Inside the hamam

Interview with Sukran Moral

Sukran Moral / Hamam Performance Istanbul 1997
Hamam Performance by Sukran Moral, Istanbul, 1997.

Sukran Moral lives between Italy and Turkey. Her artwork is striking and powerful. Through provocation, she invites the spectator to open her/his eyes to the harsh violence that is conveyed by social hypocrisy — a violence to which women are the first victims.

Is your photograph Artista a kind of metaphor of the conditions for artists in Turkey?

Artista, my self-portrait in the form of a cross, was made during a very difficult moment of my life. It’s a summing-up of everything that I’d undergone and was still undergoing then. The predicament of the artist is not very different in Turkey from Europe, not if we’re talking about censorship and not being able to express oneself freely. In 1994, I came back to Turkey as a migrant, having been expelled from Italy after a bureaucratic oversight. I had to live as a clandestine. I wasn’t allowed to travel, and I suffered from all the other consequences of being in this situation. Making Artista, I wanted to convey the difficulty of being a woman artist and a foreigner, but also what I had gone through in Turkey.

Prostitutes, drug-addicts, migrants and lovers move me.

How much of your art is influenced by the political and social situation in Turkey?

I belong to a generation that lived through the military coup in the ‘80s. Those were difficult years. Reading authors like Nazim Hikmet was forbidden, as was writing poems. Yet I was writing poems, and publishing them too. Poetry was very strong in the repressive political context of those years. I was a journalist and an art critic, and I even worked in a factory in order to be independent. I was also attending university and was involved in the protest movement there. Back then as well as now, I was very much concerned about the conditions of women in my country, as well as the situation of poor people, drag queens, transsexuals, people with mental disorders, gays, lesbians and people who have to sell their body. Prostitutes, drug-addicts, migrants and lovers move me.

I came back to Turkey as a migrant, having been expelled from Italy after a bureaucratic oversight. I had to live as a clandestine.

Do you try to be provocative and break taboos through art?

I hate hypocrisy and I try to disrupt mediocrity through my art. Earlier this year, I organized a personal exhibition at the Yapi Kredi Gallery in Istanbul called Love and Violence. It was a very complex piece on violence against women and little girls. I staged a performance where I took the role of a torturing mother who abuses her own daughter doing her homework. She throws the books around, beats the little girl, cuts off her clitoris, makes her wear a horrible chador, weds her to a much older man, whips her and eventually stones her to death. Lots of people asked me whether this is true: do they really excise the clitoris of little girls in Turkey? Luckily, it’s not done here. But the practice is still in place in many countries across the world. As for violence against women, that happens in Turkey just like everywhere else. In that same exhibition, I displayed a bloody vagina, which is why people younger than 18 weren’t allowed into the exhibition.

I hate hypocrisy and I try to disrupt mediocrity through my art.

Can you tell us more about the choice of hamam as a topic for several of your works?

I made the piece called Hamam in 1997 for the Fifth Istanbul Biennial, and it belongs to an extensive project that I did about Istanbul. For the Hamam installation, I was lying on a gynecological bed with a monitor between my legs. The monitor was screening images from hamams. My idea was to show the audience images of real city life, and it was the first time in contemporary art that people could see what really goes on inside a Turkish bath.

As a little girl, I would go to the hamam with my mother on Saturdays. This was where I discovered the human body.

What I did was to enter the male section instead of the women’s part, to be the first female ever to be washed by an employee there. It is customary that a man washes men only. The hamams have always been places for men to socialize, having a good time and relaxing. When I was kid, I used to hear that rich men would shut themselves inside the hamams in order to enjoy themselves. But there are also the female sections. As a little girl, I would go to the hamam with my mother on Saturdays. This was where I discovered the human body. In the video-performance, I tell a story about rituality through images of naked bodies, and dead skin abandoning the flesh. It’s in a way like those scenes painted in the ancient baths in Pompeii. It was a provocative project, certainly not a tourist ad. An explosive project of a patriarchal society.

Have you ever been pressured or threatened because of your works?

I’ve felt pressured many times. The kind of pressure which starts with them asking you to change the name of the exhibition, or that you shouldn’t show a piece they think is too strong or provocative. In Istanbul, I managed to show a vagina, but in Europe: not yet. Tell me why? For me, the idea that there’s plentiful of democracy in Europe in terms of promoting freedom of expression isn’t true. In many places, there’s still a Christian ethos limiting the room of maneuver in the field of art. What’s missing is a secular approach.

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