"20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY" by Necmi Sonmez 2011


Nil Yalter’s first comprehensive exhibition

in Istanbul, after so many years, “20th CENTURY /

21st CENTURY” has a retrospective aspect, as the

main themes that can be seen in the artist’s works

such as migration, womanhood and sexual identity

are comprehended with different perspectives

and various techniques. The most significant

interpretation that the artist states in her exhibition

is removing the passive stand point of the retro

(which means looking back) concept and activating it;

getting away from the magic of the days past while

discussing the old roads she walked on, again, and

creating an up-to-date declaration. From this point of

view, “20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY” has a unique

quality that can be interpreted as a dialectical whole

created by combining works that are produced in

1960-1990 together with the ones actualized in the

years 2000-2011, in a diverse way. Nil Yalter, not only

takes the viewers through a time tunnel by combining

her works produced by using various techniques

from two different centuries in every sense of the

word. She also, reveals her style of production based

on protesting and portrays by the divergent and

contradictory attitude in her works; questioning

prejudices, perspectives of male-dominated society,

capitalist agenda and alienation.


“20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY” exhibition is

a whole, structured on mutual dialogue with the

choices that was made both in the selection and

presentation of the works; therefore, exceeds the

scope of an ordinary exhibition and aims to use some

specific frames by using the artist’s own themes

together with the concepts: memory, time and

interpretation. In this article, I will try to concentrate

on these frames, including the artistic stand point

of Nil Yalter, moreover I want to highlight the

polyphony (multiple ideas working together) of the

works that arises by exhibiting them together. That

is because, from the day she started to produce her

works, she developed a distinct evolution line; and

in all her paintings, drawings, performances, videos,

multimedia sculptures and interactive installations,

she discussed the facts that are positioned on a

specific common ground by producing different

metaphors; consequently creating distinct layers in

her work.


The first of these layers is personal. Nil Yalter was

born in Cairo, due to his dad’s assignment there,

in 1938. She spent her early youth in Istanbul.

Yalter was painting since her childhood but during

her education at Robert College, she was also

interested in theatre, dance and pantomime. She

was visiting tobacco factories since her early ages

as her father was working at tobacco ventures, so

she chose the female laborers and factory workers

as the subjects of her first drawings. Utilizing the

resources her art lover family provided her, the

young Nil started painting with a tendency focused

on Paris, which was accepted as the center of art in

these years; with the support of the books coming

from this city and her education at Robert College.

Although she wasn’t educated in art in the classical

way, she started to produce abstract works in her

very early ages. Yalter’s first works that can be

considered professional are colorful compositions,

which she portrayed by the abstraction of the forms

seen in nature. Living a very active life, Yalter was not

only involved in painting but also closely interested

in pantomime and dance. Due to this interest, she

went on a journey starting from Istanbul, reaching to

India, and motivated by the things she saw, produced

several distinct works. It was not a coincidence that

she opened her first exhibition at Alliance Francaise,

in Bombay (1957). Her journeys in which she got

acquainted with various cultures both helped her

gain exceptional experiences in her earlier ages

and affected her works thoroughly. She started

exhibiting her works periodically in Turkish-German

Art Gallery in Istanbul, since 1959, and this was proof

that she was concerned about art intimately and

seriously, and decided to start her professional career

in this field.


1960’s: The Young Creative in Search of Her Path


Nil Yalter, who preferred abstract works in 1955-1965,

was getting the most important interactions for her

works, from her journeys. She visited Paris for the first

time in 1956 and continued to closely watch the art

scene there. At that time, she did not find the abstract

art tendencies (Ecole de Paris) observed in French art

to her liking and preferred Russian constructivism.

After her first visiting and observing the art scenery in

Paris in 1956, Yalter visited the city again in 1965 to

start living there. Her works that are spread through

1956-1965 have an abstract character that can be

considered in conceptual frames of Suprematism, Op

Art, Minimalism, Pure Abstraction and Hard-Edge

trends. During that period, she was also interested

in architecture and started to get acquainted with

the Art Deco trend, which she would interpret in a

different way in her later works.


