“Ayşe Loves Fatma”: Nilbar Güreş

Focusing on the representation of women, Nilbar Güreş talks about the intense working habits of Black Sea women in her works from the TrabZONE series and her personal bond with fabrics.

The women in Nilbar Güreş’s Junction (2010) stand directly under signs pointing in opposite directions. Yet, they are bound together by a shared headscarf — an instrument that renders them both unidentifiable and conjoined, their fates intertwined. This imagery points to the difficulties of women extricating themselves from traditional societal roles (such as mother or daughter) to pursue separate, individual identities. The lack of guidance available to them once they do make such a choice is suggested by the faded letters on the signposts. Standing in the middle of Molla Halil Oğulları and Haliloğulları neighborhoods, the fork in the road leads to two similar directions bearing male names.

You can listen to our conversation in Turkish with Nilbar Güreş about identity and social roles in the podcast series accompanying OMM’s “Don’t Look Back Deep is the Past'' exhibition.

Nilbar Güreş, TrabZONE series, 2010, Junction (Mother-Daughter), C-print edition of 3/5 +1 A.P., 100 x 150 cm
Nilbar Güreş, TrabZONE series, 2010, Junction (Mother-Daughter), C-print edition of 3/5 +1 A.P., 100 x 150 cm

OMM: You have two works in the exhibition, Junction and Overhead. Both works are from TrabZONE series and they focus on female figures. In Overhead, we see a woman carrying some very heavy quilts.

Nilbar Güreş:
That weight we see in Overhead (2010), it is impossible for a woman, or anyone for that matter, to carry so much. Yet this figure does, and she is exuberant; she feels proud of herself, thinking she is contributing to society. This way of work and relating to life is quite common in the Black Sea region. Cities like Trabzon and Rize are crucial from a woman’s point of view. In these parts, we witness women becoming very worn out, eventually dealing with a myriad of illnesses over the years—because the work is endless. Men never work as much as women do. And I obviously do not approve of or appreciate this fact. I don’t approve of the amount of work the women do, and I don’t “appreciate” how their houses are sparkling clean at all times.

Meanwhile, in Junction we see the backs of two female figures, bound together by a headscarf, facing road signs.

In that work, there are two signs showing opposite directions. Both signs are marked with male names; one contains a religious title, “Mullah,” while the other is just a name. However, both names are masculine. When I took photographs for this series back in 2010, it was a tense time. Some societal and political changes had occured, and “secularists” and the pious were very polarized. I think that polarization has dwindled within society today. I see pairs of women walking down the street and chatting away all the time; one wears a headscarf, the other does not. Yet, whether you have “Mullah” involved or not, this is a very patriarchal society.

In 2011, I photographed a graffitied wall in Büyükdere, Sarıyer, also with two female figures. The graffiti reads “Ayşe Loves Fatma.” The love in question could be a queer, lesbian love, or it could very well be the love between a woman who wears the headscarf and another who doesn’t. A love free of polarization. I think this graffiti was made by Burak Özgüner, the animal rights defender and activist who passed away in 2019.

Textile comes up a lot in your works, both as a material and texture. How did your relationship with fabrics begin?

When I was as young as four or five, I received tablecloths for my dowry as birthday presents. I would get very upset, thinking “I’m a child, what I really want is toys—why would you bring all this to me?” Later on, my mom, unable to fight with her more traditional instincts, saved some things for me. My grandparents were guest workers in Switzerland; I remember how we were gifted different fabrics by them and how they smelled different. When we went to the village, a Kurdish-Alevi village in Bingöl, the objects and fabrics smelt completely different, like wood or musk.

When I was very young, I gave one of the fabrics we were gifted to my mom, saying “Please keep this for me. I am going to do something with it in the future.” Then in 2006, I made a painting with it. I do not know, had I gone into finance, I might not still have these objects. But because I turned into someone who makes art, I keep collecting them.

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