Cansu Çakar –Drawing Free!

by Eva Liedtjens

Nearly one year ago, we spent some days at the Istanbul Biennial and met with an inspiring young artists from Izmir. Here some thoughts about her work...

The artistic world of Cansu Çakar is found high up on the fourth floor a shopping centre in the centre of Istanbul, detached from the consumer chaos of the crowded Istiklal street below.

Cansu Çakar, 100°, Installation, project within the scope of 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2015, entrance view of the venue  © Cansu Çakar

Cansu Çakar, 100°, Installation, project within the scope of 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2015, entrance view of the venue  © Cansu Çakar

The visitor steps out of the elevator into the long corridor with colorful wallpaper which leads on to the exhibition space.

Only upon a second glance at the wallpaper, with its repetitive pattern, resembling that of an ornamental ottoman wall covering, is the reality of its form revealed. Stylized waves of a cascading blue waterfall interchange with a light yellow arabesque and it is this seemingly traditional ottoman pattern which build the basis of the composition. Above the yellow arabesque, two mirroring red floral forms stand out, they are reminiscent of a tulip, one of the most common ornamental designs of the ottoman period. However upon closer investigation the decorative flowers begin to resemble female genitalia and the pattern below reveals itself as a figure in a bathtub. It becomes clear that the wallpaper is not as “traditional” as it first appeared.


At the end of the long corridor it opens up onto a wide room revealing what could be a working space, an exhibition, a library, a kitchen and a chat room. Tables strewn with drawing materials that appear to be the left overs of an art class, invite one to sit down and start creating.

Some walls are painted a brilliant blue with golden patterns whilst others are left plain white and other display dozens of drawings. There is much to discover in the space, for example, open cabinets displaying small and colorful exhibitions or black and white photographs of the anonymous artists hand presenting the visitor with a different kind of artists signature.

There are shelves piled high with books, a pin board with a collage of slogans, cut outs, patterns, templates and diverse images all of which together reveal a possible insight into the creation process. These fragments seem to visualize a flow of thoughts. Books on ornamentation, art nouveau, ottoman miniature, feminism, art and philosophy, together with the puzzle on the pin board create a postmodern collage of “image worlds” – diverse sources of inspiration.


In the middle of the room stands a table covered with a black tent hanging from the roof. An intimate look inside reveals the typical working materials of a miniaturist. However the table is not a standard table at all, it's that of a women miniaturist. This installation summarizes the concept of the atelier 100° by Cansu Çakar.

In 2015 I became acquainted with the Izmir based artist Cansu Çakar at the 14th Istanbul Biennial: Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The artist used her biennial venue as an exhibition and workshop space, where she ran a collaborative, traditional arts atelier with women.

The atelier, entitled 100˚, invited anybody who considered themselves a women, through personal invitation and word of mouth to take part. Together with the artist and under her guidance, the women illuminated songs, poems, letters, and their personal stories. In the workshop the participants shared their stories and learned how to express their experiences and struggles of being a women through the traditional style of illumination painting.

The workshops, held once in a week, were closed to the public. Offering a space for “Attention, precision, practice. (where) They cannot colonise our minds.” (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 100˚, p.2) The drawings created by the women were directly exhibited in the space, this enabled the constant growth and change of the exhibition. The colorful and intimate drawings by both the anonymous participants and Cansu Çakar created an impressive kaleidoscope of expression through various styles.

Cansu Çakar designed a workbook of classical patterns and templates of figures, gestures abstract ornaments and floral forms, that she offered to participants during the workshop. These pictorial forms mixed patterns of ottoman miniatures and designs with forms of art nouveau and other styles of ornamental illumination. However a closer look reveals puzzling details that did not seem immediately apparent, such as a women depicted as an oven or high heels underneath a palm trees and miniskirts and bras. As such the artist invites the participants to tell stories from today and to work on contemporary contexts and emotions by using diverse traditional pictorial narration forms.

Örnegin minyatür bilgi tasarimi demekse hala Osmanli dönemini anlatmaya gerek yok bugünü anlatabiliriz – For instance, if we consider miniature as a form of information design, we do not still need to tell the Ottoman Empire, we can tell about today.” (Cansu Cakar, 100˚, p. 1)

Miniatures from the past – stories from today?

