Ways of Remembering
by Bernard KENNEDY
Among Australians and New Zealanders, the national myths associated with Gallipoli appear as strong as ever after 90 eventful years. Much the same holds true for the Turkish side, although the pattern of remembrance may be changing under various influences.
Preparations are well under way for celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of what the Turks call the Battle of Çanakkale – and is better known further afield as Gallipoli. For diplomats from Australia and New Zealand, it is the busiest time of the year. For as fate would have it the role played – and heavy losses suffered by – “Anzac” troops in the unsuccessful First World War landings on Turkey’s Gelibolu peninsula turned into a founding myth for both countries.
Questions without answers
What the Australasians celebrate can be – and is – debated endlessly. Are the Anzac Day public holidays a celebration of war or a condemnation of it? Did the nations which the young men of Australia and New Zealand discovered in themselves at around that moment in history constitute nations within and consistent with British Empire which they fought for in their trenches? Or were they nations seeking independence from the British, whose leadership cost them so much, and even whose ordinary soldiers they rather despised? If Anzac Day is a “commemoration of defeat”, why does it fall on April 25 – the day of landing – rather than eight months later when the remnants of the invaders withdrew? What makes the famously athletic, brave, brawling, disobedient, drinking, loyal, matey, self-sacrificing Anzac soldiers the icons of educated nations consisting of both men and women? How, for that matter, could they be both loyal and disobedient?
What didn’t happen
There is another set of questions which begin with the words “What would have happened if ..”. If London hadn’t fantasised about outflanking Germany and decided on the “Dardanelles campaign” in the first place. If the British (and French) Admiralty hadn’t dragged its feet, or had risked everything to blast through the Ottomans’ sea defences, or had at least kept going a little longer, until the Turks ran out of ammunition. If London hadn’t then landed troops to clear the coast. If the Anzacs had come ashore at the right spot. If German officers had not – as some allege – deliberately delayed the Ottoman victory. Would the War have ended sooner and with less bloodshed? Would the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal ever have earned the reputation which prompted a defeated and exhausted Anatolia to flock to his camp four years later? Would tsarist Russia have been relieved and the 1917 revolutions averted?
Power of myth
Neither set of questions matters much. Just as history has spoken on the latter, the former has been rendered obsolete by the power of myth. Regardless of their opinions, the Australians and New Zealanders of today will share in overwhelming numbers the emotionality of their national holiday – the Dawn Service, the parades, the Last Post, the Rising Sun badge, the poetry of Kipling and Binyon. A contingent of almost 20,000 young latter-day Anzacs will travel half-way across the globe to the long-memorised geography of their nation’s founding carnage. And Australian Prime Minister John Howard will be on hand to ensure that commemorations are dignified and appropriate – no drunken rites of passage as in the recent past. Paradoxically, as the veterans of World War II as well as World War I thin out, the legend seems to go from strength to strength.
The Turkish story
On the surface, the Turkish myth of Çanakkale is more straightforward. The campaign left 87,000 dead – a man from every village, dwarfing the number of Anzac casualties. But unlike other major Ottoman military sacrifices of those years, it was a successful defence of a homeland. An ill-supplied, half-starving and recognisably Turkish army confronted an imperial power and won. And if the War was eventually lost, the battles nevertheless sowed seeds of eventual success in a smaller independence campaign. It is not surprising that the campaign is well remembered in Turkey; the only striking idiosyncracy is the choice of March 18 – date of victory in the so-called “sea battle” (Western ships versus Turkish artillery, nets and mines) – as the date on which to do so.
That said, the pattern of Turkish remembrances has changed. Memories have always been kept alive within the armed forces, in families and in schools. But as more Turkish people travel and take holidays, the battleground has received more and more visitors all year round. Meanwhile, monuments and tours have multiplied in apparent imitation of the grave-tending and pilgrimages of the former enemy. Today, Turks are writing historical novels on Anzac lines, and 24 years after Australian Peter Weir’s screen epic Gallipoli, this month sees the launch of a Turkish movie by Tolga Örnek.
