“A New Hopelessness”: Şener Özmen

On Şener Özmen’s identity as an artist, the symbolic power of the flags, and the center-periphery relationship...

Şener Özmen works with themes of acceptance, inclusion and lack thereof. In his work The Flag (2010) exhibited at OMM as part of “Don’t Look Back, Deep is The Past” exhibition, though proper etiquette and obedience are present, the titular flag remains outside the frame. The object of reverence itself is invisible, leaving us with only the structural implications of the hierarchy. Within the scope of his artistic practice and through a critical perspective, Özmen deals with the construction of ethnic identities through the influence of geography, and their cultural and political manifestations.

You can listen to the conversation we had with Şener Özmen about the "pandemic before the pandemic" in contemporary art, the issue of production in the market economy, and the beginnings of Diyarbakır Art Center in the podcast series accompanying OMM's "Don’t Look Back, Deep is The Past" exhibition.

Şener Özmen, The Flag, 2010
Şener Özmen, The Flag, 2010

OMM: First and foremost, we recognize you from the literary world as a poet, writer, and translator. How did you first start thinking about art? Is there a certain moment in your life that distinctly stands out?

Şener Özmen:
Yes, I was in a township near Mardin at the time, having just graduated from high school. My dad was a teacher at a Syriac village. We used to visit this house, I believe it was the muhtar’s, head of the neighborhood affairs. At his house, there was an oil painting on the wall depicting a saint fighting with a dragon. It was a reproduction by a Syriac painter. I loved it and was very impressed by it. I could not believe how realistic it was and wondered if I could ever paint like that. Images and symbols like that one have a way of staying with you.

Then along came college, and I started going to school for painting, which was a very conscious decision. However, like I always say, I didn’t graduate from there, I was discharged. The painting education I received made me lose my love of painting, to be more accurate, created a strong dislike for the history of painting in me. I wondered how I was going to produce if I wasn’t going to paint, and wondered what other instruments would be available to me. Thus came the writing, and my introduction to video.

When we survey Turkey’s own past, anyone who rejected roles like “Turkish,” “Sunni Muslim,” or “heterosexual” has had some very morbid experiences and continues to have them. Would it make sense to make a reading of The Flag (2010), your work in the exhibition, from this standpoint?

When I made The Flag, I was a very prolific artist, and I was obsessed with flags. This, of course, has to do with my experiences: A Kurdish individual’s relationship with the flag, a Kurdish artist’s experience of it is traumatic. There are ceremonial elements that are taught to you with so much oppression. You are asked to respect the flag, fear it, panic and stand still in the presence of it. Those flags have a way of disguising so many other things, by covering them.

The flag isn’t just any symbol, but when combined with a cervical collar, it turns into a highly physical subject. Someone wants the people in the photograph to look at the flag in that exact position. With those cervical collars in place, this act is made endlessly possible.

In your artistic practice nearing 30 years, you were almost always based in Diyarbakır. What is your opinion on the core versus the periphery in recent years? How did this dynamic inform your work in the past?

This dynamic informed my work in the past, but it no longer does. I don’t believe the periphery exists in this day and age. It was an attractive concept in the ‘90s, any artist who lived and worked outside İstanbul was under its spell. The artists in Ankara or İzmir also produced to “feed” İstanbul. None of them worked to display their works where they lived.

If you think of a city like Diyarbakir with neither a museum nor a gallery, it is as if it falls onto you to create this language, to speak through it, and to have the presence of art felt here. I think this is what I did, I tried to emphasize the placement of Diyarbakır as an idea of core as part of my practice. But when I hear the word “periphery” now, it doesn’t mean anything to me.

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