Now almost 60 years old, Onurmen was born in Bursa, Ottoman capital in the 14th century, following its capture from the Byzantines. He still lives and works in Turkey. Indeed, he is one of Turkey’s most established and celebrated artists. He has exhibited extensively in his homeland, featuring in the much-respected Istanbul Biennale; his work is also in the permanent collection of Istanbul Modern Art Museum. However, his work is known far beyond Turkey’s borders: he has shown throughout the world at galleries, biennials and art fairs in Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Greece, Dubai, Qatar, New York etc.
Having received a traditional art training at the Istanbul Fine Arts Academy, Onurmen started his career employing the conventional medium of oil on canvas, but he was always interested in fabric collage. Although he has worked in many media – sculpture, painting, collage etc - he is now known above all for his tulle (a light netting fabric), acrylic and photocopy collages, such as we see in this exhibition.
He experimented with different methods and styles but he favoured the idea of superimposing layers to give more physical, emotional, iconographic and structural depth to his works in order to engage and challenge the viewer more intensely. Ever since his youth, he had cut out disparate images from newspapers and magazines and kept what he calls his archive, from which he drew throughout his life. However, more recently, with the advance of technology and the unprecedented proliferation and instant availability of images on the internet – instagram being his preferred source - he relied less on his cuttings, enjoying the extraordinary diversity, anonymity and easy recklessness of downloaded images.
He builds up his works by gluing the photocopied or printed images onto canvas, then cutting up pieces of fabric into small irregular pieces – like shards of glass - and then sewing them and layering them to create a delicate relief. The layering accentuates the mercurial character of the fabric and gives each work a mosaic-like or even palimpsest-like quality. His recent works, moreover, reference the pixilated images that we see on our computers and cell phones, further underlining the effect of mass media on our lives.
This technique has interesting internal contradictions or anomalies. Firstly, when seen at close quarters, they look quite abstract (akin to Matisse’s cut outs), until one moves further away and discerns the face of a man or woman. Secondly, he likes tulle for its transparency, but the layering of images and pieces of fabric and the addition of paint, abrogates total transparency. This technique impels the viewer to slow down – unusual in our modern internet world and even in our contemporary gallery experience – and pause and concentrate and interpret.
Onurmen says his works are not political but agrees readily that there is sometimes political content: “My work does not include current political messages but is against war and violence and in favour of peace and freedom. I don’t believe in religion, which is a form of power, but sometimes I satirize political systems and forms of power. My work is above all personal and introspective and sometimes more lyrical, concerned with space and our daily life.” It is hard to live in Turkey today and be immune to politics and social concerns: the country’s slow progress towards democracy, its ambiguous relations with Europe and the EU, the authoritarianism of the country’s president, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Muslim controversies (in what has been officially a secular state since 1924 and the appliance of laïcité by the country’s founder Kemal Ataturk in 1937); the condition of minorities, in particular the Kurds, the Syrian crisis etc – subjects which Onurmen is obviously aware of and has himself often referred to in interviews. The ongoing debate about the wearing of the burka and the headscarf controversy may conceivably also play a (possibly unconscious) part in Onurmen’s use of textiles to cover faces. But, one must finally conclude that Onurmen is not interested in employing any form of political invective or polemic in his work but wants to deal with human emotions and relationships. He occasionally strays into some form of social commentary. For example, he produced a sculpture in chocolate, which was a muted allusion to the Turkish Gastarbeiter (migrant workers) in Germany, who, when they returned to Turkey on vacation, always brought chocolate for their families.
It is interesting that Onurmen chose tulle of all possible fabrics for his works. Turkey has a long tradition of textile production: in particular, silk, which was in fact produced in Onurmen’s birthplace, Bursa, long before the arrival of the Ottomans. Onurmen presumably liked tulle, which is used all over the world (although the name comes from the city in the Aquitaine region of France, where it was first commercially produced in the 18th century), because of its lightness and transparency. Tulle may also be a sort of metaphor, tulle being commonly used for net curtains, designed to give privacy and hide the inhabitants of a house. Sometimes, in his works the faces (invariably a single face, unsmiling and front-view, as in post-arrest ‘mug shots’) look out forlornly, like old, lonely people staring out from behind their tulle curtains. Tulle netting is also used to make (wedding) veils, since it obscures the features of the face while allowing the wearer to see out, suggesting the flimsy, asymmetrical, unilateral nature of relationships - especially via the internet. The complex and jumbled layering of material is also evocative of the claustrophobic and often solitary experience of urban living.
Further, although his work usually incorporates faces, they are not really portraits: their blurry imprecision underlines the way we all flick though images at lightning speed on the internet, whether family photographs or images on facebook or dating sites, the way we demean the humanity of social engagement and, with an insensitive click, summarily eliminate people from (or even meaninglessly add people to) our social or professional ambit.
The more one looks at Onurmen’s works, the more one is inclined to attempt to interpret them. But Onurmen himself is fairly evasive (akin to most artists probably) when discussing them, merely inviting us to enjoy their fragile, shifting evanescence and quiet, dreamy elegance. What is indisputable is that Onurmen has found his own distinctive and indeed unique pictorial language, which cannot fail to charm and oftentimes leads to quiet reverie.
International Art Consultant and Art Historian