by Manu SharmaMay 27, 2021
As the myriad hues of real-time human experiences on exile, dispossession and migration dominated the discussions on media portals and news feeds, more than half a decade back in 2015, the world of art responded to the situation with a reinvigorated interest in identifying the artistic production, concept-metaphor and visual language with a potential to represent the manifold nature of dislocation. The displacement served as a fecund moment to critique the promise of solidarity implicated in the neo-liberal policies and globalisation. Once under the lens of reassessment, the political economy of free trade was witnessed in conjunction with the nationalistic urgency to secure borders. To disrupt these practices of confinement and restriction, human history, punctuated by the events of departures and arrivals across the barbed borders and slippery shores, offered the artists a way to extend a hand of solidarity toward the vulnerable. The unique stories of survival transcend their singular geographical and temporal framework to articulate a collective language on loss and pain. Leafing through pages of such a history on human resilience in the face of migration and state violence is the art practice of Berlin-based artist and writer, Pinar Öğrenci. The material culture in the hands of the artist is an extension of peripatetic life —anchored by enforced migration — to unravel the personal stories in the large political scheme of things.
Öğrenci’s latest video installation, Turkish Delight, a part of the seventh edition of Colomboscope 2021, Language is Migrant, traces its stories that travelled from Western Anatolia to Syros Island. Öğrenci's interest as an artist with the cultural intricacies of the material speaks to the curatorial theme of Colomboscope: a quest to explore the multifaceted manifestation of language, entrenched within the itinerant journey through territory and time, across the disciplines. The festival, curated by Anushka Rajendran with Artistic Director, Natasha Ginwala, draws its title from the eponymous poem-manifesto by Chilean artist and poet, Cecilia Vicuña. It questions the teleological limits of a language in an effort to reflect on its agentive potential of metamorphosis. Interestingly, it was when Vicuña wrote this piece for the documenta14, Öğrenci had initiated the Turkish Delight project in 2017 as a part of a three-month residency program in Athens organised jointly by Perpetuum Mobile and the Athens Biennale. Concomitantly, these projects were conceived when global politics was embroiled in the debates on migration and the refugee crisis, especially in Europe.
During the residency, Öğrenci closely worked with the dessert-manufacturer immigrants from Asia Minor. In an interview with STIR, the artist states, “After I met with Dina Skoutri, a lokum (Turkish Delight) manufacturer living in Syros Island, the project tended to concentrate on lokum production. I thought that the migration story of the Skoutri Family, who forcibly migrated from Istanbul and Izmir to Syros Island during the Turkish Independence War, and the lokum culture they brought - already existing in Syros since the beginning of the 19th century - could be a symbolic tool, a metaphor, to understand both the forced separation of people who lived together for centuries and their ongoing connections.” Akin to taste buds, the words are expressions of intimacy and familiarity that open a possibility for togetherness in a newfound home. Öğrenci admits, “It was thanks to lokum that the Skoutri Family established a relationship with the local people of Syros; serving lokum to the islanders at celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and baptism ceremonies, Asia Minor immigrants were gradually welcomed by the locals.” The artist, in a similar vein, with her installation transcends the idea of language to culinary delight — the evidence of a network of the human stories and collective movements.
Crucial to the affirmation Language is migrant is the idea of transmutation. The state of in-flux as opposed to being engulfed in a bracket is a negation of the fixed essence of the identity — food and language salient identity-makers. Along with the circulation of people, the cuisine travels across the shores, so does the language to be reconfigured in the land of new belonging only to add a sequence of spirals to the history of people and their culture. Öğrenci offers a detailed etymological account of lokum and its history of consumption to underscore its multifarious past. “Etymological roots of lokum, which is produced in the whole Middle Eastern geography, stems from rahat ul hulküm / 'the thing used to relieve throat' in Arabic and lokum is still known as rahat lokum in the Balkans today.” Öğrenci mentions, “According to one account, lokum was a small dessert produced initially to mitigate the bitter taste of the opium taken by Ottoman Janissaries to calm their mind driven by the after-effects of war. Lokum, with a gradual passage of time, travelled to find a well-sought place as a dessert on the table spread of the palace in Istanbul and developed its present-day rich content.”