A long window presents a view to the outer world allowing the visitor to look down on to the Istiklal Street below, with its impressive architecture. In front of which a long show case displays a drawing by Cansu Çakar. The drawing “Himenoplastik Panorama” (2015, watercolour, ink, safran, nigella and gold on paper) depicts an architectural study of the art nouveau buildings on the opposite site of the Istiklal street, the same buildings can be seen from the balcony of the exhibition space. At the bottom of the drawing, hundreds of small figures in ink depict the crowds of people on the street below. Alongside details of the floral and figurative architectural decoration, one finds depictions of technical tubes, pipes and metal sheets which disturb the image of a seemingly old drawing.

Cansu Çakar, Himenoplastik Panorama, 2015, watercolour, ink, safran, nigella and gold on paper

Cansu Çakar, Himenoplastik Panorama, 2015, watercolour, ink, safran, nigella and gold on paper

By introducing parts of air-conditioners and construction materials the artist presents a critical comment on the “fake restauration” and building boom in contemporary Turkey. Ancient buildings1 are completely refurbished, leaving an overly clean imitation of classical façades for the use of shopping malls and fancy hotels.

The title of the work questions another issue in contemporarySociety of Turkey: “Himenoplastik Panorama” refers to the medical treatment of reconstructing the hymen. This practice is strongly linked to patriarchal societies where the honor of the family is bound to the daughter´s virginity before marriage. In case of a torn hymen prior marriage, whether it came about due to an accident or a sexual relationship, the operation is performed in order to retain the clean social status of the family and can also be understood as a form of “fake restoration.”

Furthermore the piece entitled “Mars the Prophet” (2014, Ink, watercolor and gold on special paper, 20x47 cm) links traditional pictorial codes with contemporary events. The drawing hints, with ironic references, at the continuity of war throughout history and depicts a golden tank in a surreal landscape. The tank stands alone on a wide plain with flames bursting out of its barrel, behind which a mountain range and whirling clouds can be seen. The impressive garland of flames sits above the golden tank and forms the centre of the composition.

Comparable to the gloriole / halo in Christian iconography, the idealized flame pattern characterizes holy figures, such as the prophet Mohamed, in ottoman miniature art.

Cansu Çakar selected a screenshot from a video of the Syrian civil war from 2013 as the starting point for her artistic negotiation. In her work she turns the war footage into a “surreal platform” in order to explore the continuity of violence and its glorification. She approaches her subject matter with irony and critically questions the relation between war and religion of any kind. Is Mars the ancient god of war still with us?

Cansu Çakar, Mars the Prophet, 2014, Ink, watercolour and gold on special paper, 20x47 cm

Cansu Çakar, Mars the Prophet, 2014, Ink, watercolour and gold on special paper, 20x47 cm

In another of her ongoing projects the artist works together with prisoners. (Izmir 2 Type T Penitentiary Illumination Exhibition, 2013 / Dreams, which fly away…2013, 26 x 32 cm) She believes in the freedom of expression and the transformative power of art and teaches miniature painting to the inmates of a jail, the results of these lessons are then presented to an audience. She states that “the aim is to transmit the life inside the prison to the outside and to bring the outside audience in. The exhibition presents life from behind the bars to the outside world and underlines that we as the outside world and its prisoners must break these conceptual bars in order to fully comprehend the work of these hard-working and productive inmates” (Cansu Çakar, portfolio, p.14)

The artist Cansu Çakar graduated in Traditional Turkish Art in Izmir. In her work she investigates traditional art forms such as decorative drawing and illumination and integrates these traditions with contemporary art practices and topics. In doing so she articulates her will to free traditional forms of expression from their stereotypical classification. Her own drawings and paintings together with the concepts she explores in her workshops critically question the typical male dominated subjects of traditional miniature painting furthermore they call the traditional classification of this art form and its conservatism into question. The artist draws a line between what it means to be a women or a prisoner in an oppressive society and of the aesthetics of traditional arts in our contemporary art world. Both share the struggle against conservatism and the ensuing fight for emancipation.

Usually buried in darkness, or veiled by a conservative inclination to nostalgia, illumination and drawing techniques can be reactivated by individuals with no art education who feel urge to express themselves for different reasons. Cakar´s atelier is a course of action with paper, watercolour and gold, as well as literary texts, poems, daily images and stories. It cultivates practice, attention and precision in order to create spaces of freedom and imagination both in art and society.” (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 100˚, p.2)

Backdrop: Capturing the miniature - Breaking free from classification in art and Society

She believes that what makes us “modern” is not the imported ideas or concepts but aesthetic values buried in darkness, available in different layers of society, which lead the passages to contemporary art. She works on projects, which integrate contemporary art practices with Traditional Turkish Arts in an attempt to explore subcultures of the society. She emphasizes the necessity to homogenate what is called traditional with the aesthetic perception focused on notions of kitsch and arabesque” (Portfolio Cansu Çakar,p.1)

