A photographic tribute to refugees by Günyeli and Matur

First, you are surrounded by the vagueness of a journey you did not wish to make. Everything seems strange. It gets harder to understand what’s going on around you.

Your body quivers as if it’s stricken by fever. It takes great courage to talk about those who were left behind. It is a journey with a mysterious ending. Which mountains did you scale, which borders did you cross, in which sea did you wet your body? It is a journey that means the insecurity of fake passports and IDs and the fear of being discovered. The path under your feet is a path no one has walked upon; the sea you’re sailing is one no one has sailed. Your only possession is a label imposed on you without your consent: refugee.

Whether we realize it or not, Turkey is a “waiting room” for refugees, a corridor, if you will. Since most of us are living in the most comfortable “rooms” of this house, we’re unaware of what’s really happening in the other rooms of the same house; our ears are plugged. We generally associate the word “refugee” with the image of pitiable people with tattered clothes that we see from time to time in news stories.

Poet Bejan Matur and photographer Mehmet Günyeli set out to explore the heart-wrenching stories of refugees in their artistic collaboration “Kader Denizi” (The Sea of Fate), an exhibition of photographs, videos and poetry currently on view at the Sanat Limanı art space in İstanbul’s Tophane quarter. Part of the İstanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture program, the exhibition invites art lovers to a story that is sure to linger in their memories for some time. It should be noted that the exhibition is difficult to take in and is highly political. Made up of Günyeli’s colorful, abstract photographs taken in old, abandoned vessels in shipyards along the Aegean coast and Matur’s heart-wrenching poems, the exhibition seeks to voice the plight of refugees using sea docks as a background; ironically, Sanat Limanı, where the exhibition is housed, means “the art dock.”

The pieces on display allow the viewer to witness, in a way, what it is like to be a refugee and the tragedy and isolation that come with it. Altogether the exhibit creates a portrait of a refugee’s life, and it successfully achieves what it sets out to do. The sharpness of the colors in Günyeli’s photographs take a hold of viewers’ hearts only to push them over a steep emotional cliff, while Matur’s poems intensify the effect.

While all voices in the exhibition utter the same message, they push viewers back and forth between photography and poetry. The photographs resemble a colorful fiesta and embody a silent message, one for all of humankind.

What makes this exhibit more impressive is the similarity in the tone of Günyeli’s and Matur’s work, characterized by the voice of their consciences. Matur says she immediately came up with the poems the moment she saw the photographs Günyeli used for the exhibit. “When I saw the photographs, I was struck with Günyeli’s abstraction. Immigration was already a topic I had long been pondering. Their tragic stories; splitting from their roots and not being able to return … In short, it wasn’t difficult to write,” Matur says.

Those who know Matur’s poetry will feel familiar with her style in this show. She conveys things that have long caused her heartbreak with intensity taken from Günyeli’s photographs.

But for those who are accustomed to Günyeli’s black and white photographs it will be quite easy to notice the differences in a glance. Günyeli also admits to the change in style, “Only these contrasting colors that resemble a carnival could convey this hopeful state,” he explains.

The exhibit also includes a video of Roza Erdem reciting Matur’s poems in four corners of the art space while the names of refugees are projected on the wall. “The Sea of Fate” will run through Aug. 29, after which it will travel to Berlin, Amsterdam and Ankara. There are also plans to turn the exhibit into a book.

Musa İğrek, İstanbul

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