Choice of perspectives
At the same time, some civilians have arguably started to see Çanakkale not as the birth of the Turkish nation but as a late victory of the Ottoman Empire. National holidays in this country recall the War of Independence and the founding of the Republic, but it would come as no surprise to hear calls for a public holiday on March 18 before the 100th anniversary comes round.
Pharmaceuticals company Deva Holdıng, a sponsor of Örnek, offers a different perspective on the campaign. In support of a national pharmaceuticals industry, it is publishing a volume entitled Çanakkale: Acı İlaç (Çanakkale: the Bitter Pill), which tracks the “struggle against lack of medicines and medical equipment”. We are reminded – not without some horrific details – that a third of the 120,000 deaths could have been avoided but for disease, germs, lice, bacteria, bad surgery and insufficient health staff, equipment, disinfectant and drugs.
The end of the day
While not often required, a certain extra willingness to understand persists between Turkey and Australia/New Zealand. The mutual respect goes back to the endearing term “Johnny Turk” coined by the Empire soldiers themselves, and to M.K.Atatürk’s much-quoted 1934 rhetoric, in which he described the enemy’s dead heroes as “our sons too”. So much for the past; in present time the pointlessness of hails of bullets and piles of corpses continues without the respect.
Ambassador Serenius: A Thriving Identity In Europe
by Bernard KENNEDY
For a small nation, the Finns have played a noteworthy role in the saga of Turkey’s relations with the European Union in recent years. It was at the Helsinki summit in 1999, during the premiership of Paavo Lipponen, that Turkey’s candidacy for membership was affirmed. A former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, chaired the commission of nine distinguished Europeans including former prime ministers and foreign ministers which last September recommended that accession negotiations should commence. And the new EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, who was due to visit Ankara early this month, is also a native of Finland.
As President Ahmet Necdet Sezer prepares to visit Finland, crowning a series of ministerial and parliamentary level exchanges, Diplomat spoke to Finnish Ambassador to Ankara Maria Serenius. Ambassador Serenius began her career in development cooperation and has held postings in almost every region of the world: Sri Lanka, Cairo, Geneva, Tokyo, Los Angeles. She was serving as Director General for Africa and the Middle East at the Finnish Foreign Ministry when she was appointed ambassador to Ankara last year.
The interview was conducted by Bernard Kennedy. It was not long before the conversation turned to the EU…… .
Q You have worked in very different capacities in some very different countries. How does Ankara compare?
A Every post is special in its own way. Turkey was always an important country but now that EU accession negotiations are imminent there is a totally new level of interest in Turkey in all EU countries. I am privileged to be here at this unique, historical moment. Finland will take over the EU presidency next year, after Austria, and that will be an additional challenge.
Q What does the accession process mean for your Embassy?
A The EU process affects everything – politics, economics, culture… It’s an element that runs through everything we do. Analysing what’s going on in Turkey in all these fields presents a great challenge. In these special circumstances, one of my principles is not only to make Finland known in Turkey – which is the usual work of an ambassador – but also to improve knowledge of Turkey in Finland. I am afraid we don’t know Turkey well enough at the moment. The thing is, we have to increase the contact with Turkey at all levels. Contacts between NGOs are important. It may not always be easy, but the more contacts the better.
Q In what ways do you co-operate with the other EU embassies and the EU Commission delegation?
A The EU embassies co-operate very closely. We have meetings of ambassadors regularly. The deputies and the people dealing with economical and trade issues have their own meetings too, and so do the consular officials. At all levels the co-ordination is working very well. The EU Commission has a large and growing delegation here. We have close relations with them especially in areas where the Commission is competent in EU terms – trade policy, to give one example. And of course it is the Commission which will lead the accession negotiations. We feel we have excellent relations with the Commission.
Q What particular contribution can Finland make to Turkey-EU ties?
A I think mainly we can share our experience in the accession process. We joined the EU in 1995 together with Sweden and Austria. The negotiations were relatively easy for us because we had already adjusted our legislation in the context of the European Economic Area Nevertheless, the Finns had their initial doubts. We are a small country. We worried about losing our sovereignty to Brussels and we feared we would shed our very specific identity. In practice, the opposite has happened. Strange though it may sound, we have become more European but also more Finnish. If you are confident in your identity this is quite possible.