The works that can be considered as the point of

origin of the “20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY”

exhibition are the canvases, which Nil Yalter

produced after moving to Paris in 1965, until the

year 1968. In these works, it is not a coincidence

that the artist structured her compositions on

plastic values that are stripped from all their defining

characteristics and used an approach which can be

called geometric abstraction, by interpreting forms

like circles, rectangles and cubes. It is not possible to

build connections between the aesthetical approach

of the group “Supports/Surfaces” that was active

nearly in the same years and Nil Yalter’s abstract

works, because Yalter does not demonstrate any

empirical approach on her canvases, but experiment

by producing different spaces in the classical meaning.

While doing this, she almost tries to create a different

 perspective like the ones that can be seen in her

works “ArchiForme II” (1968), “2 Cubes” (1966-1969),

“Optical Cubes” (1966-1969) and “Triangle Deforme”

(1969). In her abstract paintings that are generally

painted on large canvases, both the geometric forms

and the usage of colors differentiate. The artist

sometimes enriches the shades of one color in the

proportions that can be called monochrome, and from

time to time do not stay away from using vivid colors

like powerful purples or green almond. Yalter did not

exhibit these works at the time they were finished

but revealed some of them during the exhibition in

1971, at Turkish-German Cultural Institute Gallery,

in Istanbul. Following that, she took these paintings

back to Paris. When she planned to exhibit them once

more in Istanbul, in 2011, she decided to reinterpret

them. When the forms in these paintings were

created, the artist did not use a compass, a ruler

or a square. After 42 years, she now interprets the

same forms, and produces videos by using computer

supported animation programs, therefore combines

her works in which she used completely different

techniques and which she produced in two different

centuries. Meanwhile, she practically puts the viewer

into a time tunnel both in the terms of time and in

the manner of production. As Nil Yalter exhibits her

canvas paintings that she produced in 1965-1968

together with her video works she made in 2011, she

performs a synchronized exhibition. This synchronized

quality, builds a bridge built on past experiences

between yesterday and today, as an approach that

“20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY” exhibition brings



When I say past experiences, I am talking about

Nil Yalter’s biography advancing by breathtaking

leaps; I am mentioning her extraordinary life as a

transformation process and walking through her

path without turning one way or the other. We must

remember that, this characteristic is one of her layers

that we see frequently in her art. I want to emphasize

this point in more detail as the apprehension of it

supports the meaning of the “20th century / 21st

century” exhibition. Yalter was exactly 28 years

old when she moved to Paris and produced these

canvases, and there were many great experiences

that she had, compressed in a short period. Starting

her journey from Istanbul, and continuing to Tehran,

Tabriz and Bombay, then returning to Istanbul, Nil

Yalter lived a very different life. When she decided to

stay in Paris permanently, she was not only leaving

a comfortable life behind but also taking the risk of

getting on a new journey. For this reason, her canvas

paintings that are produced during this era always

grab my attention with their structure founded

on exquisite lines and forms that are far away

from all the chaos and hesitation. After producing

these paintings, she put them onto a corner of her

studio, and decided to go on a very different voyage.

The events of May 1968 did not only change the

perspective of Nil Yalter towards art and life, but also

by simply establishing a tabula rasa, which carried

her to a different stage. By actively participating in

the protests and assuming responsibility in student

invasions, she decided to carry her impulse to over-

turn which she gained from these events; applying to

her works; therefore, she burned the bridge for the

second time, and started to walk towards a different

destination, which was totally unknown to her.


1970’s: The Era of Questioning


From the socio-cultural point of view, the student-

laborer riots that occurred on May 1968 and the

chaotic-anarchistic environment of the period, in

Paris, are evaluated as a phenomenon that happened

because of the strikes; without a proper background

and further implications. These acts of protest, not

only brought some important reforms to the world

of politics, but also opened the way to a different

world view with its international initiatives, which

influenced many creative fields from painting to the

cinema, from literature to architecture. Besides, it

is interesting that there is no solid idea about the

effects of the May 1968 events, even after 40 years.

When we think about the events also under the

light of the information provided with the articles

written by the people who have experienced the

period firsthand, we can see that May 1968 events

that can be considered as the French Revolution of

the 20th century, have also influenced a group of

Turkish artists, who were living in Paris. These events

that were witnessed by Abidin Dino and Tiraje’s

drawings, Gunes Karabuda and Goksin Sipahioglu’s

photographs, also had a great impact on the art of

Nil Yalter.


