Larissa Araz Unearths Turkey’s Hidden Pasts

ISTANBUL — Stepping into Larissa Araz’s recent exhibition at Versus Art Project you might think you had stumbled into a small museum of natural history. The imposing figure of a ram etched onto a zinc plate hung next to wild landscapes sketched in charcoal directly on the wall, while a video of a flickering flame evoked a diorama of a hunter-gatherer campfire. In an adjacent room, a gnarled tree branch sat inside a wood-framed vitrine, moss spilling out of its opened doors.

The museum-like atmosphere was intentional, said Araz, an artist from Turkey who delves into how histories and identities are constructed and concealed. “In my work I am often mimicking the systems that teach us what is accepted knowledge as a way of challenging them,” she told Hyperallergic.

The Versus gallery show, titled In Hoc Signo Vinces after a motto of religious conquest used by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine the Great, alludes to what Araz describes as “two colonialisms happening on top of each other.” The first occurred in the waning decades of the Ottoman Empire, when Western scientists traveling in Anatolia and Mesopotamia “discovered” three species of fox, wild sheep, and roe deer and gave them Latin names under an 18th century taxonomic system that later was infamously used as a basis for scientific racism.

The second colonialism occurred a century later, in 2005, when the Turkish government removed the Latin words for “Armenia(n)” and “Kurdistan” from the official names of these three animals. Replacing these words with the ones for “Anatolian” and “Eastern,” the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry declared the former nomenclature for these species to be “divisive and contrary to Turkish unity.”

Araz’s work has dealt with the politics of name changes before: her dreamlike black and white photograph series Dear Julia (2020) imagines a correspondence between two women, Hülya and Julia, who turn out to be the same person. The work reflects the way many members of minority communities take on Turkish names to mask their often marginalized or vilified cultural identities, as well as the official renaming of many places these groups once largely populated.

“My projects are for me a way of confronting a lot of things in my past that were never told to me by my family, my ancestors, my society, or the history taught in schools,” explained Araz, who considered a career as a photojournalist and worked in cultural programming and communications before focusing on her art practice starting in 2018.

The artist’s exploration of counter-narratives in Turkey plays with the tension between representation and manipulation that is inherent in image creation. Araz’s photographic show last year at Istanbul’s Buro Sarıgedik gallery was titled Semi-Fiction, and featured oblique images of real places and people in Turkey that left the narrative open to interpretation. Additional works also inhabit that same space, including …the soil you tread on… (2019), an imaginary archive of real-life labor battalions into which minority groups in the Ottoman Empire were conscripted in World War I.

Archiving is another of the artist’s preoccupations. Among other works based on archives she has created sound pieces that draw from the Kurdish-language broadcasts of Radio Yerevan and a collection of open letters written to journalists imprisoned in Turkey. After receiving the Prince Claus Seed Award in 2021 for the work that became In Hoc Signo Vinces, Araz is currently in Athens searching for traces of three Rum (ethnic Greek) women artists from Turkey with support from the Onassis Foundation.

“My mediums change but the threads are the same,” the artist noted before departing for her Athens residency. “Artworks don’t finish the job of writing an alternative history, but they can be a way to start creating one.”

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