Gülsün Karamustafa’s work explores the processes of modernization, political turbulence, and civil rights issues that have arisen in Turkish society in a period that spans, among other events, the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980. Her retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof consists of videos, sculptures, installations, and paintings from the 1970s to today organized thematically, charting her reflections on subjects ranging from orientalism to transgender politics to nation building and domestic aspirations.
Hailed as one of Turkey’s most influential contemporary artists, Karamustafa (b. 1946) stands out among peers such as Ayşe Erkmen and Füsun Onur for her incorporation of pop culture, folklore, and personal biography into her work. Concepts of staging and role play are also significant features for Karamustafa, who worked as a set designer and art director for theater and film. Colorful textile collages, plastic masks, theatrical costumes, assemblages of readymade objects, photocopied articles pinned to walls, and loosely shot handy-cam videos combine artifice and kitsch with charged political content.
The sculpture Double Reality (1987/2013) greets visitors to the top floor of the exhibition. A male mannequin, its head cocked to one side, wears a pale mauve housedress and is missing an arm. The crippled, androgynous figure is encased within two open iron cubes (one green and the other red)—held captive behind invisible walls. Nearby is the mixed-medium installation Kültür: A Gender Project from Istanbul (1996), in which two televisions sit on a table, playing episodes from popular Turkish variety and talk shows of the 1990s hosted by transvestite actor Seyfi Dursunoğlu (whose stage name is Huysuz Virjin) or transgender actress Bülent Ersoy. Both celebrities fought long-standing censorship battles with the government for their “deviant” gender-bending activity. Pinned to the wall behind the TVs are news articles, posters, and essays attacking or supporting their struggles for expression.
Karamustafa has also focused on the role of marginalized women in contemporary Turkish society in works such as the installation Objects of Desire/A Suitcase Trade (100 Dollars Limit), 1998. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, waves of Russian and Balkan women came to Istanbul, many of them seeking commercial commodities to smuggle back for sale and offering sex in exchange for money to finance their purchases. Their dealings became known as “suitcase trading,” and the phenomenon led to increased human trafficking. For Objects of Desire, Karamustafa purchased goods from Istanbul markets and brought them in suitcases to Western cities, where she presented and sold the goods in gallery performances. At the Hamburger Bahnhof, Polaroids of the items hang in a grid on the wall and a short video documenting the performance component plays on a small TV nestled in a pile of plastic flowers, toys, wigs, cheap lingerie, and clothes.
In a darkened room hang Karamustafa’s “Prison Paintings” (1972–78), a somber series of figurative works on paper recounting the six months she was incarcerated in a women’s prison for harboring a political dissident in her home. Two portraits show forlorn women in isolation, while others depict people engaged in daily activities, like eating or sleeping, while clustered together in tight quarters. Karamustafa’s right to travel abroad was taken away for sixteen years following her imprisonment, constraining her to her home country.
With July’s attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime—in which some three hundred people were killed and thousands injured—and the mass arrests and extensive purge of the civil service and other sectors of Turkish society that have occurred since, it is clear that the social battles Karamustafa has fought in over the decades are hardly over. Her humanism resonates loud and clear today, as Turkey cycles back to right-wing conservatism.