“Ghost Faces, Imagined Spaces”: Rehan Miskci

We talked to the artist about empty studios, Armenian language’s spatiality in Turkey, and photographer Maryam Şahinyan's extensive archive.

Rehan Miskci’s work often grapples with subjects like the minority experience, lacking a sense of belonging, and the loss of memory. Places You Haven’t Been (2017) is a photo collage that began with the artist’s discovery of a studio photograph of her father taken in Istanbul in 1959 by Maryam Şahinyan, Turkey’s first female studio photographer. In Places You Haven’t Been, this photograph is divided into two parts between which are set a panel, forming a triptych. All the nostalgic sentiments and distinctive elements of traditional photo studios such as lighting, equipment, and backdrops – which have now given way to digital photography – point to the far-reaching social and cultural changes that societies have undergone. By pushing the photograph into an undefined space, the work references changing perceptions and spatial fantasies about the studio itself. The triptych also serves as an introduction to her other work in the exhibition, Mountain of Foto Yeraz (2017).

You can listen to the conversation we had with Rehan Miskci about empty studios, Armenian’s interior spatiality in Turkey, and photographer Maryam Şahinyan's extensive archive in the podcast series accompanying OMM's "Don’t Look Back, Deep is The Past" exhibition.

Mountain of Foto Yeraz, Rehan Miskci, 2017
Mountain of Foto Yeraz, Rehan Miskci, 2017

OMM: I want to start our conversation with Places You Haven’t Been, one of your two works in the exhibition. This artwork is based on a studio photograph of your father, taken by Maryam Şahinyan, the first female photographer in Turkey. We see an image divided into three; the photograph is in color in the middle, sandwiched between two black-and-white panels. There is emptiness where we expect to run into a subject. How did this artwork come into existence?

Rehan Miskci:
When I was working on my thesis project at the School of Visual Arts, I was haphazardly thinking about archival photographs, the Armenian identity, belonging, memory, and spaces. My encounter with the Maryam Şahinyan archive brought it all together. First, I came across Tayfun Serttaş’s Foto Galatasaray photobook, an extremely interesting story that received so much attention. Meanwhile, my father and I were talking about it, and he told me that he actually went to the studio, met Şahinyan, and even got his portrait taken. At my house, we keep the family photos, you know, in a drawer or two. The said photo was not there. Naturally, I was curious.

Later, I contacted Serttaş, who directed me to SALT, where the digital archive of Foto Galatasaray is kept. When I told SALT about my project, they gave me access to archives. I still did not know what exactly my thesis was going to be, but I started wandering around the archives. There are so many photos, all in all, over 10,000 glass plate negatives. One day, I think under the 1960s—must be in 1964 to 1965—I came across my father’s photograph. It was such a fascinating moment, public and private at once. After looking at so many “anonymous” photographs, I started feeling very close to the studio space itself. Seeing my dad’s photograph was electrifying.

I must add this one detail: The said photograph is a portrait of my dad, taken alongside his fiancée before he got together with my mother. That is probably why it’s not in the family archives. It is a multilayered work for me: A previous life of my father’s that I never knew, a relationship that never prospered. The two figures are split, distanced by a fantasy about the studio space. People feel an instant connection to this work, and I believe the personal aspect of the story behind it plays into that.

Do you feel this special connection to a photography studio from that era? Perhaps as a safe space that is closed off to the outside world?

Absolutely yes. This applies to both my own studio space, and within the context of the Şahinyan archives. Being both a woman and an Armenian as well as a “quiet” character put Maryam Şahinyan in a very interesting position. When you look at the entire archive, there are people from minority groups, people of different sexual identities, and they can be their true selves in front of her lens. People can wear their religious, ceremonial outfits; two men can pose to her with their bodies intertwined. Women pose in their underwear. Her studio is both very closed-off, and almost acts like a stage on which people can perform different identities.

Your other work in the exhibition, Mountain-Photo Yeraz is an installation with a studio light and backdrop we are familiar with from the photo studios of the yore. I know you were a part of an artist residency in Beirut. Did this artwork come into being during your time there?

The first thing I noticed in Beirut was Armenian language, written everywhere, on the streets and on store signs. To me, both phonetically and written, Armenian language belongs to the domestic sphere, the interiors. So to read and experience it on the street really intrigued me, and I took many photos of the streetscape. The mountain image on the studio backdrop is made up of those photos. Bourj Hammoud, which has the biggest Armenian population in Beirut and was once a refugee camp, is very charged. Mountain carries the charged texture of the streets in Bourj Hammoud.

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