Finland is a beautiful country with 200,000 lakes and as many islands. We were afraid that foreigners would come and buy up all our summer cottages. This didn’t happen. Perhaps the cold climate and short holiday season helped us there.
Q How much of your time do you spend on EU matters and how much on bilateral issues?
A That’s a difficult question. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two. We use all of the “tool box” provided by the EU – Socrates, Erasmus, twinning programmes. For example, a Finnish consultancy company has won a tender for the twinning programme in safety at work. It’s EU-related but there is a bilateral dimension as well.
Q What is the current state of economic relations between Finland and Turkey? Are they dominated by telecommunications?
A All the biggest Finnish companies are represented in Turkey and they have been for 20-30 years. Nokia was the first to invest, in 1962, in a cable factory in Izmit. In those days, Nokia was involved in toilet paper, cables, rubber boots and car tires. Later on it decided to concentrate on wireless technology. Currently, about 20 Finnish companies have their own offices in Turkey and 200 Finnish companies have agents. We also export machinery – pulp and paper machinery, for example, and elevators.
Q What is Turkey known for in Finland?
A It’s not well known in Finland that Turkey manufactures cars, for example. Turkey is better known for things like carpets – oriental stuff – and textiles. And of course tourism. About 80,000 Finns come to Turkey annually. Last year the numbers increased by 30% and there will be a further increase this year. The people here are friendly and a direct flight across eastern Europe to Antalya takes only three hours. There has been quite a lot of interest among Finns in golfing holidays in Belek. I think this is the way Turkey should go in order to earn more revenues from its visitors.
Q What are your plans for expanding the ties between the two countries?
A I am trying to promote trade in both directions very much. We established a Turkish-Finnish business guild in Istanbul last Autumn and it has raised quite a lot of interest.
We plan to be active in health, forestry, the environment and IT. Turks, especially young people, are very technology-savvy in the way they use their cell-phones and so on. They seem to want the latest technology. I would like to build on that. I have visited the science park at the Middle East Technical University and I would like to create some co-operation in this field. We plan to hold a seminar here on the information society in Finland. Culturally we have plans in the area of music and art.
Q Speaking of culture, is it true that the Turkish and Finnish languages are related?
A We have a very specific language, Finnish, which is unlike German or Scandinavian languages and resembles only Hungarian or Estonian. It is thought – not proven – that our languages are related to Turkish within the so-called “Ural-Altaic” group. It’s undeniable that the structure and intonation of the languages are the same. When Turks pronounce Finnish they get the accent right straight away. There is a belief in Turkey that we are cousins – the story goes that we both started out in the steppes of Central Asia but later went our own ways. It’s a very attractive idea.
Q The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 was a turning point in the Cold War. What roles does Finland play a role in world affairs today?
A The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe came at a unique historical moment. That cannot be repeated, of course. But besides that, Finland has been extremely active in peace support operations for almost 50 years. In 1969, we established a Training Centre for peace support operations. At present, we are contributing alongside Turkey to the Althea operation in Bosnia and to ISAF in Afghanistan, of which Turkey has just taken command. Finland has also been an active member of the Nordic Co-ordinated Arrangement for Military Peace Support (NORDCAPS) and of the Partnership for Peace programme. Another issue on the agenda is the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy, a joint initiative launched by the Finnish and Tanzanian governments in 2002. The process aims for a partnership between civil society, business and governments for a more democratic and human mode of globalisation. The next conference will be held in Helsinki this Autumn.
Q Living in Ankara, you must miss Finland with all its lakes and islands?
A Yes occasionally. Of course we do go back every summer. It’s very important to keep your roots. Otherwise, you can’t represent your country properly. On the other hand, it’s quite easy to live and work here. Ankara is really quite compact. You meet other diplomats, business people and bureaucrats very easily. And I can pursue most of my interests here to some extent – movies, concerts, hiking and so on.
Q There are a growing number of woman ambassadors…
A Yes I think we are nine now in Ankara. Among the younger Finnish diplomats there are equal numbers of men and women, but for now only one Finnish ambassador in four is a woman. It’s a career which makes demands on your family life. This is true for both women and men.
