Artist Profile
Your friend the enemy

Chapter 2 – Istanbullus

After three days straddling the Golden Horn, there is a sense of itchy feet; artists eager to get into the field, but at the same time an ongoing thirst to imbibe the full richness of Istanbul.

After three days straddling the Golden Horn, there is a sense of itchy feet; artists eager to get into the field, but at the same time an ongoing thirst to imbibe the full richness of Istanbul. Not to say that some did not brave the misting rain to sketch and paint.

A busy sight-seeing schedule immediately put the group cohesion to the test. Moving between two hotels with no elected leader on either side was a difficult enough task. Magnify that with the effort of wrangling a cluster of maverick individuals in awe of such magnificent art, history and architecture and you get the general idea. Certainly enough to bemuse the trip’s consultant war historian Brad Manera with the sudden realisation that some are expecting him to also take care of logistics. No small ask with this disparate set of artistic vagabonds and their freestyling disregard for military discipline.

The nine-dome cluster of the Blue Mosque, staked out by six minarets, looms imposing out springtime mist, slate blue-grey stone receding into the silvery sky. Inside the filigreed interior just seems to keep on going, rolling across intersecting arcs into the heights of spiritual contemplation. But it is the nearby Hagia Sophia where a longer story of the city’s religious history is played out in paintings, mosaics and other religious iconography. The former Orthodox Christian basilica, subsequently rebranded by Muslim conquerors, is now in Turkey’s modern era a museum. Walls are exposed in layers to reveal ancient frescoes juxtaposed with roundels of Koranic script, pillars under the great dome give a vertical line into the corridors of the upper level before the eye vaults into various subsidiary domes. Mother Mary and baby Jesus look down from above the Imam’s pulpit.

This clash of religious history continues to provoke the curiosity of a global polyglot of pilgrims – around us Russian, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia and Chinese utterances circle and merge in the sanctified acoustics like angels in the architecture.

Similarly in the military museum there is a tension for control over historical narrative. What we have known as the Gallipoli campaign is rendered into the ‘Dardanelles War’ and the triumph of Mustafa Kemal, who then became the leader of a modern and more secular Turkey as Ataturk. As we are shuffled through the most glorious of war art salons to witness some rousing military choir renditions of Turkish patriotic songs, we cannot get away from Mustafa Kemal Pasha. It is impossible to escape the iconography: his piercing blue gaze, most manly moustache, and imposing stature. He is an integral link to the Gallipoli history, and from that springboard his destiny in redefining Turkey in the wake of the imperial Ottoman collapse. However, the number of Ataturk statues and pictures has decreased markedly in the past decade, as successive governments move to redefine again Turkey’s modern identity.

We have arrived only a year out from the confrontational protests in Taksim Square. That friction is still in the air as we walk through that very congregation point for Turkey’s youth and progressive secularists, revolutionary placards and graffiti dotting the footpath and side alleys. A basilica straddles the bifurcation in the road and we take the western saddle down Istiklal Caddesi towards the Galata tower. An old-school tram pushes its way gently through the Sunday crowd, an endless stream of humanity flowing up and down the high street of the Beyoglu district. School kids hang off the back of the tram, gesturing to have their picture taken. Salt, one of Turkey’s well-known gallery destinations, invites a quick distraction of Polish poster art and we beat the six o’clock deadline for a quick look before regrouping in a wine bar near the 14th Century Galata Tower.

In a small courtyard the beer is cold and the service congenial, even if they do drum up a storm about their signature Anatolian chicken dish. After a long day the beer leads to a passable Turkish Cab Sav, fuelling many stories including a Sicilian rendition of Humpty Dumpty, before orange-infused shots of raki close the meal. Walking through the cobbled laneways towards the Galata Bridge, a group of discerning Istanbul women bargain for hand-woven shawls, and fatigue has moved a few of us to a shuffle by now. It’s a pleasure to slow down and photograph the nightlights of the city – looking back to Fatih there is at least 4 mosques on the skyline, silhouetted in the glow of sodium lamps. Halfway across the bridge a group of fisherman perform in an elaborate balletic ensemble of pole and line, flexing up and down to try jigging a few fish from the fierce tide beneath the bridge. A sweet seller wheels his cart across to tempt them and other passers-by with his wares, sugared delights garishly illuminated by a naked neon bulb.

Despite bucketing rain the next day, Topkapi Palace and the claustrophobia of the Grand Bazaar are essential elements of the Turkish introduction. After finding the book bazaar where some Australian submariners were once interned in 1915, a familiar stocky figure approaches to seek favour: ‘Hello sir, can I interest you in a carpet?’ murmurs Steve Lopes in a husky baritone, sketchbook in hand but clearly practising for an alternative career. We repair to the Gurbeyler Borek Salonu to dissect the day over that most humble Turkish pastry, and no sooner have we sat down kerbside than two old Istanbullus come to join us. Lopes immediately brings out his array of ink pens and an impromptu portraiture session begins. We begin to exchange repartee in broken English, surprised to learn they know the ANZAC story well and our quest to visit Gelibolu seems absolutely normal to them. Mehmet’s wife is a painter so he is very happy to pose, his brother-in-law Necdet more taciturn, concealed behind some dubious Versace glasses but still smiling at his friend’s jokes. Steve promises to send them a copy of the portraits, and we leave charged on Turkish coffee and invigorated by a street side welcome.



Image: Steve Lopes, Turkish Couple, 2013, ink pens
Courtesy the artist.