The integral ingredient of the lokum, a special gum, was a native of the Chios Island that rightly enhanced the richness of not just lokum, but also a variety of desserts. This explains the presence of a significant population of Greeks of Chios, who migrated due to the Turkish War of Independence, as the producer of lokum during the Ottoman Empire. Notably, the group had a large stake in the economy of Syros Island. Furthermore, Öğrenci shares another anecdote around lokum, “During the German Occupation of Greece, at the time of Second World War, and the Greek Civil War, the insurgents communicated with each other by hiding letters under the packages of lokum and posted them via mail.”
Besides oral history and archival images on the production of lokum, the key segments of video installation, Öğrenci incorporates images of the packages of Turkish Delight from the Industrial Museum of Ermoupoli in Syros to set the historical contextualisation of lokum. For the artist, the museum at a particular geographical location and its collection is not a simplistic site of display and reception, but an invitation to excavate a fragment of memory, otherwise silenced by politics of nation-builders. Öğrenci states, “The Industrial Museum of Ermoupoli in Syros does not set forth the connection of the lokum culture with Anatolia and Ottomans in its narrative around lokum but this is understandable when we take into account the relationship between museums and nation-building.” But what caught the attention of Öğrenci, which prompted her interests toward lokum, was the absence of rigorous academic research on the history of the culinary symbol. The collective memory, a tool of resistance against the unsettling erasure, for Öğrenci could make a room for an exchange of conversation to answer key questions such as, “Who were the first famous candy and Turkish delight producers during the Ottoman Empire; how did the first lokum packages and manufacturer brands look like; what were the production tools, have these pieces of equipment managed to survive until today?”
Not limited to archival knowledge systems, but a combination of both lived experience and labyrinth of political history inform Öğrenci’s artistic practice of which material culture takes the spotlight. Having forcibly migrated from Turkey to Germany due to the political reasons in 2018, Öğrenci translates her everyday reality to navigate and negotiate the relationship of belonging through the intangible memory around the home and objects of care. The video installation A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us, like Turkish Delight, is a lyrical take on the notions of struggle and survival of a refugee. Produced in 2017, A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us is about an Iraqi musician refugee who had to drop his instrument oud into the sea while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Moreover, the two works are articulations of a spate of emotions, even if separated by time, to underscore human suffering in the face of political apathy. “The work is based on the story of a young musician I met in Vienna. With the image of an oud slowly slipping away in the Mediterranean, I tried to depict the remains of an ancient culture and the search for a place, for a 'home’. In both works, we see the Mediterranean as a migration route, a commonplace of journey.”
Often the artist, following the popular fashion of global contemporary art, eschews the tapestry of local sensibility with nonchalant thinking. To a pleasant surprise, Öğrenci emphasises, “Lokum carries geographically unique traits, and the global capital has a destructive impact on all small-scale productions.” To abrupt the universalising rhetoric on the conditions of global migration, Öğrenci harks on the history of Turkish Delight to reaffirm the subjectivity produced and advanced under the alarming condition of human transplantation.
Five years down the line, since the conception of Vicuñ’s Language is migrant, the migration in the time of excruciating pandemic has acquainted the humans with a form of mutation hitherto inexperienced. If human mobility is curtailed to keep the spread of the virus at bay since it does not “respect the national borders”, it has prompted creative minds to enable new forms of interpreting the constellation of migratory realities. Against this backdrop, Öğrenci’s Turkish Delight, featuring in the latest edition of Colomboscope, prompts the audience to recognise a language of diversification, beyond the immediate terrain of familiarity, to perform alternative mapping of migration, to identify the complexity of human existence, to be perceptive to the ways of knowing the other.
STIR is the exclusive international digital-media partner of the seventh edition of Colomboscope 2021, which is scheduled to take place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from January 20-30, 2022.
See the exclusive coverage here.