Gulsun Karamustafa

Prison Paintings 16


In Tate Modern

Gulsun Karamustafa born 1946
Acrylic paint, graphite, crayon, and ink on paper
Frame: 347 × 322 × 50 mm
support: 201 × 181 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2019


Prison Paintings is a series of fifteen paintings in acrylic on paper made by the Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa between 1972 and 1978 (Tate T15182T15196). Displayed all together or in smaller groups, the works present an emotive sequence of images showing women of all ages in prison settings. They are painted in bright bold colours in a quasi-naïve style. The sombre subject matter draws on the artist’s personal experience of being incarcerated in Turkey in the early 1970s. Following the military coup of 1971 Karamustafa, who was a member of the 1968 generation and a politically active student during her university years in Istanbul, was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for aiding and abetting political activists. The Prison Paintings were painted from memory, after the artist had been released from an institution intended for female prisoners serving life sentences. She has explained her motivation in making the paintings: ‘I made them in order to remember, in order to be able to keep [what happened] in mind. After serving time in the Maltepe, Selimiye and Sağmalcılar prisons in Istanbul, I was sent to Izmit Prison to be with the ones sentenced to penal servitude for life.’ (Quoted in Rumeysa Kiger, ‘Artist Gülsün Karamustafa fulfils promise in major SALT Beyoğlu exhibition’, Today’s Zaman, 20 October 2013,, accessed 4 March 2016.)

The paintings depict intimate and private moments in the lives of the women prisoners and reflect Karamustafa’s personal observations of daily life in prison. With scenes of inmates sleeping, playing cards or cooking, and portraits of others behind bars or shown in head shots with their prison numbers writ large across their chests, Prison Paintings can be seen as a response to the climate of political repression in Turkey during the 1970s. Karamustafa’s practice is concerned with details that reflect the position of women in society alongside the social changes that took place in Turkey during the second half of the twentieth century, which saw waves of migration from the countryside to urban centres. Within these wider themes, the Prison Paintings exemplify the importance of both personal and collective histories for the artist’s work. The daily struggles of the female prisoners are situated against a background of a patriarchal society, with women routinely suffering social exclusion and suppression.

In the series the harsh conditions of life in prison are presented as an immediate, everyday reality for the women, but they are also depicted through idealised portraits which underscore a strong commitment to existing with dignity in the face of oppression. Karamustafa shows the inmates negotiating the different aspects of their identity as prisoners, mothers, wives and friends. Focusing on individuals marginalised by mainstream society, these are intimate portraits that document a turbulent time in Turkish history and capture the psychological effect of the restrictive social climate in the country. Art critic Göksu Kunak has commented that Karamustafa charts the history of modern Turkey through these paintings:

Despite the traumatic effects of the 1960 and 1971 military coups, the leftist youth of the 1970s dreamed of a better future. In such a chaotic environment, Karamustafa was jailed for six months for concealing a political fugitive soon after her graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul in 1969. The series Prison Paintings (1972) depict those years of imprisonment: women in vibrant reds, oranges, purples and blues are depicted sleeping in the prison dormitory, or waiting in line to get a bowl of soup.
(Kunak 2016, accessed 15 June 2018.)

The Prison Paintings were not exhibited until 2013 when they were included in Karamustafa’s retrospective at SALT, Istanbul. For many years, the artist had been unwilling to show this body of work, due to her reluctance to revisit this difficult period in her life. She also did not want to be seen to be exploiting her experience and the friendships she made in prison; eventually, however, she was able to present the work as an homage to the lives of the women alongside whom she had been incarcerated.

Further reading
Barbara Heinrich, Gülsün Karamustafa: My Roses My Reveries, Istanbul 2007.
Meltem Ahiska and Marion von Osten, Gülsün Karamustafa, Chronographia, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016.
Göksu Kunak, ‘Chronographia: Gülsün Karamustafa Retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof’, Ibraaz: Contemporary Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, 14 August 2016,, accessed 15 June 2018.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
June 2018

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