The ottoman miniature originates in the Islamic courts of Persia and the Ottoman Empire, it was there that it developed into a kind of rich descriptive “Islamic” book art. This art form was practiced by mainly male artists of the ottoman court up until the 19th century and belongs to the art form of illustration or illumination. Due to the conquest of the Islamic world by the Mongols in the 13th century the so called “Islamic world” and it's art was influenced by Asian and far Eastern visual culture. Due to its close links to the written word, illumination, as a form of figurative depiction, was exempted from the religious ban of images. Pictorial narration is intertwined with ornamentation and text and therefore is not understood as an image unto itself. The ottoman miniature illustrates historical events, stories that have been passed down with time and holy texts, it is through these depictions that it is, as a genre, strongly linked to the philosophical world view of its time. From the 16th century on portrait and costume books grew in importance and with the political changes in the Ottoman Empire during the 18th century it became more common place to see change in what was depicted, including portraits of women.

The perception of art also changed as a result of the politics of modernization during the 20th century,2 and at this time the original meaning of the miniature seemed to have been buried in history. Even though classical miniature painting is still taught at the art academies under the so indicative category “Geleneksel Türk Sanatlar (Traditional Turkish Arts), the tradition of the miniature is detached from its original context and seems to be “dead” since than.3

The categorizations of art were established by the European academy in the 19th century and “western“ art history excluded the miniature from the general classification of “art” allocating it the position of “Islamic” art. By classifying the miniature as Islamic art, the aesthetic of the miniature became equipped with specific features, such as Islamic, ottoman, bygone, and embodies the opposite of the modern. Thus the miniature became bound to the “binary matrix of cultural representation” 4 and as a result the miniature was transformed into a historical artifact embodying historicity and tradition. Through its classification as “Islamic art” by European art history and the manner in which it is perceived through occidental eyes, the miniature became part of the “cultural other” and as such acts as a mirror into the oriental discourse on western hegemony.

However the miniature and its aesthetics are still present in the contemporary visual culture of Turkey. Looking at the political agenda of the conservative AK-party over the last few years it is possible to recognize a shift in policy, a policy which is changing its perspective, where the “ottoman Empire” is no longer just understood and revived in political rhetoric, but also in visual culture too. 5

But whatever besides a restoration or conservation of an traditional art form, whether it be linked with political rhetoric or not, one can also notice a multi layered artistic approach.

Regarding the above mentioned theoretical backdrop there lies a potential for reinterpretation and innovation within the critical artistic reflection of the miniature as a projection embedded in a variety of discourse. When miniature is understood in terms of a postmodern eclectic collage, as it can be in the art of Cansu Çakar, the constructed nature of each narration is questioned.

Over the last few years a recollection of traditional art forms can be recognized. There is a demand for and a discussion about contemporary art from Turkey and the Middle East, suddenly art from an “islamic” context has a global significance. Negotiations on traditional forms of expression from this cultural-geographic region are synonymous with a vast variety of dichotomous categories, such as orient/occident, tradition/modernity as well as art/craft. Within the tension field between Orientalism and Occidentalism6 one can observe a revival of tradition in a form that could be termed „modern islamic art” 7 and a critical play with images from the “orient” in the contemporary art.

International artists mobilize and process arguments and ideas of contemporary analysis of orientalism and theories of post colonialism. Elements of visual representation, such as the aesthetic of miniature, are becoming part of artistic strategies to critically question the meaning of ones self and to deconstruct the occidental gaze8.

In the 1990s contemporary miniature painting from Pakistan had an extraordinary revival. The New Miniaturist of the Lahore School of Painting in Pakistan for example, incorporated elements of traditional miniature painting and interpreted them in their new ironic-critical works. In exhibitions, such as „Karkahana: A Contemporary Collaboration“ 2005 and „Beyond the Page“ 2010, artists like Shazia Sikander, Saira Wasim, Imran Qureshi or Nusra Latif Quershi became internationally known for their interpretations of miniature painting.

The artist Shazia Sikander for example, combines miniature painting with motifs from pop culture and surrealism, in her piece „The Resurgence of Islam“ (1998), which can be described as an analytical comic showing the relations between the neo-orientalist iconography and the US policy towards the Near East9, the aesthetic of the miniature labels the islamic and the oriental within its visual representation, all the while consciously playing with the stereotype of the miniature, ways of seeing and categorizing are ironically criticized.

