‘Onlar,’ in English, means ‘they’ but artist Ipek Duben says the word translates more accurately to ‘everyone who is not like us.’ In her previous work, the artist has examined the gaze of the west on Turkish culture, where ‘Turks’ are seen as a Westerner’s ‘other.’ In her multi-screen video installation ‘They/Onlar’ (2015) Duben expands on this topic by looking at notions of otherness within Turkey.
When stepping into the exhibition space, the darkness of the room obliterates the viewers’ features. In the vacuum of light, audience members become shifting shadows grazing on the luminescence of projected figures with sympathetic faces. These figures are Turkey’s ‘others’: Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Jews, Rum and Romanis as well as LGBT and covered women. Twenty-four of these people appear between six individual, life-sized panels and a tryptic in the back of the converted chapel, expressing their perspective and life experiences. Turkey is a melting pot of people and, here, they all appear to be speaking together.
Audio cones are hung above benches in front of each screen, creating a funnel of sound. The murmurs of ‘others’ fill the room, though no one voice can be heard above the rest. The story of the ‘onlar’ is only heard if the viewer chooses to stand before each screen and listen.
On one of the first screens to the left, a woman sits casually against a black background, her shoulders relaxed and her hands animated. She speaks frankly about personal matters as though she is talking with a close friend, and that friend becomes whoever sits in front of her. Her story is filled with pain, vengeance and courage as she describes her arranged marriage, the jealously of her older husband, the domestic violence that ensued after they wed, and their eventual divorce. “Never trust a woman, she lies,” was the advice given to her husband, she said, and that is why he beat her: to make sure she obeys. The woman dreams for her children to develop relationships that involve conversations and compassion. Her story is one of many personal accounts which require the audience to empathise as well as observe.
Across from the betrothed woman, another figure leans against a wall and details an account of her double life. Dressed in cool-grey pants, a dark blue top and a pale headscarf, the woman describes the ridicule she receives from both non-covered women and the practicing Muslim men in her life. “On one side, I was jeered at for being an Islamic feminist, and on the other told to take a look at the headscarf I was wearing and get rid of it, to free myself from its patriarchy,” the woman confesses. She tells of her struggle finding a place to be accepted for her gender as well as her religious beliefs.
Duben does not impose her view on the stories of the speakers. There are no interruptions, disputes, or sensationalised messages. Instead, the artist creates a space for them not only to speak but to be heard. Her observations of ‘othering’ within Turkey can be applied to many fissures and subsects in other nations and communities. Although the world Duben presents is bleak, she suggests we find the light in those around us, and listen.