Genocide? Oh, yes, definitely!
by Prof. Dr. Türkkaya ATAÖV
Sections of the Armenian diaspora are preparing now to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the events of April 1915. Such occasions – even the assassinations of Turkish diplomats in the mid-1970s and the 1980s – have created opportunities for the exhibition of one-sided but deeply entrenched views about the Turkish past. Whether or not there was an “Armenian genocide” in 1915, or before and after, is the topic of my article in the next issue of this magazine. I shall dwell presently on the extermination (some 5.5 million people) and forcible expulsion (another 5.5 million people) of the vast Muslim population, mostly Turkish, which once lived in a region stretching from the shore of the Adriatic to the north of the Caucasian mountains.
There existed a colossal Muslim world in the whole of the Balkans, in the almost-adjoining Crimea and its vast hinterland, and on both sides of the majestic Caucasus which extends towards solidly Muslim Central Asia and beyond. Across this extensive domain, the Muslims constituted here the majority of the population, there a plurality among different peoples or at least a sizeable minority. That uninterrupted body is no more. It was eliminated over the course of one hundred years, starting with the Greek revolt in 1821. That piece of European – and world – history is a tragic tale of repetitive mass murders and waves of great migrations. What is left are small pockets of Muslims in Bulgaria, Greece and parts of former Yugoslavia. The bloodshed in Bosnia, which terrified the present-day generation of Europeans, may be described as one of the most recent links at the end of a long chain of similar events.
Nation of immigrants
European history cannot be written and understood without due consideration of the Muslim dead and the Muslim refugees. The Ottoman archives contain abundant material on these double traumas. Some Turkish historians are therefore informed about the successive sanguinary events and about the migrations of those fortunate enough to save their lives. These survivors fled to Anatolia, the heartland of the state, leaving behind their lands, their homes, their occupations – and their dead. The new Turkish Republic was a nation of immigrants, to a great extent. The ordinary citizens of the Republican period, however, know very little or nothing about the recent past of their forefathers. Western textbooks describe the “massacre” of the Christian Balkan peoples, but not that of the Muslims or Turks. Some contemporary Turkish citizens learned in their family circles that their grandfathers came from Sarajevo, Crete, Sofia, Constanza, Tirana, Bahçesaray, Erevan or Chechnya, from as far away as Tripolitania, or from any other town or village in this formerly wide Muslim world.
It is very important to acknowledge that the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic downplayed this suffering, so that the citizens of the new regime would not seek revenge or tend to irredentism but would look to the future rather than the past. Even the birthplace of the founder, Salonica, was now in Greece. But it was none other than a prominent Greek, Prime Minister E. Venizelos, who proposed the great Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the other hand, not only the Ottoman archives, but also the records of some other states – the British Foreign Office files, for instance – provide more than adequate documentation of the drama of the murdered and the uprooted Muslims. Professor Justin McCarthy, an American scholar and an outstanding Turcologist, must be recognized as the leading Western historian to have brought out the most convincing long monograph on the subject.
Founded on suffering
One can persuasively argue that some new states in the formerly Muslim world were founded on the suffering of the former occupants, either slaughtered or coerced to leave. Can American history be told without reference to the Native Americans – that is, to their annihilation? This is what happened to the Turks and to the other Muslims in the Balkans, the Crimea and the Caucasus. But apparently, the Turks cannot be victims, but only “victimizers” – this is the image attributed to the Turks (and the Muslims in general) by Nicholas II and Lawrence of Arabia in the past, by the Armenian terrorist organization ASALA and by some aspiring European politicians of the present. Can one write a history of the world without proper references to the Belgians in the Congo, the French in the Maghrib and in Indo-China, the United States in the Philippines, European fascism in Africa or just about all of them in China? Similarly, one cannot tell a true story of Europe in the 19th century without full references to the Muslim sufferings.
