Nil Yalter



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Not on display

Nil Yalter born 1938
Video, black and white, and sound
Duration: 45min
Purchased with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2019


Harem 1980 is a black and white, single-channel video work with sound. It exists in an edition of five with one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is number one in the main edition. Forty-five minutes in duration, the video can either be projected as an installation or shown on a monitor. Its fictional narrative unfolds as fragmented stories, based on accounts of concubines living in an Ottoman Palace. The film focuses on the romantic relationship between two women, who are held captive in the harem. Yalter’s video practice is concerned with the position of marginalised subjects in society and, more broadly, with a conceptual approach to ethnic, identity and gender issues. She uses repetitive images and screens within screens as a visual effect to blur the boundaries between reality and representation. Fragmented visions of body parts appear confined to monitors, the subject of personal rituals and performances.

Yalter herself features in the video from the very beginning. Performing as one of the concubines, her character slowly reveals the emotional, psychological and physical complexities of the narrative. In the video, Yalter uses various filmic techniques including mirrored split-screens, depictions of body parts and fragmented, repetitive imagery to amplify the sense of isolation and distance between the women. The screens are seen as extensions of physical space and of the human body. As such, they realise the unfulfilled possibility for contact and communication. The screens also function as a magnifying glass and mediator between characters and experiences, with the narrative gradually creating an effect where bodies and monitors interact. Body parts and screens become interchangeable in what is seen as the controlled space of the harem, and the forbidden relationship of the concubines becomes an object of curiosity, imbued with sensual charge and erotic intensity. By focusing on these qualities, Yalter emphasises the subversion of the restrictions on and sexual commodification of the female body in the hierarchical structure of the women’s quarters in the Ottoman imperial palace.

The development of erotic desire between the two women is described through everyday events and private rituals. Moments such as bathing, getting dressed and resting become charged with an atmosphere of sensuality and become a space of freedom and sexual liberation from patriarchal control. Yalter was one of the first artists to examine gender relations and female identity in Turkey, turning the country’s history – and by extension the image of ‘the East’ and women’s bodies – into a political issue that evades exoticisation. Harem captures the oppression and cruelty taking place in the imperial court, exemplified in the final scene of the video, which is a shocking description of a eunuch’s castration. Such barbarities, the voiceover proclaims, ‘correspond to the absurd logic of a despotic and decadent power’, referring to the dangerous logic of centralised authorities of control to brutally arrange the world according to their own sense of gratification.

Though born in Cairo, Yalter was raised in Turkey where she initially trained as a painter before moving to Paris in 1965, where her artistic practice transformed. There, she participated in the counterculture and revolutionary movements of the time, and experimented with the use of time-based media, installation and performance, using her own body in her work. Yalter was one of the first Turkish artists to embrace video and new media techniques. Her work pioneered a sociological and conceptual approach to issues around ethnicity, identity, migration and class using documentary video, drawing and photography in combination with first-hand research into the statistical and material issues of diverse marginalised communities.

Further reading
Derya Yücel (ed.), Nil Yalter, Berlin 2013.
Nil Yalter: Off the Record, exhibition catalogue, Arter Istanbul 2016.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
June 2018

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