East and West: Visualising the Ottoman City – Aikaterini Gegisian, Leslie Hakim-Dowek, Paris Petridis / Reviewed by Katy Barron / 01.07.14
This carefully considered exhibition was staged as the culmination of an AHRC funded research project Ottoman Pasts, Present Cities: Cosmopolitanism and Transcultural Memories. The project seeks to expand and reinvigorate the study of the Ottoman Empire through new research methodologies, and the resulting workshops, conference and exhibition catalogue are available as an online resource at http://ottomancosmopolitanism.wordpress.com . The exhibition, which takes place in the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck College, is a collaboration between three contemporary artists who employ a variety of visual methodologies to explore notions of history and memory – both personal and geo-political as related to the Ottoman Empire and its multiple histories of Diaspora and erasure.
Aikaterini Gegisian’s Self-Portrait as an Ottoman Woman, 2012-14 (on-going) consists of 93 archival postcards framed within three panels. The postcards, which depict women in traditional costumes and national dress, are organised according to their physical pose rather than by reference to chronology, geography or race. The artist has constructed an idea of the ‘Ottoman woman’, presenting them within a new spatial framework that echoes Muybridge. The work seeks to challenge the types of mobility available to women and disrupt the function of both orientalist phantasy and nationalist symbolisation.
In The City that Exploded Slowly, 2009, Leslie Hakim-Dowek (also the exhibition curator) draws a parallel between her personal history and the many transformations of Beirut throughout its war-torn history. A series of wall compositions each present a black and white snapshot of the artist’s mother, shown strolling within the old city, alongside a personal text detailing the artist’s early memories of the city and its destruction during the civil war. The wall compositions also include a contemporary colour photograph, often of the Martyrs’ Statue, once an iconic symbol of Beirut but now destroyed and forgotten. Ironically, this marks the end of the Ottoman Empire and what was to become a fragmented history of sectarian divisions and conflicts.
The neutral documentary style of Paris Petridis’s Souvenir de Salonique, 2012, belies the horrific acts that took place within the sites he records. The accompanying text details the terrible violence that took place at each site and also underscores the rise of nationalism that was the main contributory factor. By making visible the sites of violence, this series helps to counteract the loss of memory that has beset the many transformations of Thessaloniki (Salonika) and to generate post-memories of its history of violence, diaspora and displacements. In the Rum-Orthodox Schools of Istanbul, 2006-7, Petridis alludes to an important chapter of displacement and diaspora of the Ottoman Empire. The scale and austere magnificence of these late nineteenth-century institutions are potent signifiers of the huge Greek community that once lived in this Ottoman city, which was rich with transcultural exchanges. Petridis seeks to challenge Orientalist assumptions of the Ottoman Empire as being stuck in an ancient biblical past by re-presenting the neglected cultural and social heritage of the Middle-East.
– reviewed by Katy Barron
Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD, UK