ISTANBUL — Voices echo in the semi-dark. There’s a flutter of wings in the shadows. I spin around. Inside display cases, glass birds in muted colors converse with terracotta companions or peck at the ground seeking solace. To my right, stop-motion images on a flat-screen TV emit a chorus of mourning.

This is After Utopia: The Birds by glass artist Felekşan Onar. These closed-wing glass birds are part of the 99-member flock from Perched, an exhibition Onar created in response to the influx of Syrian refugees into Istanbul and Turkey in the early 21st century and the impact of the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. The birds represented the displaced populations. 

Now, 22 of those birds are in Istanbul. What began as the artist’s simple desire to bring the flock home to roost has evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative dialogue between archaeological artifacts and the sculptures themselves. At its core is Onar’s philosophical questioning of and imaginings around the question of how we find peace in a world the gods appear to have forsaken, in whatever form that takes for each of us.

Onar’s After Utopia contextualizes the ongoing mass movement of people in the world today as a running toward and also a fleeing from. Both events occur in the now, outside of chronology or the notion of historical time. Consequently, the exhibition revolves around ideas, focusing on utopia, community, absence, and loss, rather than being grounded in a continuum.

Whatever their reason, Onar believes that people are looking for a place where they will be peaceful, their own utopia where nothing bad can ever happen. Understood in this way, utopia is considered a cure-all for dystopia, an absolute negative.

The word utopia is derived from the Greek words ou (not) and topos (place), a non-place. After Utopia engages with the notion of Thomas More’s eutopia, from the Greek eu, meaning “good, well or pleasing,” as the search for something or somewhere realistically attainable. 

Installation view of Utopia: The Birds at the Sadberk Hanım Museum, 2023
Detail view of Utopia: The Birds at the Sadberk Hanım Museum, 2023; “Perched” birds (2017–18), glass, dimensions variable

In her quest to find a permanent location for the birds in Istanbul, their own happy place, Onar started up a conversation among the flock, herself, and Arie Amaya-Akkermans, a Colombian writer and curator with roots in the Middle East. Initially, the plan was to stage a traditional exhibition, but then the world shut down. The pair spent months reading, thinking, and discussing texts, during which time Onar remembered the Karamanli peoples. 

The Karamanli were Orthodox Christians from Cappadocia, central Turkey. They lived alongside their Muslim neighbors and spoke Turkish but wrote using the Greek alphabet. When they were sent to Greece in 1923, the Karamanlı didn’t believe it would be forever and held regular festivals to ensure future generations could carry on Karamanlı traditions when they eventually returned home to Anatolia. That time never came and they were left in limbo, never quite belonging in the place they were living and always commemorating the loss of where they once lived. 

The notion of home as a signifier of belonging and community, when the place you physically reside isn’t where you’re from, was at the forefront of Onar’s mind when she started to look for a home for her flock in Istanbul. The Sadberk Hanım Museum, run by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, was the perfect setting for Onar because of its vast collection.

It was the stories of Karamanlı reenactments of scenes from their homeland that sparked the idea in Onar’s mind for a play, but as a place to begin rather than end the conversation. She created three main characters: the harpy Tereus, a half-human, half-bird found in Greek mythology, the Messenger Bird, and Odysseus. They engage in debate and argument with specific artifacts chosen from the museum collection by both Onar and Amaya-Akkermans, in a stop-motion film that provides a narrative for After Utopia while simultaneously breathing life into inanimate objects and myths from the distant past.

Ryton, 6 inches (approx. height); Inscribed Nail, 4 3/4 (approx. length); Terracotta Vessel, 7 inches (approx. height); Felekşan Onar, “Perched” (2017–18), glass

Amaya-Akkermans incorporated the research he and Onar completed into the script that was informed by but not limited to Aristophanes’ work The Birds and a poem written by Karamanlı poet Kosmas Çekmezoğlu, telling the story of his exile from Anatolia and subsequent journey to Greece. In After Utopia, the poem is sung by a chorus made up of the birds from Perched. Similar to the people we see in news reports and social media images, those eking out new lives years away from fleeing Syria or recently having left Ukraine, the birds are anonymous. We know more about what has happened to them than who they are, their past or future dreams.

The film is a moral debate around utopia, unpacking the concept to question the notion of goodness and ask who benefits from it, and whether one set of people’s happiness comes at too high a cost to another individual or group. Transposed to the real world, this means that defining utopia as the perfect unity of goodness and happiness requires making judgments. Who gets to determine meaning, and is it absolute?

If we accept, as Amaya-Akkermans states, that “the opposite of utopia is not dystopia but simply reality,” then the issue is not how we achieve goodness and happiness, ergo utopia, but how we begin to imagine a different world that takes into account the one where we actually live. 

For the displaced populations represented in After Utopia, the museum is a metaphor for their worlds. A world created by archaeologists working with two overlapping yet different models of timescales — relative time that sequences events chronologically and absolute time, concrete in its duration and order. Neither model can give a complete explanation because history records the destruction of actual objects, landmarks, and people meaning there will always be gaps in our knowledge.

In my lifetime alone, catastrophic events such as floods, war, and earthquakes have seen whole towns wiped out, familiar landscapes razed, and the grief of thousands if not millions of people. In situating her glass works among the archaeological items in the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Onar’s After Utopia places us in that moment. There is no before or after, just now, forcing us to ask difficult questions in order to search out new ways to live and alternative paths to follow. 

Janiform Bottle, 3 inches (approx. height); Bowl, 2 3/4 inches (approx. height); Felekşan Onar, “Gray Tereus” (2021), glass, 9 3/4 inches (approx. height)

After Utopia: The Birds continues at the Sadberk Hanım Museum through May 30. The exhibition was curated by Arie Amaya-Akkermans.

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Lisa Morrow

Australian-born travel and creative nonfiction writer Lisa Morrow has lived in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey for almost 15 years. She has a master’s degree in sociology, has written four books on...