The pioneering French art scene which she was in

close connections, directed Yalter to search for her

expression in the sociological, political and socio-

cultural facts that stand outside the canvas. Due

to the effects of 1968 events, the artist got into an

essential process of questioning identity; she focused

her explorations on daily events, social facts, and

prejudices. By inclining towards experimenting on

drawings, photography, videos and performance by

using different techniques, she went after a diverse

way of artistic approach. This era of questioning,

made her think and produce works about the

subjects like political discrimination, exploitation

of immigration duties by the capitalist system,

suppressant acts of male dominant society over

women, and racism. Nil Yalter primarily dealt with

the living conditions of immigrant workers (Turkish,

Portuguese and Arabic) with an approach based on

documentation, and generally stopped at the border

of sociological field studies. She built up an archive

with the conversations she made as a visual artist

with immigrant laborers, women who were arrested

and women laborers. With the help of sound and

visuals, she started to position the social classes

that were alienated into the center of her works.

The artist was also interested in the scientific fields

like anthropology, ethnology and history of belief

systems, in addition to sociology. She got into a

conceptual search in 1968-1972.


These events opened the doors of a personal

exhibition at A.R.C. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville

de Paris, the “Topak Ev” project for the artist. This

presentation in which Suzanne Page assumed the

duty of exhibition production, positioned Nil Yalter

at a certain place within the trends of Paris of that

time. The exhibition was not only reflecting the

distinct perspective of the artist towards the subject

of women, but also communicating some very clear

and precise messages about issues like immigration,

banishment and alienation politics that would become

the most important themes, to leave their marks on

the 20th Century. As a starting exhibition in which

Yalter found her own voice and theme, “Topak Ev”

is also a project that she generated a specific visual

accumulation for many projects that she would

realize in the future.


“20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY” exhibition

also contains a group of works from the “Harem”

series (1979-1980) that she produced on her way

towards the above-mentioned direction. Harem is a

whole that consists of a group of paintings of eight

photographs and drawings on paper and a video.

Yalter bases this work on numerous pieces that

she gathered in her research through many years

and takes the fictional story of two odalisques that

lived in the Topkapi Palace several centuries before,

as the starting point. The story with lots of tragic

details is the basis to the video work. The group of

drawings and photographs are based on a young

woman, whose ancestors once lived in Harem. The

photographs of the girl were shot in the Harem of

the Topkapi Palace by Yalter. By reinterpreting them

with her drawings, the artist starts from diverse past

experiences and gives a different identity to the

odalisques, who were at the center of the sexual

desires. “Harem” points out a turning point without

a past and a future in artist’s evolution line as a

metaphoric work that handles so many details (that

cannot be interpreted only by the feminist approach)

without getting lost in the excitement of stories and

decorative narration. The harem theme, which would

also be used by many other artists, become a visual

whole in Yalter’s work.


The video titled “Shaman” is one of the most

important surprises of the “20th CENTURY / 21st

CENTURY” exhibition. Although the artist completed

it in 1979, she never exhibited it, until now. The video,

that will be seen for the first time shows Nil Yalter

during her performance in Paris, using the masks

of Central Asia Shamans from the collection of old

Musée de l’Homme. This video of the artist, who

made comprehensive research on Shaman culture,

aims to bestow their old function to the masks, which

have become mere objects of a museum. The dancing

figure wearing Shaman masks is the artist herself. This

is another detail that must be highlighted because

Yalter developed a criticizing attitude by using her

own body in many of her works, in her installations

which she produced with the resources of New Media

Art, sound sculptures, interdisciplinary works and

especially in her videos. Artist’s second important

personal exhibition, which was titled “C’est Un Dur

Métier Que L’Exil” and realized at A.R.C. Musée d’Art

Moderne de la Ville de Paris (exhibition producer was

Suzanne Page), has a character that strengthens this

approach of Yalter.


