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This is not art. This is Politics!

An interview with the artist Nil Yalter.

  • Apr 18 2024
  • Didem Yazıcı
    Didem Yazıcı is an independent curator and writer based in Karlsruhe, Germany. Her curatorial work is inspired by thinking across disciplines in and outside of art, the potentiality of exhibitions as socio-poetic spaces, the legacy of intersectional feminism and global exhibition histories. She earned her B.A. in Art History at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul (2008) and an M.A. in Curatorial and Critical Studies at the Städelschule and Goethe University in Frankfurt (2012).

The Venice Biennale has honored the artist Nil Yalter with the prestigious Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award. Yalter, known for her groundbreaking invitation to Turkish workers to attend the 1977 Paris Biennale, was perceived as overly “political” by the press, and excessively “artistic” by feminist activists. Her contributions extend beyond her trailblazing contributions to video art. She is also recognized for her work in performance and Despite not having received a formal art education, Yalter, who has given video art lessons at various schools including the Sorbonne, stands as a figurehead among contemporary avant-garde artists. The distinctive use of materials and the themes she explores in her work set her apart. In the light of her receiving the Golden Lion, we are pleased to share an interview she conducted with the curator Didem Yazıcı in 2009.

Didem Yazıcı: In the late 1950s, you were engaged in creating abstract and figurative paintings. What sparked the transition towards sociological art from this juncture?

Nil Yalter: My journey to Paris in '65 was a turning point. The original artworks I had only seen in reproductions, along with examples of pop art and conceptual art, left me in a state of shock. It took me 5 to 6 years to fully absorb the impact of that experience. I remember seeing the first Andy Warhol exhibition in '65. I recognized it as art, but couldn’t comprehend how it had come to be there. France, with its deep-rooted traditions, was a stark contrast. I was fortunate to encounter the gallery of Ileana Sonnabend, one of New York’s finest, who had made Paris her home.

DY: During the tumultuous events of '68 in Paris, aside from your artistic endeavors, how did you, as a young woman who had moved to Paris, engage with the political climate of the time?

NY: It meant political consciousness. Prior to my move to Paris, I was constantly surrounded by artists in a predominantly left-wing environment. Upon my arrival in Paris, I was profoundly impacted by the World War II films and images of Nazi camps, which were largely concealed in Turkey due to our non-participation in the war. This exposure instigated a significant shift in my perspective and made political engagement imperative. The cultural and political movements preceding the '68 events, such as the Berkeley movement, the beat generation, and the hippies, were all part of my journey. I delved into the works of Kate Millet and Germaine Greer, which laid the groundwork for my involvement in feminism and political activism. The events of '68 marked a pivotal moment in this journey.

DY: A rupture…

NY: Yes. Americans, who were fleeing the Vietnam War, found refuge in Paris. The reverberations of the war were profoundly felt in the city, compelling us all to take a stance. France’s colonialist posture, coupled with the political activism of individuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, stirred a sense of political awareness and sensitivity. While this awakening didn’t originate in Turkey, where the political climate was challenging, I was fortunate to have the support of older, more experienced friends with whom I shared a political ideology. My experience in Turkey was marked by a series of military coups. It was in Paris where I cast my first vote, an opportunity I never had in Turkey.


fig. 1


DY: You were part of a group known as Women in Resistance, - Femmes en Lutte -.

NY: In the early '70s, we formed a group rooted in the consciousness of feminist women artists. We convened weekly in one of our workshops to discuss the status of women artists in galleries and museums. A significant exhibition titled “1972 Contemporary Art” was inaugurated at [Centre] Georges Pompidou. Among the 100 artists featured, only one was a woman. This stark disparity sparked a major conversation, prompting us to take serious action in the art world.

DY: How did your experience as a woman in France shape your artistic career?

NY: My career experienced a significant setback. The issue wasn’t about being Turkish or foreign. Rather, I deeply felt the “racism” associated with being both Turkish and a woman.

DY: Racism…

NY: Indeed, I experienced a significant amount of racism. I often heard, “Ah… You don’t look like a Turk at all.” But what does a Turk look like? We are a diverse nation, having mixed with a variety of ethnicities. I believe such a statement is inherently racist. For instance, I was nominated for a scholarship in the late '70s. They announced that I had won, but then abruptly, they chose a man instead. The reason? Firstly, because I was Turkish, I supposedly didn’t represent French art. Secondly, I was a woman. This was a clear case of double discrimination. The designated seating area was deemed unsafe, and they thought it would be better to send a man. They wouldn’t dare say this to a German. Although it’s not always overt, like a slow trickle of water, I continue to feel the effects of this discrimination.

