Pınar Öğrenci (b. 1973, Van, Turkey) is an artist, activist and writer with a background in architecture. Öğrenci uses various media in her artistic practice, including pho- tography, video, film, performance and installation. Her work addresses subjects such as migration, war, nationalism, cultural assimilation or collective celebrations, and include stories of great courage and transformation. Her works have been exhibited widely at museums and art institutions including at the Kunst haus wien- hundertwasser Museum, 2017; WKV Stuttgart, 2017; the Istanbul off-site project for Sharjah Biennial13, 2017; AR Pa- vilion – Athens, 2017; MAXXI Museum, Rome, 2015-6; SALT Galata, Istanbul, 2015-6; Angewandte, Vienna, 2016, De Las fronteras Biennial, Tamaulipas, 2015; Sinop Biennial, 2014; Çanakkale Biennial, 2014 and Depo, Istanbul, 2014. She is the founder and organizer of MARSistanbul, an art initiative launched in 2010.
Feeling helpless in the face of the news of so many deaths that kept coming from southeastern Turkey in 2015, Pınar Öğrenci became engaged in an initiative called «I am walking for peace». Organized on social media in mid-December 2015, the initiative stood against the war of aggression being perpetrated by Turkish armed forces against the Kurdish people living in the south-east of the country. It demanded an end to the murder of the civilian population and called for the peace process to be restarted. Öğrenci was arrested on the December 31st 2015, when the «I am walking for peace» initiative arrived in Diyarbakır, the main city of Turkey’s Kurdish area. Along with 23 peace marchers, she was detained for 4 days. The Turkish Government accuses Öğrenci of being a terrorist, which is punishable by a sentence of 18 years imprisonment. her case started in April 2015 and is still continuing. In 2017, she was the first AR-Safe haven Athens Resident of ARTISTS at RISK (AR), a new institution at the intersection of human rights and the arts, founded by Perpetuum Mobile (PM), dedicated to mapping the field of persecuted visual art practitioners, facilitating their safe passage from their countries of origin and hosting them at «AR-Safe haven Residencies».
Ivor stodolsky and Marita Muukkone of PM (Is&MM): What was the initiative called «I Am Walking For Peace», and how did you come to join it?
In the final week of the year 2015, thinking about the meaning of New Year’s celebrations, I was feeling helpless in the face of the news of deaths continuously coming from the east [of Turkey, ed.]. Three days before New Year’s eve, I saw a call made by a group which called itself ‘I Am walking for Peace’ on social media. The call was issued in mid- December, and was clearly made by a group of individuals who were completely independent – they were not members of any political party. Their statement said that they would set out from Bodrum by coach, and travel through Ankara, Adana and Urfa to finally arrive in Diyarbakır [the capital of the eastern region with a predominantly Kurdish population]. A small rally would be held in every city, and a press statement would be read out. The statement also added that no slogans would be chanted – the marches were to be silent. The goal of the march was to make a call for peace, and to demand that the killing be stopped. I found this call very humane, and joined the group in Ankara. Looking back today, it feels incredible that people from the west of the country —who did not even know each other at that point— left their secure and comfortable homes and travelled to a region where a real war was taking place, where bombs exploded in the streets every day. I can now say that I feel proud to be among those people who felt shame in the face of war, and did not refrain from expressing their opinion.
«It feels incredible that people from the west of the country left their comfortable homes and travelled to a region where a real war was taking place»
In your recent work, you have started working with displaced artists. What is your experience as an artist working with others subject to this difficult predicament?
Wars have a massive negative impact on the lives of everyone. In recent years, Turkey’s political climate is increasingly fed by violence and oppression. As dissidents in Turkey there is great anxiety. I personally fear that a civil war is coming. As an artist, this fear has brought me closer to not only to refugees from war-torn regions, but also refugee-artists.
Having lost their house, their belongings, and the worst of all, their dreams, they share their destiny with millions of others. Syrians who had to leave their country after the war are now dispersed across many countries. I wanted to write and make art about a specific group – those who we tend the code as Arab or Syrian immigrants, those who are reduced to a desperate existence on the street or in a camp.
When I set out to prepare on a work focusing on Syrian artists living in İstanbul, my immediate thought was to have dinner together at the atelier in Osmanbey. It meant something to dine together with these five artists who were dispersed all over Istanbul, living at risk of everything changing overnight. Furthermore, artistic circles are not always so open. In any case, we were trying not to talk about the war as much as possible, but the war, with its grave reality, kept ripping our conversation to pieces.
«Migration is something that change national and international political structures, something that constantly reorganizes forms of life»
For artists from the region I met, Istanbul, Damascus and Aleppo all resemble one another. They told me that social life in Istanbul was very much like their lives in Syria and that they felt at home – when shopping, ordering food, or walking in the streets, even though they could not speak Turkish. Similarities between the cities made life easier, although they still have difficulty finding their way into the Istanbul art community, as they are often left to communicate only with one another.
The political significance of art lies in the promotion of a democratic dialogue between different people that can relate local experiences to global processes. What is or should be the role of art today helping to imagine new spaces to build safe places in Europe and outside Europe?
Particularly, I think that art- production related to immigration and the experience of war is important in developing dialogue, but I think these productions should respect ethical values. I would like to give an example from my latest work in relation to this. In 2017, I produced several video works about a refugee musician from Baghdad, who now lives in Vienna. In addition to telling Ahmad’s personal story – his journey from Baghdad to Istanbul, from Istanbul to Mytilene and finally to Vienna – we also organized a solidarity concert under the title ‘Ahmed Needs an Oud’. Ahmed needed a new oud [a middle- eastern type of lyre, ed.] to replace the oud that he was forced to throw into the Aegean Sea when he took a smuggler’s boat from Turkey to the island of Mytilene in Greece. During my solo show A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us in Kunsthaus Vienna, in which I told Ahmed’s story, I also organized a Second concert called ‘Ahmed Needs his Papers’. The exhibition and the concert we organized, which gave an airing to Ahmed’s musical voice, was a success. Ahmed now plays with many orchestras in Austria, including the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. These orchestras have concluded a concert tour with Ahmed. He now also finally received a passport and residence permit.
As the art historian emre Zeytinoğlu wrote about my latest works about migration, if there is such an area of knowledge as «history», one of the things it cares for the most is migration. Or in other words: None of the situations that constitute this area of knowledge could be explained without touching on the notion of migration. A historical text lets us know the results of masses moving from place to place, either openly or discreetly, or it talks about movements that took place after certain events. While all historical documents are, according to walter Benjamin, documents of barbarianism, or as Theodor Adorno says, they are made of blood and cruelty, each and every one of them carries a story of migration.
Migration is something that change national and international political structures, something that constantly reorganizes forms of life. This has always been the case. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this was remarked on by Fernand Braudel. while writing on the Mediterranean, he emphasized that the dynamics of those who form the culture of the region could not be explained only by those born on its shores. Those who immigrated to these shores by sailing, their children who were born later, and even those who conquered these shores were the founders of the Mediterranean way of life. As Braudel says, life is transformed into a partnership through the «constant efforts of people yesterday and today». This means that if the documents of blood, cruelty, and barbarity can be transformed into a shared civilization document, this can only be through an «endless effort».
ARTISTS at RISK (AR) will be in Transeuropa in Matadero (Paseo de la Chopera, 14) with AR-PAVILION, an exhibition with AR-Resident artists Pınar Öğrenci and erkan Özgen. It is curated by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky, the Co-founding Directors of Perpetuum Mobile (PM).