more portraits for new countries, focusing particularly on ones that influence world politics. Each existing one, too, will expand. In light of the US’ most recent election, he updated “America” to include a line labelled “D. Trump 2016.” It’s still too early to tell if Donald Trump will fulfill the one-year requirement to command a slice of Soykan’s image, but the artist has already been parsing photographs of the President-elect.
“It looks like his ear and iconic hairstyle [may] play a small part in the project after next year,” he said.