A F U L B R I G H T I N T U R K E Y
In 2008 I completed my MFA in graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design. Just before graduating I attended a Fulbright information session on campus. It was 5 years before I knew where I wanted to go for my Fulbright and why. I was looking for a place where design was embedded in the culture, essential to heritage and identity and respected as an art form; In Turkey I found a rich tradition of visual design from antiquity to the present expressing the values and aspirations that define the culture and translating them into myriad craft traditions, such as textiles, ceramics (including tiles), metalwork and the book arts. Turkey is saturated with design and Turks consider design integral to Turkish identity.
For centuries Turkey was an Islamic state, and in the Islamic world there existed a prohibition against the figurative representation of the human form in religious and public art; such representation was considered to tread dangerously close to idolatry. So while artists outside Islam visually depicted human characters to communicate their cultural narratives, artists within Islam developed alternative strategies. They used repeating sequences of line, color and shape to create a visual language through pattern rich in symbolism. They elaborated and embellished letter forms for maximum visual impact and beauty, transforming words into visual imagery to tell their stories and often embedded them into their patterns. During the Seljuk and Ottoman periods these non-representational designs replaced the figurative imagery of religious fresco paintings and mosaics in early christian churches in Turkey. Many examples of this approach to visual communication still exist in Turkey's Ottoman palaces and mosques.
Modern Turkey was founded as a secular republic 90 years ago on the remains of the Ottoman Empire, a vast amalgamation of diverse cultures with disparate traditions, values, attitudes, and sacred beliefs. The Empire grew from rapid geographic expansion and subjugation of civilizations with diverse cultures, traditions, values and beliefs and the Empire’s perpetuation depended on successfully assimilating its subjugated populations into a cohesive whole and ensuring the orderly transfer of power through uncontested succession. In Ottoman design, pattern evokes these vital goals of state by integrating varied visual motifs into sequences that comprise a unified scheme. These motifs repeat rhythmically across expanses of space, disappearing beyond their frames to suggest infinite continuation. It is delicious to consider the uninterrupted patterns in Ottoman design to represent an idealized empire of diverse cultures united into a harmonious and unending whole.
Today pattern suffuses Turkey, appearing in the visual embellishment of buildings, rugs and tiles and permeating the rituals and practices of everyday life. It is present in the habitual wearing of headscarves; in the public baths, or hamams; in the response of the faithful to the call of the muezzin; and in the incessant haggling in the marketplaces and bazaars. My Fulbright project will use the visual patterns of Ottoman design as a point of departure for broader exploration of the patterns of social practices and behavior that define modern Turkey’s rich and complex culture. I will research and document Ottoman patterns; then I will document and record repeated practices, customs and rituals of everyday life in Turkey, organizing and connecting them visually to show the patterns of modern experience. Finally I will integrate Ottoman patterns with these patterns of modern experience, relating Turkey’s ancient heritage to its evolving identity. I plan to use design to define and connect widespread rituals and practices of everyday life to larger schemes of common experience.
Each Fulbright project rests on an affiliation with an academic institution or a business entity in the host country. Such affiliations are established by Fulbright applicants in advance of submitting the grant application. I traveled to Turkey for the first time in the spring of 2013 to make contacts there that would serve as possible affiliations for my project, and I was fortunate to find institutions to support both its Ottoman and contemporary angles.
The Iznik Foundation will support my exploration of Ottoman pattern. The Foundation’s mission is to revive Ottoman design and recover and preserve ceramics technology developed at Iznik between 1400 – 1700 and the Foundation possesses a design studio and showrooms in Istanbul, as well as a ceramics production house in Iznik. I will begin my grant period in Istanbul investigating the Foundation’s library and design archives to better understand Ottoman design history, symbolism and iconography learning how the Foundation’s designers update and adapt Ottoman designs to contemporary design projects. At the Foundation’s production house in Iznik I will learn about the craft of tile painting and the technical production of pigments using tile glazes. Throughout this time period I also will be observing and documenting Ottoman tile patterns in palaces and mosques in Istanbul and Iznik.
While I’m studying Ottoman patterns, I will be tracking recurring details of everyday life in the streets, city squares and marketplaces of Istanbul and Iznik, documenting my findings through photography and film. I’ll also be prowling the flea markets and junk shops of the neighborhoods of Beyoglu and Besiktas in Istanbul, looking there for important evidence of late 20th and early 21st century life in Turkey in photographs and personal objects. These artifacts offer evidence of lives and memories commonly lived, reflecting the patterns of collective experience. They also document Turkey’s transition over decades to an increasingly westernized, secular society, a significant part of its evolving identity. I plan to collect these images and objects and sequence and integrate them with my own photographs and films to show patterns in modern life, juxtaposing and comparing these with ancient Ottoman patterns to visually connect past and present. To support this work I have established a second affiliation with Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul to help me examine and understand Turkish culture and identity and identify and interpret the rituals and practices I follow. This will be essential for me to define the visual patterns I create.
Interchanges with the communities that host me will be essential to establish a cross-cultural context for my research and visual work. The Iznik Foundation has suggested that I deliver lectures at their showrooms to share my explorations of Ottoman design with their patrons and professional associates. Having taught graphic design at Berry College in the United States, I will give lectures at Bahçeşehir University on selected topics in design, juxtaposing eastern and western perspectives, and lead workshops to share methods of design research and authorship with colleagues and students. There is also a possibility I will be able to exhibit my work at Bahçeşehir University. At the end of my grant period I will publicly present the research and visual results of my project through talks at the Iznik Foundation and Bahçeşehir University.
I intend to use this grant to advance the practice of design outside commercial definitions. I hope to publicly exhibit the work I create in Turkey and use it in my teaching once I return to the United States to build recognition that design reveals how cultures understand, organize and construct themselves. In showing us the values and priorities that propel us forward, design tells us who we are.