2000’s: Sharpening the Images


“20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY” exhibition

also contains the video installations “Sound of

Painting” (2005-2008) and “Lord Byron Meets

the Shaman Woman” (2009), in which the artist

reveals her criticizing attitude bodily. Even though

Yalter started to develop her works by using the

experimental possibilities of New Media Art, since

1973, she is also strongly interested in the canvas

painting in the classical sense and interpreting it

with a modern style. “Sound of Painting” (2005-

2008) brings out the synchronized dialogue that

she constructed between video, canvas painting

and performance techniques through an endeavor

that can be described as interdisciplinary. The artist

recorded herself on video while painting five large

canvasses by using just a spatula and colors; then

by reinterpreting her practice, she performed with a

different point of view from the eye of the camera

and editing it; she produced an independent video

piece. The sounds that can be heard in this piece,

is basically the scratchy sound made by spatula on

the canvas, then these sounds are recombined by a

using a specific sound choreography. Although the

five paintings exhibited together with this video

refer to the abstract works of Yalter’s from the end

of 1960’s, they also have a structure referring to

some other contents. When the viewers look at these

canvases, they also hear the sound of the paintings

since the video plays simultaneously. As a work that

captures the sound and constructs it on a conceptual

character, “Sound of Painting” gives the message that

it is a work of Nil Yalter’s artistic age of maturity as



“Lord Byron Meets the Shaman Woman” (2009)

is another significant video work of Yalter in which

she brings together some notions that seem to be

totally unrelated with each other at first sight. The

performance in this video was also executed by the

artist herself and got through many extensive and

different editing processes that concluded with this

piece of video art. Yalter, who is interested in Central

Asia’s shamanism, interprets this belief system in

which people communicate with spirits, as a field

of abstraction, and especially fascinated by the part

that this transformation in the Shaman world is

made through women. Influenced by a verse from

one of the poems of Lord Byron, the artist makes a

metaphor out of the Shaman woman theme. When

the viewers start to think about who the Shaman

woman is, they find themselves in the attraction

field of Nil Yalter’s work, which she enriched with an

impressive sound system.


While the “20th CENTURY / 21st CENTURY”

exhibition brings her works (earliest from 1965-

1968 and latest from 2009) together with a theme,

it took its shape through a special dialogue that I

made, as the exhibition producer, with the artist.

When I first rang the bell of Nil Yalter’s studio, the

it was 1992. During a seminary work on video art

that I was performing at the Gutenberg University

Art History Institute, I had seen the work “Topak Ev”

and was very impressed. The “Project ‘74” catalogue

that I came across while doing research on this work,

has become my guide instantly. When I went to see

the works of Nil Yalter, I had some idea about what

she was doing. Although we had scheduled this

visit to be a short one, it continued longer than we

expected; and together with the various catalogues

and exhibition invitations that I acquired from this

visit, it directed me to get involved with New Media

Art more. In 1994, the experience I have gained while

arranging the first video exhibition of Nil Yalter, at

the Akbank Art Center in Istanbul, opened the doors

to numerous fields for me. I had the chance both to

know Nil Yalter’s art more closely and carried away

by the wind of her character that is swift, excited and

running after the innovative and different without

ever turning back. The articles that I wrote about her

and the conversations we had in her atelier always

opened new doors for me. During a conversation that

we had on February 17th, 2000, Yalter told me that

one of the signboards that she set around the Topak

Ev contains excerpts from the poems of the Russian

futurist poet Welimir Chlebnikow. As a result of this,

I had the chance to encounter poems of Chebnikow,

which I will continue to read ever after. Every feast

that I enjoyed at Nil Yalter’s atelier brought me some

new adventures enriched with various details. When

we finally had the chance to work together again at

the “Türkische Realitäten / Turkey Reality” (2008,

Frankfurt) exhibition that I arranged, I felt that I was

ready to prepare a personal exhibition for her. This

exhibition that I prepared for Galerist in 2011, above

all is the product of many memories that I have

accumulated by following her art for nineteen years.

One of the main themes of the “20th CENTURY /

21st CENTURY” exhibition is the unity of sentiment

that I built with the artist, all through the stages,

from the selection of the works, to the framing and



I have mainly tried to bring out Yalter’s questioning

artist attitude, while aiming to make an unusual

connection between yesterday and today, past

experiences and the things that are current. This is

because the divergent and contradictory qualities of

Nil Yalter’s works take her above the position of just

being a historical artist. In today’s global inequality

environment that shows itself explicitly, the artist

refers to various questions and issues, and invites the

viewers to think actively.


October 2011