Art

Painting the Social Dimension of Turkey’s Civil War

For his debut exhibition, Nowhere, painter Sidar Baki foregrounds children within Gazi, an inner city neighborhood 20 kilometers from Istanbul’s core, where many Alawites live alongside internally displaced Anatolian youth.

Sidar Baki, “Nowhere 17” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 137 x 177 cm (all images courtesy of C.A.M. Gallery)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — In the summer of 2015, the scorching Urfa sun beat down on the painter Sidar Baki as he became an artist. He had just been awarded a regional prize named after the social realist painter Nuri Iyem. For the next two years, he worked in the majority Kurdish region 180 kilometers from Diyarbakir, his birthplace. One day, he had an epiphany at his home studio, where his latest piece stood on an easel beside full bookshelves. He stopped and went to the kitchen.

“I did something. I think I found it,” he told his wife, Gulsah, who is also educated in art. They sat down for dinner. A bomb went off. It hit a government law building within earshot, blasting debris through the shattering windows that ripped through his new painting. The couple returned to Istanbul that year, where Baki studied at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University before accepting a teaching post in Urfa in 2013.

Working in ground zero of Turkey’s civil war, which continues despite peaking in 2016, Baki became claustrophobic. He felt stuck in his studio while the spacious Mesopotamian plains beckoned outside. The setting offered his acrylic palette a blend of white noise and red alarm, as for “Nowhere 10” (2019), the only landscape painting at his debut solo show, Nowhere.

Sidar Baki, “Nowhere 10” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 126 x 162 cm

“Nowhere 10” is awash with radiant wisps of cloud cover against muted blues imposed over a narrow horizon of distant badlands. A quartet of boys crowd around a point in the ground, staring down, in contrast to the wide, open earth around them. The cold green soccer field is pressed with stark gunmetal grey tones textured with tire tracks and gravelly depressions.

Throughout his career, Baki has integrated expressionist and abstract affinities into his figurative scenes with a streetwise visual vocabulary. He captures the dystopia of making art in the face of armed conflict, as he experienced in Urfa. Its post-traumatic effects are in his work. Even in Istanbul, he endures similar pressures. He paints above his apartment in an attic studio too small to show his work.

Born in 1981, Sidar Baki has painted professionally for two years. He is not sure that his paintings are art. That is for others to decide, he says. His upbringing in Diyarbakir was limiting. At school, he was not allowed to speak Kurmanji, a northern Kurdish dialect, his mother tongue. He is taking his career slowly, recently refusing an invitation to give a talk at the inaugural STEP Istanbul event — a downtown art exhibition, neighborhood tour, speaker’s series and workshop program co-organized by Contemporary Istanbul. That said, C.A.M. Gallery will show his work at Contemporary Istanbul, the city’s flagship annual art fair.

Installation view of Nowhere at C.A.M. Gallery

Nowhere is at C.A.M. Gallery in Istanbul’s downtown Çukurcuma district, where many galleries moved following numerous attacks at art openings since 2010. Last year, Mahmut Celayir, a painter from Bingöl near Diyarbakir, showed abstract landscapes at C.A.M., shredding newspapers under subliminal color fields referencing the Kurdish flag. Months prior, Pg Art Gallery next door held a show by another young Diyarbakir-born artist, Hasan Pehlevan, who graffitied his op-art onto buildings slated for demolition and afterward pieced them back together from the rubble.

Baki lives and works in Gazi, an inner city neighborhood 20 kilometers from Istanbul’s core, where many Alawites live alongside internally displaced Anatolian youth who tag political slogans in public spaces.. In turn, the municipality covers them with rectangles of yellow paint, which Baki quotes in his paintings. He teaches art to fifty students at a time in the crowded, public middle school close to his home. It pays for supplies, and he gathers insights on developing his visual signature in the process.

Sidar Baki, “Nowhere 2” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 125 x 125 cm

He has painted derelict warehouses since his 2015 Nuri Iyem Painting Award gave him the confidence to identify as an artist. Nowhere introduces child figures in his work. A glimpse inside his school demonstrates his passion. There is barely a corner, from the classroom halls to the basketball courts, where his students have not drawn, painted, and sculpted. He teaches them well beyond the curricula about innovators like Picasso and Mondrian.

His paintings, “Nowhere 2” and “Nowhere 7” (both 2019), are more characteristic of the exhibition. Reimagining urban “sacrifice zones,” a term for wholesale environmental devastation originating from nuclear fallouts during the Cold War, he foregrounds the youngest generation as they process life in a 21st-century city. The children in his fictive warehouses merge urban plans, construction sites and schoolyard games in white chalk scrawled like the naive lines of Cy Twombly. When I asked, Baki admitted that he did not know Twombly. His earliest experience with art was watching the film, “Lust for Life” (1956), starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.

Sidar Baki, “Nowhere 7” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 118 x 130 cm

Three of his new paintings are free of architectural realism. “Nowhere 18” (2019) pictures a child seated on an immeasurable, dusty chalkboard, sketching apartment complexes, heavy machinery, street lights, and planes overhead. The installation, “Nowhere Land” (2018), by the artist and professor Ferhat Özgür addressed related subject matter at Kasa Gallery this past winter. Özgür photographed children confronting the blockaded city of Sur, Diyarbakir, in 2016.

In contrast, Baki has internalized firsthand experience with Turkey’s civil war, and the displaced urban migration that has resulted. He paints in solidarity with youth whose new, concrete homeland is under construction. His work is a testament to a generation of children living between pasts and futures unknown. Together, they emerge from nowhere, make it somewhere, and call it home.

The exhibition Nowhere is on display at C.A.M. Gallery (Çukur Cuma Caddesi 38/A, Beyoğlu) in Istanbul until April 13.

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