Alongside the conservative practice of miniature art in Turkey, a critical and playful approach and interaction with this art form can also be discovered in contemporary art.

In regards to the artistic approach of Cansu Çakar, I would at this point like to mention another artist from Turkey: CANAN. In the oeuvre of CANAN the miniature also plays an important role. Despite having graduated from the fine arts, and as such not being learned in traditional drawings styles, the artist began exploring the miniature on her own. She widens her artistic discourse on female identity through choosing the miniature as her medium. While fragmenting and rearranging pictorial artifacts, such as miniatures, she examines strategies of representation and the changing meaning of images throughout history, whether it be in the advertising industry, in politics or in art history.

Both artists, CANAN and Cansu Çakar, connect a feminist approach in their examinations of power relations and the role of women in an oppressive, patriarchal society. Whereas in the art of CANAN the miniature appears as an image of itself through collage, Cansu Çakar captures miniature painting as her own form of expression and attempts to free it from its boundaries.

100° From the moment we are born into this world, we struggle to realize personal growth among various negative codes projected prominently by our parents and by society. Thus, most of the time breaking thorough the internalized discriminative attitudes towards themselves requires lots of hard work for women and ethnic minorities.

The medium chosen for the atelier, Traditional Turkish Arts, also struggles to survive in spite of the fact that it has been under restriction and repression due to its historical background; challenging the defined principles is unacceptable. This aspect can be linked to what is expected of women in the society. 100° is eventually a course of action with the intention of giving a little bit more freedom to both sides.”


1  A much dicussed example for this „renovation“ practice in contemporary Turkey is the destruction and reconstruction of the famous Emek Theatre, The theatre building was build 1885, used in different periods as theatre, mosvie theatre. Starting 2010 plans were published to demolish and renew the building as a shopping mall. A protest movement evolved upon this plans. Facing huge protest, the building was completely demolished in May 2013. (Regarding a reading of the protest in connection to body politics see: Firat/ Bakcay 2015 Artikel: Politische Kunst im Widerstand. S. 184 -202
2 In the course of modernization politics in the 19th century in the „islamic world“, as such as well in Turkey during the founding of nation state, the comparison of western art and „islamic“ /“traditional“ art, which has its origin in the European Academy , was assumed. While taking over the western concept of art, which was as well teached in the newly founded art academies, artistic traditions as miniature painting, was attributed to craft, rather thant art in the dichotoumous categorization of art and craft. In Istanbul the Academy of Fine Arts (Mimar Sinan University) was founded under Osman Hamdi in 1883, the school teached western standards. Sylvia Naef speaks of an „adoption“ of european art by the first artist generations and a neglection of artistic traditions until the 20th century ( Naef 2009, p.27). Whereas other positions in the postcolonial discourse highlight the terms interaction and continuitiy in the confrontation with western art forms. (see Müller-Wiener 2012, S. 298-309)
3 see: Devij 2009, S. 45
4 Original German: „Binäre Matrisx kultureller Repräsentation“, translation by the author, this expression is taken from Schmitz 2006.
5 The scientistic political disourse on Turkey in the last years was shaped through the term neo-ottomanism. The term hints towards the political programme of the further foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (now prime minister) and the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where a return of the Turkisch Republik to former Ottoman Power should be pushed. Next to the political dimension, one can notice a rising and promoted interest of the society in the ottoman history and culture. Tourism and Advertising Industry, as well as the pop culture in general is characterized through an „orientalist“ image of the ottoman past. The big success of the movie Fetih 1453 in 2012, which tells the conquest of Constantinople through the Ottomans, can count as an example. As well historical tv series, such as Muhteşem Yüzyil, about the life of Sultan Süleyman, do promote the popularity of ottoman culture in the public.
6 The term occindentalism can be understood as inversion of the term orientalism, which was mainly characterized through Edward Said. In the definition of Buruma and Margalit, the term refers to a stereotypical image of the West in the East. Here, occidentalism is characterized as blind hate against the liberal societies in the West. (see Buruma, Margalit 2005) In postcolonial theory this term is as well understood as a form of ethnocentrism, as discourse on western production of hegemony, where western values and ideology are postulated as universal. Regarding critics on occidentalism, neo-orientalism, see Dietze, Brunner, Wenzel 2010.
7 Sylvia Naefs essay on modern islmaic art „Moderne islamische Kunst“ –Überlegungen zu einem problematischen Begriff“ does offer an introduction into discussions on this term. See Naef 2009, S.-26-30
8 See: Göckede, Karentzos 2006, S. 13
9 Schmidt-Linsenhoff 2010