Sumac Space

Dialogues Exhibitions About Artists' rooms

Unconquered Spirits

04.04.2021 - 15.06.2021

Curated by

Didem Yazıcı

What do forgotten or under-represented events say about historical writing and the politics of everyday life? If we trace them, where can the personal and collective memories, missing objects, or untold stories lead us today? In light of these questions, the works that comprise this exhibition irritates different forms of power structures such as institution, archive, discrimination, and state violence. Questioning the misuse of power dynamics and unsettling internalized racist structures, Unconquered Spirits brings together works by artists Ulf Aminde, James Gregory Atkinson, Hanan Benammar, Mustafa Emin Büyükcoşkun, Cansu Çakar, Istihar Kalach, Rojda Tuğrul, and Ülkü Süngün. At a time when social, political, and environmental injustices seem overpowering, we tend to lose hope: hope for more equality, justice, and fresh air to breathe. In Hope in the Dark, a book that traces a history of activism and social change over the past decades, writer Rebecca Solnit writes, “Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them.” In a moment of crisis or in routines of daily life, we all seek for little escapes in safe places where we can fully be ourselves regardless of the situation we are in. When someone is being imprisoned for an unjustified, invalid reason, or when a law that you don’t support just passes, when someone is being attacked or discriminated against just for their looks or names, or when you think you have been treated unjustly, it is not enough to be a passive witness. The world needs more spaces for unconquered spirits to challenge authoritarian and oppressive structures. Although this may sound like it demands a clear and dedicated activist stance, it may be as easy as simply being yourself. At this point, the Solnit’s words open new paths, grow new branches, and encourage those who believe in any form of resistance. Whether through a journey of solidarity, an ancient mosaic from Hagia Sophia, an unwritten part of Middle Eastern art history, a juxtaposition of the Black Power fist and the white power salute, a documentation of the historical site Hasankeyf before its destruction, a mask eating Romulus and Remus, problematizing the term “desert ideology,” or a fictional monolog about the radical invention of institutions and self-governing, each work in the exhibition manifests a form of an unconquered spirit.

The starting point of Unconquered Spirits began a year ago before the founders of Sumac Space, Katharina Ehrl and Davood Madadpoor, invited me to develop an exhibition program. As an exhibition maker, one reads a poem, sees a face, talks to an artist, experiences an artwork, and there is already a beginning of a feeling or an idea for an exhibition. At the time, you may not be aware of it, but that subconscious desire to share it with the public and make an exhibition stays within you. Ever since I watched the film Set Off (2019) by Mustafa Emin Büyükcoşkun in 2020, I have been thinking about a possible and relevant context in which to make it public. When I saw the work for the first time in HfG (Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design), I was struck by Büyükcoşkun’s courage to handle such a sensitive topic in an immensely careful, poetic, and mindful way – not only because it is a highly politically engaged theme he is dealing with but also more importantly because it is about a journey where innocent people were killed. What remains beyond death? In 2015, thirty-three activists from different generations from across Turkey had been planning to travel to Kobane, a Kurdish town on the Syrian border, to help with rebuilding the town after it was hit by IS. It was a simple and genuine act of solidarity. On their way to Kobane they stopped in the small town Suruç before crossing the border to hold a press release at the Amara Cultural Centre in Suruç, where the tragic incident took place. Dancing on the border of documentary and art, the artist narrates a real-life story in three chapters from the perspective of the people who experienced or witnessed the event. Despite the heaviness of the topic, the work is carefully simplified. The storytelling is humble yet strong. Through a bus ride, conversations, and anecdotes, the work becomes increasingly relatable. As opposed to labeling people as radicals or terrorists, it touches a deeply humane part of the entire story.

The works by the artists Rojda Tuğrul and Ülkü Süngün all take place in specific locations and histories, and deal with underrepresented matters. Abuarafeh’s two video works including archival material came to life when she began digging into the recent art and exhibition history of Palestine. Rojda Tuğrul’s photo series are based on her long-term engagement with the ancient settlement and ecological territory of Hasankeyf along the Tigris River in Batman, Upper Mesopotamia, which is currently being left to submerge by the Turkish state as part of a dam project, despite local and international protests. Ülkü Süngün’s photo novel project narrates the delicate story of Sergo Pipia and Marina Tsertsvadze, a refugee couple from Georgia who lived in a small town near Stuttgart, Germany, before they took back their asylum application and returned, disillusioned, to their homeland. Each of the three artists focus on particular histories in the cities they have personal connection to – Jerusalem, Batman (Hasankeyf), and Stuttgart – and each of them are based on their own individual curiosities driven by overlooked topics.

