Neurons, atoms, embryos, orbiting spirals and a stylized vulva are not among the motifs one typically associates with the tradition of Turkish kilims. Belkis Balpinar, a former museum curator and researcher of Turkish carpets and kilims, is trying to change that.
Standing at the entry of the Anna Laudel Contemporary Art Gallery, housed in a narrow, five-story building with high ceilings and tall windows, the artist glances at her kilims on the white walls.
“I want to remain modest, but I am happy with this exhibition,” she chuckles. “I have discovered new depths in my work during this exhibition, as we played with light and space.”
The artist, dressed in her signature striped blouse and thick-rimmed glasses, considers the Istanbul exhibition, playfully titled “Dokuma-ma” (Un-weave), her retrospective. The 30-odd pieces indeed illustrate the different stages of her work and her insatiable curiosity about science, including a preoccupation with the solar system and quantum physics, ecology and neuroscience. Her obsession with form and light has led her to leave part of the kilims unwoven, with wool sticking out or simply gathered in a bunch.
“When I started this form of art [in the 1980s], they described my work as modern kilims,” she told Al-Monitor during a special viewing for journalists in late April. “Later, they were referred to as ‘art-kilims’ or ‘wall-art.’ Nowadays, they are simply called ‘a Belkis Balpinar.’”
Belkis Balpinars, some of them priced in the six digits, can be seen at the entry of the World Bank in Washington, DC, the Economy Bank in Istanbul and the offices of the oil giant Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Former US Vice President Al Gore also has one in his private collection.
“It was a gift — from the World Wildlife Foundation Turkey Branch, where I was a founding member — for his work on the environment,” Balpinars explained. “It got lost when we sent it over the first time, so I had to do an exact duplicate and re-send it.” The piece, “World in Danger,” is fluffy and consists of hues of gray, white, green and blue, unlike the bold colors and the horizontally woven style common in her works.
Anatolian masters have been weaving rugs for some 12,000 years using and creating a variety of styles, techniques and images, writes Marcus Graff, an Istanbul-based curator and art critic. In the introduction he penned for the catalogue accompanying “Dokuma-ma,” Graff wrote, “Maybe because of its deep and old history, this craft does not become modern or contemporary easily. Only rarely, the traditional motives get transformed into alternatives.”
Art historians trace the first Anatolian kilim to a discovery of textile remains and weaving equipment from the ancient Phrygian city of Gordion, aptly known for the Gordion knot, which is not, by the way, weaving terminology. Dated to 690 BC, the discovery in central Anatolia provided solid evidence of an advanced flatweave technique centuries before rugs and kilims thrived under the Seljuks and Ottomans.
Anatolia is the source of many different styles of kilims. The Hakkari kilims, made by various local tribes from eastern Anatolia, were a form of communication using a variety of motifs. For example, “elibelinde” (hands on hips) indicates that the weaver, traditionally a female, is either pregnant or wants to be, and “wolf's mouth” means that the weaver desires solidarity. The Bergama kilims, woven in a small town near Izmir, on the Aegean coast, often feature a tree of life, ram horns and a chest that indicates the weaver wants to get married or she's taken her trousseau chest and eloped.
The American researcher Josephine Powell brought the rich geometric details of Anatolian kilims to the attention of new generations in the last century. Traveling through eastern Anatolia in the 1950s, the wealthy New Yorker set out to research and document patterns on the flat-woven textiles of Turkish nomads and soon became a fan and a collector of kilims. She snapped photos of the patterns, painstakingly took notes on what they symbolized, recorded the tribal identity behind them and eventually helped establish the DOBAG Project, the first Turkish women’s weaving co-operative that makes carpets using authentic designs and natural dyes.
Some of Powell's photos, sketches and notes along with a few carpets she owned were displayed at “Josephine’s Fragments,” a 2016 exhibition in Ankara’s Erimtan Museum sponsored by Koc University’s Vehbi Koc Ankara Research Center. Three months before her death in 2007, Powell had left part of her collection —some 28,000 slides and field notes and some of the textiles she owned — to the Koc Foundation.
Today, there is interest in old as well as new kilims. Last December, Sotheby’s London auctioned a 13th-century Seljuk-era kilim with an estimated price of 28,000 GBP ($37,378). The final price exceeded the estimate by more than 10 times, selling for 309,000 British pounds ($413,642).
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Aladdin's cave for modern shoppers, has 54 kilim shops. One of them, Adnan and Hasan Carpets, is well known among collectors who have a taste for Ottoman heritage and associated antique items. Founded in 1978 and often mentioned in international media, the shop possesses several kilims that date back 160 years.
“The last three years have not been great [in Istanbul] because hardly any tourists [with major purchasing power] come to Turkey,” Erol Avci, one of the carpet sellers at Adnan and Hasan, told Al-Monitor. “There are also new trends developing in kilims, such as the vintage or modern kilims that buyers like.”
Just a few steps from Adnan and Hasan, dhoku offers new kilims for the homes of the young, hip generation. Memet Gureli established this line of modern-design kilims in 1989. In the last decade, dhoku approached contemporary artists with international reputations to develop designs. The Paris-based potter Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye designed the 2016 collection, which features minimalist lines and subtle gradations of earth tones.
“I walked into the store for a kilim and having found none, I asked whether they could make one that I would design,” Alev Ebuzziya told local media. “When they affirmed that they could, I asked for a pencil, paper and drew one.” Over tea, she was asked whether she would design a collection for dhoku.
Balpinar started out drafting designs by hand and passing them along to a weaver to transform them into a kilim. Nowadays, she designs on a computer and emails her creations to her current weaver, Fatma. When Balpinar moved from Istanbul to Bodrum in 2006, on the Aegean coast, the two women continued collaborating long distance.
“Many artists want to understand and reflect chaos. I just like things to be simple,” Balpinar said, gesturing toward the stark zigzags and circles on a canvas. “I draw what occupies my mind, but with a few lines and symbols.”
In that sense, she is no different from the Anatolian nomad women who expressed themselves through the motifs they chose for the kilims and carpets they weaved. Even the subjects — Mother Nature, creation and sexuality — remain constants despite the passage of centuries.
“Dokuma-ma” (Un-weave) runs through June 10.