The Ottomans received little credit for their long tradition of religious tolerance. On the contrary, they paid a heavy price for it. The non-Muslims, who thanks to Turkish policy maintained their identity, were told by the missionaries that they, as Christians, were superior to the rest. The Greek revolution set a pattern for others to follow. The massacre of Muslims were repeated almost everywhere. The archives of the Western powers recount that the whole Turkish populations of cities were taken out of the towns and murdered en masse. The Turks stood in the way of the new nation-states, designed to be formed purely of the members of this or that non-Muslim community. When new states were established, they were the kingdoms of the Christian population only, devoid of the Turks or other Muslims who had lived and worked there for hundreds of years. Some Christian states attained a national identity and a majority only after their declarations of independence.
Attempt on Anatolia
Murder and expulsion was a policy repeated everywhere. It was also attempted by the Armenians in Anatolia. The sons and daughters of the Muslim refugees well knew what had happened to their forefathers – be they the butchered Muslims of Kalavryta and Kalamata, the fleeing Crimean Tatars or the various Caucasian Muslim communities under threat of Russification. This was set to repeat itself in Anatolia as well. The policy of the European powers was to replace the demographic domination of the Muslims in the Balkans, the Crimea and the Caucasus with Christian preponderance. They were successful. Only the final war, the Turkish War of Independence, led by M. Kemal Atatürk, was won by the Muslim Turks.
But by then total casualties had reached about 5.5 million dead, with another 5.5 million displaced. Let us ask the following question at this appropriate date: Was this a genocide or not?
Tomoyuki Abe: Time for Change
This month, Ambassador Tomoyuki Abe of Japan “speaks out” on issues as diverse as reform of the United Nations Security Council and the importance of a high-quality labour force in attracting Japanese investment. Ambassador Abe also agreed to comment on the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme and on the prospects for Iraq following the recent elections. In the course of his 38-year career, the ambassador has worked in Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta, and more recently as Consul-General of Japan in Chicago. Before being appointed ambassador to Ankara in September 2003, he was director of the Foreign Service Training Institute of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has already acquired a modicum of “Istanbul Turkish” to complement his “Oxford English”.
1. Reforming the UNSC
By the time the UN General Assembly meets in September, we would like to see the outline of an agreement on reform of the United Nations Security Council.
The recent report to the UN Secretary General of the so-called High-Level Panel suggests various reforms in the future structure of the organisation. It deals with many important subjects including development, arms reduction and human security. One section of the report suggests that there need to be certain reforms in the status of the Security Council if it is to meet present-day demands.
Two models are suggested. One is an increase in the numbers of both permanent and non-permanent members; the other is to increase the number of members of the Council by introducing a new category of members who would have longer terms than the existing non-permanent members.
Japan is in favour of the former model – namely, an increase in both the permanent and non-permanent members. In this, out views are shared by Germany, India and Brazil, and we are coordinating closely with them.
Under this proposal, the members of the United Nations would be more properly represented – particularly the developing countries and countries located in certain regions.
Japan is seriously considering a candidacy to become a permanent member of the Security Council. However, this is a means rather than an end. The main purpose of reform is not to get a seat on the Security Council but to ensure the better functioning of the UN as a whole.
Of course, we place just as much importance on the other issues, like development and disarmament, as we do on the reform of the Security Council. We also agree that a broader restructuring is necessary to strengthen the functions of the UN. But it is very difficult to handle all these matters at the same time. The Security Council plays the key role in the functioning of the UN, and reform has been on the agenda for a decade now. If we can at least get some rough concept of what direction we are going in by September, then procedurally we will be better placed to tackle the other issues.
2. How to handle North Korea
The issue of North Korea and its nuclear programme creates a very serious problem of how to stabilise the region. Even for us, the Japanese, who live very close to North Korea, and who have people of North Korean descent among us, the situation there is something of a mystery.
Recently, for example, the North Korean National Broadcasting Office publicly announced that they would not attend the six-party talks and implied that that process was over. Then all of a sudden the country’s top leader Kim Jong-il made the reverse statement and said they would come back to the six-party talks on certain conditions. So it is really hard to know who to trust. And that is probably the heart of the problem.
The North Koreans have now made a statement to the effect that they have already developed nuclear weapons. But everybody is still discussing whether it is true or not. Nobody can say that the statement is false, but nobody 100% believes it either. The six-party talks are supposed to be a discussion forum. But from time to time North Korea just stays away, and uses its mere participation in the talks as a sort of bargaining chip.