The paintings of Istihar Kalach and Cansu Çakar represent a certain kind of humor, social-critique, and dream-like lightness at the same time. Kalach’s oil and acrylic paintings are not afraid of subtle uneasiness or absurdity; she modifies the objects and plays with the way we look at things. In her paintings, there is often a sense of duality. The mask paintings, for example, have four eyes: two black, referring to blindness and two melting eyes, referring to unclear visions and misunderstandings. While Stolen Tears (2021) subtly refers to legacies of colonialism, the Europemask (2021) represents a kind of blankness of dominant cultural narratives. Cansu Çakar, on the other hand, challenges the stereotypical subjects and classifications in traditional decorative drawing technique. Questioning what it means to be a woman or anyone who feels themselves a woman, or a prisoner in an oppressive regime, her drawings are fictional or based on real-life incidents. Her painting Wash your sins not only your face (2019) is inspired by a fountain mosaic at the entrance of  Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which originally reads as “Nipson anomemata mi monan opsin” (“ΝΙΨΟΝΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑΜΗΜΟΝΑΝΟΨΙΝ”), a Greek palindrome attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (AD. 329–390). Not only is it related to resistance but the phrase also refers to the two faces of morality, religion, and authority.

In the video works Power Balance (2012) by James Gregory Atkinson and “Körper, Theorie, Poetik” (“Body, Theory, Poetics”) (2018) by Ulf Aminde, both artists have chosen to use their own body in different ways: Atkinson, his own hands and his own voice, and Aminde, his own body and voice in the style of an anonymized video. By engaging their own bodies directly, the works eventually become more personal and fiercer. Atkinson was raised in Germany by his African American father stationed in Germany in the 1980s as a U.S. soldier and his white civilian German mother. Atkinson’s biography illuminates a very distinct and important dimension of American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century and the involvement of African Americans in those initiatives. In the genre of the conceptual video tradition, his video piece in loop narrates the political resilience and legacies of Black cultures within Western diasporas. In the wake of increasing global far-right terror the simple gesture and the strong juxtaposition of the hands, which represent the Black Power fist and white supremacy salute, question existing and ongoing power structures, using the artist’s body as a tool (This paragraph is developed in conversation with the artist James Gregory Atkinson). Similarly, in his performative film work, Ulf Aminde also deals with power structures and existing systems, first and foremost the institutions. Through the style of an undercover video with darkened body and special effect to alter the voice, the viewer is given the impression that the person talking is involved in an illegal act or for some other reason doesn’t want to be known. In a mysterious way, as this character speaks, it becomes clear that the main question being raised is whether radicality consists of initiating one’s own institutions or whether it is a matter of changing the institutions from the inside. Hanan Benammar, on the other hand, directly responds to the term “desert ideology,” which is used to describe Islamic culture by far-right circles. By naming her installation piece with the same title, Benammar turns the far-right term upside down. In her work, she brings the archival and image materials that she has collected over thirteen years of travels to desert areas into a poetical constellation. Each of the works in the exhibition has its own protest nature and distinctive language of storytelling based on personal experiences or witnesses.

_ 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. Recently, she worked at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe (2017-18) where she co-curated exhibitions, and worked on conceptualizing and realizing the 200th anniversary programme. In 2016, she worked as Curator for the Infra-curatorial Platform of the 11th Shanghai Biennale invited by the curators Raqs Media Collective and Curator-in-residence at the Goethe Institute in Cairo. As a member of the curatorial team of Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg (2015-16), she curated group and solo exhibitions as well as video programs of ‘Schau_Raum’, and co-edited exhibition catalogues. Prior to that, she worked as a freelance curator, and curated the first solo exhibition of Mehtap Baydu in Berlin, titled ‘Tales of Shahmaran’ and a group exhibition ‘Left Unsaid’ in Kreuzberg Pavillon, Berlin in 2014. Previously, she was a curatorial researcher-in-residence at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, and worked at dOCUMENTA (13) as a project coordinator of Maybe Education and Public Programs (2012-13) in Kassel.  In 2009, she was the coordinator of Hafriyat non-profit art space in Istanbul. She studied B.A. in Art History at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul (2008) and M.A in Curatorial and Critical Studies at the Städelschule and Goethe University in Frankfurt. (2012).

Selected exhibitions and projects include; “Life, Death, Love and Justice” with Peter Sit (Tranzit, Bratislava, spring 2021 upcoming), “Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind” and “Garden Conversations” (Schau_Raum, Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg, 2020) ‘Ulrika Jäger’ (Akku Stuttgart, 2019), ‘200 Years Young Songs: Mehtap Baydu’ (Badischer Kunstverein, 2018),  ‘Born In The Purple: Viron Erol Vert (Kunstraum Kreuzberg Bethanien Berlin, 2017) ‘Freedom is a State of Mind’ (The 11th Shanghai Biennale, 2016), ‘Freundschaftsspiel,’ (Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg) ‘Middle Of The Path’ (Schau_Raum, Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg, 2015); ‘Towards The Garden of Palms’ (Polistar, Istanbul, 2013); ‘Apparatus Criticus & Locus’ (Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 2013); ‘Autopoiesis’ (Querungen, Württembergischer Kunstverein, 2013.) ‘Pie In The Sky’ (Platformsarai Frankfurt, 2011).


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