DY: Since the early '70s, you’ve been addressing themes such as migration, gender, and cultural identity in your work. How do you perceive the significance of artistic expression deriving its meaning from sociological and political issues?

NY: I’ve chosen a path where art is not just created for its own sake. I believe that art should engage with social issues. While I do create aesthetically pleasing art, and don’t shy away from it, my primary focus isn’t to create art solely for its aesthetic value. Art, to me, is a reflection of the world one inhabits at any given moment. It can’t be approached in any other way. That being said, there are pieces that I create purely for the love of art.

DY: Indeed, such a debate no longer exists.

NY: I concur that such debates are a thing of the past, belonging to that specific era. When we presented Turkish workers at the Paris Biennale, it sparked controversy among some attendees who questioned, “This is not art, this is politics. What is it doing here?”.

DY: Conversely, the interplay between art and the sociological and political sphere, and the extent to which it has forsaken aesthetics, continues to be a topic of debate. The dynamics of art and politics have evolved since the '70s. How do your works address this issue?

NY: During the 1977 Paris Biennale, I showcased Turkish workers through drawings, photographs, and videos, and even extended an invitation to the workers themselves. The bourgeois class reacted by saying, “This is not art, this is politics. What is it doing here?” Such sentiments are not expressed today. Instead, they deem it overly aesthetic. When I created a piece on the prison, a feminist group questioned, “Why don’t you go inside the prison and take action? This is not politics, it’s art, too artistic.” It seemed that nothing had found its rightful place.

DY: In your works, you critically engage with women’s issues. How do you position your own creative output within the realm of feminist artistic practice?

NY: My work is largely influenced by Marxist feminism, drawing parallels between the struggles of women and workers. The concept of class struggle, although no longer a prevalent topic of discussion, is a key element in my art. My interest extends to both women and male migrant workers, acknowledging the harsh conditions and battles they face. I’ve witnessed the plight of distressed women confined within the four walls of suburban homes, kept in by men. This reality deeply informs my artistic practice.

DY: While you have collaborated with Western-centric institutions that shape the narrative of art history, you have chosen to remain independent of the gallery system.

NY: The gallery system and I maintained a mutual distance. I wasn't interested in it and neither were they. The venue where I held the majority of my exhibitions was the Paris Museum of Modern Arts, where I opened two solo and four group exhibitions. Every artist who had as many exhibitions as I did during my revolutionary period went on to become a gallery owner. Some even achieved fame. I was one of the earliest starters in this business: there's a strategy to this, to invite those people and run after them. However, I didn’t pursue that path, neither chasing after it nor being chased by them. There’s a strategy to court those men and follow them, and I was one of the pioneers in this field. There was no commercial aspect to my work. What place do photos of Turkish workers have in a bourgeois home? I was more captivated by the subject matter than the aesthetics, and perhaps some works were not up to par. There’s a certain mold in contemporary art, the mold of the work that galleries sell. My works didn’t conform to that mold.

DY: In your opinion, what are the significant advancements that have emerged from the pivotal moments in contemporary Turkish art history?

NY: During the years I was absent, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition in Paris, which I believe was towards the end of the '80s. The works of Hale Tenger, Gülsün Karamustafa, and Füsun Onur left a profound impression on me. I also attended another remarkable exhibition at the Atatürk Cultural Center in 1993, which featured numerous female artists. It was then that I realized the future of Turkish contemporary art was being shaped by these women, whose work I found to be more potent than their male counterparts. This realization was a significant revelation for me. Yusuf Taktak, despite his talent in painting, attempted to modernize his work by incorporating a bicycle, which unfortunately detracted from his art. There was also a notable exhibition called “Young Activity” that showcased the works of all the artists  known to us.



This interview was published in 2009 by Erkan Aktuğ and Cem Erciyes in Radikal Newspaper. The liberal-left newspaper, which started publishing in 1996, ended its print publication in June 2014, and its digital publication in March 2016.



    COVER: Nil Yalter, Exil is a harte Arbeit, 2024. Courtesy the artist. © Marta Herford. Photo: Besim Mazhiqi.

    fig 1: Nil Yalter, Turkish Immigrants (Detail), (2016). © Courtesy of the artist. 



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