In the past, the North Koreans reached an agreement with the US, which was supported by most of the international community, including the EU. Accordingly, they were to halt the development of nuclear systems and in return they were to receive a certain type of nuclear generator and oil fuels to close their energy gap in the meantime. All of a sudden, however, the North Korean side pulled out. So even if certain formulae can be found to solve the problem, as long as Pyongyang maintains this slippery stance, the problem remains: how can any arrangement be secured?
It seems that, North Korea is always looking at the U.S. moves. However, when it comes to the talks, we rely very much on China initiatives. It seems to us and to many others that China has a certain influence over North Korea. The Chinese leadership may have persuaded Kim Jong-il to rejoin the six-party conference. We know that Chinese influence too has its limits. But at the present that is the only effective way to proceed.
3. Water and hope for Iraq
Japan has military personnel in Iraq but they are there in a non-combat capacity. It was too dangerous to send civilians to Iraq, so we sent military personnel to carry out civilian tasks. Legally, their mandate has now been extended up until the end of 2005, so they will be there until the end of the year unless there is some important deterioration in the security situation. In principle, they will leave when security and stability return to Iraq.
We have about 600 personnel of our Self Defence Forces in Samawah city in southwest Iraq. They are not taking part in military operations, and they are only authorised to defend themselves if they are attacked. It is a relatively stable area and they have carried out quite a lot of civil engineering work. They started with restoring the water supply, and they later extended their work to the reconstruction of school buildings, road repairs, the rebuilding of some small clinics and so on.
I am not an expert on the Iraqi political situation and I have no inside information from Iraq. However, staging the election was a big accomplishment. It seems to me that this accomplishment must have some effect on the minds of Iraqi nationals, whether they are in favour of the coalition forces and the government or not. I hope this will help to add weight to the interim government to be formed.
4. Investment in Turkey
We have very good relations with Turkey politically, economically and in all other fields. So I am happy with the present situation. But to say that we are happy is not to say that we are satisfied. We would like to see even closer relations, particularly in the areas of tourism and business.
Turkey is really attractive for tourists. There are many historical sights and natural beauties. The food is good and you can have a lot of fun, whether on the beach, at discos or at sports events. The European Cup match in November 2003 which was due to be held in Istanbul was sold out in Japan. Unfortunately, the Istanbul bombings prevented the event from taking place but the fact remains that this kind of attraction exists. I for one am enjoying my stay here, and I am sure there will be more Japanese visitors.
As for business, Turkey’s entry into the EU is by no means a disadvantage for the Japanese. The EU accession process will benefit Turkey socially and economically. In some respects, Turkey has already joined the EU market. Often, the problem is that while rules and regulations are at the European level, practice falls short. But the government and private sector are both making very good efforts to improve these practices. With the help of the accession process I expect these problems of implementation to decline.
Japanese business people are always seeking good sites for their investments. It seems to me that Turkey is very little known to them. This is the biggest obstacle to closer relations between the business communities of the two countries. From time to time I have to ask those who have invested here already to spread propaganda in Japan on Turkey’s behalf.
On the Turkish side, I often hear the argument that Turkey is about to enter the EU and has a young labour force, making it an ideal place for Japanese investments. However, there are a lot of countries which are about to enter the EU, or which have just entered it, or which have a young workforce. So I think Turkey should also emphasise the quality of its workforce.
The Toyota plant in Adapazarı is currently making the best cars among all the Toyota products in the world. Toyota did a lot of groundwork to achieve this. First they recruited good candidates. Then they brought them to the home factory in Nagoya, where they taught them not only technical matters but also what they call the ‘Toyota spirit’. So for example, if something goes wrong on the production line, the workers gather round to discuss it and find a solution. The Turkish workers took the lesson to heart. They really understood what was expected of them. And this is why production in Adapazarı has worked.
After training, Turkish workers can be a top-class labour force and this is the point that Turkey should announce to the World to attract foreign investors. If this was better known in Japan, then there would be more Japanese investors in Turkey.
