Photo credit - Cemil Akgül

İpek Duben a Selection: 1994-2009

Robert Morgan
Excerpts from exhibition catalog İpek Duben: Bir Seçki/A Selection 1994-2009 , Akbank Sanat, 2009

Duben functions as an artist with a nomadic instinct. Given the range of her experience and intellect, I believe Duben has emerged as an important trans- cultural artist, not just a Turkish one. She is an artist motivated to tell the truth through subjective memory, perception, and insight about the fate of a woman born into the culture of the Middle East who discovers intimate forms of expression that become universal. Like the late French novelist and playwright Jean Genet or the ineluctable feminist philosopher and novelist, Simone de Beauvoir, if one goes deeply enough within oneself, the results become universal. To reach a platitude of significance in one’s work is less a matter of reaching for external signs, than retrieving those signs within the experiential torrents of oneself, and sublimating these conflicts into original forms that transmit meaning beyond all predictions or expectations.

Traces, a series of 10 large paintings on vellum and canvas in which she brought together her desire to paint the content found in Mongolian and Persian miniatures using the vigorous gestural forms she had acquired from looking at the Abstract Expressionists. In either case, her source material came from outside of Turkey, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the New York Studio School respectively. This courage to explore new territory unrelated to her indigenous tradition implies that Duben was proverbially ahead of her time, which is to say that she was exactly on time. By indulging in a multicultural approach to her subject matter, in the wake of Jean-Hubert Martin’s ground-breaking exhibition, Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1989), Duben had begun to transform the meaning she found in her own culture. For her to understand the destiny of the Turkish woman in today’s secular, fast-moving, information-based society, her ambition required an approach to cultural feminism contingent on inventing a new symbolic language that might challenge former interpretations in the history of Turkish art, and ultimately be shared equally with men. Here Duben evokes the “existential contradictions” of her life “as a modern woman living in Istanbul – the most modern urban center in Turkey and yet not devoid of the deeper characteristics of an Islamic gestalt.”

What is striking about this work is not only the historical, cultural, and psychological content in this remarkable undertaking based on the concept of both hermeneutics and the desire to radically transform the meaning of a religious book, but the formal sense completeness that allows the artist’s visual and conceptual intelligence to communicate an artistic intention within her book, Manuscript 1994

Ipek Duben’s art is a means to restore memory in a time when the proliferation of electronic codes and bio-chemical diffusion are working against memory. If there is no memory, there is no history. If there is no history, there is no art – only more simulacra, more synthetic silk, more translucent messages of suffering and homelessness in a displaced global village.

In the case of Ipek Duben, I read her work as a kind of visual poetry that employs both feminist and cultural activism, replete with psychological and political messages. Her interdisciplinary approach to art is expressed through mixed media that includes photomechanical processes, assemblage, written poetry, artist’s books, installation, and filmmaking. One might argue that Duben’s project as an artist is a phenomenon that begins from the center and gradually moves outward. Or perhaps the more appropriate metaphor would be a sliding glissando, where tones move from one register to another, from low to high, and high to low. Regardless of its direction, her art depends on an ability to function in relation to perpetual change. She is less concerned with what is “new” than with what is perpetually shifting away from the expectations that we give to art.