Neşe Üçer: A brush with the East
by Sibel DORSAN
Every artist’s works beg questions about her life. This month, Diplomat talked to Ankara-based painter Neşe Üçer about her childhood talents, the evolution of her style and materials, and the advice she now gives to her students. It has been an unusual and fascinating voyage – not least the years spent patiently studying Chinese brush strokes in Malaysia and Singapore.
From village houses to flowers, Neşe Üçer is a master of familiar impressionist topics and techniques. Yet hidden in the calm enduring quality of her works lie decades of effort and experience. She once spent four-and-a-half years learning to paint a tiger. Her travels have taken her from Ankara to Italy, the Far East and back to the Turkish capital. And in the realm of styles and materials, too, she can recount a similar tour of discovery.
Neşe created her first picture at the age of two. Perhaps she had an inkling of the long artistic journey ahead of her and wanted to waste no time. Initially alarmed, her mother was to settle for the advice of a schoolteacher neighbour: Neşe’s only toys were to be paper, pencils and paint.
Later the young girl was to be encouraged by her own teachers. As a middle school pupil at TED Ankara College, she was to become famous for the doodles she produced during class. It was while completing her secondary education at the Overseas School of Rome that she created her first serious works – in the workshop of the Antony Lucchesi Art School, which she attended from 1960 to 1964.
Back in Ankara, Üçer participated in a joint exhibition at the Turkish-American Association in 1965. However, she was only able to paint more intensively after graduating in Italian philology from the Language, History and Geography Faculty of Ankara University.
The bamboo phase
In 1980, Üçer’s career took an unconventional twist. Travelling to Malaysia, she was captivated by the technique of Chinese Brush Painting. She painted at the Chen Choung Art School in Kuala Lumpur from 1981 to 1983, and then at the James Tan Art School in Singapore from 1983 to 1986.
Chinese painting has a peculiar naïve structure. It makes use of rice paper or silk paper, a range of special brushes, drawing ink, watercolor and specially-prepared root dies. The picture is made up of single, decisive brush strokes, leaving no room for error: “You begin from a certain point. You press the brush, lift it, and it’s done. The line is complete; you cannot go over it again.”
After a month of horizontal and vertical lines, Üçer went on to learn the bamboo tree. The bamboo symbolizes Winter, modesty, long life and power. It is hollow but very enduring; its leaves are shed but its stem never bends. Painting the bamboo tree is central to the whole technique. Those who can draw the bamboo can draw everything else.
Fish, birds and tigers
In Chinese painting, every image has a meaning. The leaves of the bamboo tree take on different meanings depending on whether they come in threes or in fives. The chrysanthemum symbolizes Autumn. The image of the fish, which symbolises money, is painted in large numbers and given away as a gift, for luck.
After the bamboo tree, the student learns to draw birds. Each part of the bird is created with its own specific brush, in strict sequence beginning with the beak. When creating lines with a single stroke, the amount of paint on the brush must be judged carefully: too little and the line may be too weak; too much and it will blot and smudge.
I ask: “How many strokes are needed for one drawing?” “It depends on experience,” Üçer replies. The most difficult image is the tiger. It took the artist four and-a-half years to reach this stage, and sometimes she had to make 15 or 20 attempts.
In its pure form, Chinese painting is black and white. The use of colour was introduced later by some Far East masters. Sometimes, a little poem is added reflecting the feelings of the artist. A red seal may be used in lieu of a signature.
Having participated in joint exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh in 1983, Üçer promoted the Chinese brush painting technique at her first personal exhibition in Ankara in 1984. She prepared her paintings for this exhibition on original scrolls with wooden spindles at either end. Everyone thought that they were prints. Later she found that the paintings attracted more interest when framed in the usual way behind glass. Many people still ask after them now.
Back to the West
Neşe Üçer continued her career as a watercolor artist. She was eventually persuaded that there was much more to be achieved in oils. It was not an easy conversion. Initially, she was unable to free herself from the influence of Chinese brushwork, and her paintings were correspondingly naive. For a while she tried painting with a spatula instead of a brush. “If you want to become a popular painter, your paintings should have something special about them,” she explains, “Everyone paints with a brush.”
Nevertheless, the brush once again became Üçer’s faithful companion – and so it has been for the past twenty years. In all, she has opened 22 personal exhibitions in Turkey and three abroad. She has also participated in many joint exhibitions. For the past nine years, she has operated from her own workshop, where she also gives painting lessons.
“Can anybody paint?” I enquire. The answer contains both a reassurance and a warning: “Everyone can be a painter, but everyone cannot be an artist. The painter is the person who more or less accurately reflects what he or she sees on canvas. The artist is the person who reflects what he or she sees together with his or her own interpretation. To look and to see are different things.”
But the artist’s fascination with technique lives on. 80 % of painting is technique, she believes; the remaining 20% ability. “Most people can make squares and paint a picture after the manner of a reproduction. However, painting is not photography. It has its own rules. Perspective, light and color are vital. Whatever the subject, everything has its own position on the canvas. Even the signature has its own place. There is no ugly painting, but there are right paintings and wrong paintings.”
“Atölye Çamurdan”: A fragile tradition
by Sibel DORSAN
The myriad artefacts conceived and born in this Ankara workshop are the fruit not only of human imagination and toil but of an ancient Anatolian earthenware tradition. Here, there are no barriers between life and labour. Production and tuition go hand in hand, and a workplace is also a community.
After that first acquaintance twelve years ago with the shared story of mud and fire, we started to knead together our diverse experiences. And the more questions we asked, the more questions we had. The more things we produced the more we wanted to produce.”
So begins the story of Atölye Çamurdan – the ‘Workshop Out Of Mud’ – as much a community as a pottery; a culture as well as a workplace. Then they were four, all with a passion for earthenware. But since 2000, the devotion of Tuğba Ülker and Funda Özkan have kept the oven burning – a hive of toil and creativity in the dense urbanity of Kavaklıdere.
“We shape from mud all the items we can, one at a time, always by hand, working into the material our designs, our points of view, our unresolved quests. Our products fall under many headings, with or without function: lighting components playing with fire and light; products which we enjoy seeing and using in our homes; wall panels which tell stories and are pleasant to behold, and sculptures that bear witness to individual voyages.”
In touch with the past
Many of the ceramics which adorn the entrance to the workshop are unique, reflecting only the peculiar styles of the artists. The customers are often foreigners to Turkey. At the same time, the bills must be paid. Like it or not, the products which prove most popular are reproduced, and product lines may be influenced by trend-setting international expositions.
But whatever the final shape, the process of its production is embedded in a millennial tradition. Ülker and Özkan count themselves lucky to have grown up in the culture of Anatolia, scene of the history of ceramics – to be able to “speak the same language” as the first experts; to have inherited skills passed from generation to generation. The “mud” which their fingers shape is the same reddish terra cotta that has been worked in the Mediterranean and Anatolia since the first settlements came into being. It is flexible and lithe – easily formed and re-formed, added and removed. Baked at low temperature, it metamorphoses into solid objects both gentle and fragile.
These days the earth is prepared and cleaned for use in a laboratory environment. A batch of raw material requires testing over a period of 2-3 months. How will it react at what temperature? To which glaze it is best adopted? It is difficult to find clay of the same quality all year round, and there is always a risk of wasted effort and unexpected costs.
Ceramic art is a costly business. There are many materials to be tried, many types of glazes, many methods of firing. Each developing artist must make hundreds of experiments. There are many talented young people but only a few have the patience and wherewithal to persevere. Others turn to related occupations. For those who carry on, it is a labour of love.
The creators of Atölye Çamurdan make a point of transferring their knowledge and skills to others through tuition classes:
“We have shared our conversation with mud, the products of this hard and joyful adventure, with all those who wanted to be a part of it. We have taught the language we have learned from the mud to all those who wanted to speak it. Whatever we have experienced during the course of the production process – whatever there is to be experienced – we have passed it on to our students right here in the workshop.”
Every other Saturday evening, the steady workshop routine makes way for a much-needed moment of relaxation as habitués and colleagues gather for a mug of hot wine, some music or a slide show, and perhaps some traditional country food. The company is fine, the conversation good – and they are looking forward to seeing new friends.