Ballon Rouge (Brussels) and The Pill (Istanbul) present Deniz Pasha’s “Blood Memory,” a dual-city and concurrent exhibition of a series of paintings made between 2019 and 2021. The show will be on view from June 16 - July 24 in Brussels and from May 28 to July 3 in Istanbul.
The paintings trace the reverberating effects of the Ottoman Empire’s policies towards African bodies. Deniz does not begin with the sordid history directly but rather looks in reverse, starting with the now - with African migrants and immigrants currently living in Turkey. Through portraiture, allegories, and motifs, Deniz echoes the ways in which the historical lineage of African labor and existence is reflected in the segregated, invisible, and opaque lives of the immigrant workforce in Turkey today.
Deniz began meditatively with the small portraits. Historically, portraiture is both the most humanizing as well as the most classist of the genres of art. She, like many Black artists today and in the past, aims to reclaim the genre; where these immigrants lead an invisible life - not seen, embraced, or understood - in her portraits they are remembered, identified, given presence and given individuality. This reclamation is in part a search for herself and her place in Turkey as much as it is an intentional negation of the erasure and segregation Black people experience in Turkish society.
The opacity or unknowability of these people is neither othering or barbarizing in the context of these portraits; they are enticing, human, dignifying. As Edouard Glissant put it in his seminal essay, “For Opacity”: “we clamor for the right to opacity for everyone,” as it allows for multiple and equal footing to all ways of being and looking and seeing, to all cultures and peoples. To not know, or not relate to, shouldn’t mean to fear, condemn, or disregard. Glissant further propounds that transparency or familiarity does not necessarily imply goodness, or righteousness.
The familiar and popular images of Blackness in Turkish culture includes the Arap baci, a ‘mammy’ character, probably one of the more universally recognized of the racist tropes. Folklore and children’s nursery rhymes are sprinkled with the undesirability of dark skin, and as recently as within the last decade, minstrel blackface has been portrayed on TV in the form of a man dressed up as the Arap baci - meant to be funny. Arap, or zenci, are common Turkish words used for naming Black bodies. The language is used interchangeably as racist and ‘affectionate’, further clouding the semiotic realm in which Blackness is understood in the Modern Turkish Republic. ‘Beyaz Turk’ or ‘White Turk,’ is a common term for the upper or enlightened secular class with Western Values. This is the semantic culture that the African immigrants in Turkey live in, this is the framework of representation that exists for them in their new home. Consider the Ethiopian Nannies raising and nurturing the children of the Upper Middle class families, - a slender thread spun from the Arap Baci ‘Mammy’ figure that raised and nurtured the families of previous generations.
Beyond the portraits, there are specific stories held subliminally within these paintings, which Deniz alludes to within the vignette of Glissant’s argument for opacity. Suggestions such as the Belediye (municipal) Bin, the wrought iron gates, the crow, and the scorpion, which state not explicitly but rather implicitly the particulars of the lived experiences of these people in Turkey today. They remain opaque, unknowable characters to the viewer, and yet…
We see the work “Alice,” (shown in Brussels), of a 23 year old immigrant from Rwanda, a beauty with aspirations to be a model. In her portrait a gun sparkles, hovering in the night sky - a nod to the violence in her home country and therefore the violence embedded in her history; and behind her, a string of balloons - the seaside pellet gun game common throughout Turkey. A question of chance, a question of who gets lucky, who survives and wins and who doesn’t. In “Dolapdere” (shown in Istanbul) we see a woman with a faceless child, both dressed in their ‘Sunday best.’ They stand in proximity to the Istanbul municipality trash can. The work is a devastating nod to a story of a young Ugandan woman who was refused admittance to a local hospital while in labor because of her status and local policies towards migrants; she ended up losing her baby because of it. The child’s facelessness and the nearby placement of the garbage receptacle is a subtle reminder of the inhumane treatment that these communities regularly face, their disposability. Both works surreptitiously hint at the violence of the Black experience in Turkey, and the idea that the traumas experienced are both inherited and implicit. Simple rights to life, living, and dreaming are not a give-in but rather a privilege not given. Does to survive mean to be alive as a Black person on these lands?
In “Salman The Conqueror” (shown in Brussels), and in “Birlik Apartmani” (shown in Istanbul) we see two uses of wrought iron structures. In Salman’s portrait, the gate shows him working on the other side, and in “Birlik Apartmani” we see a woman outside but with iron covering the window behind her. The gates serve as a diaphanous poetic structure in the paintings, a semipermeable membrane that allows one to view in or out, yet the cold hard iron restricts entry, restricts co-mingling and is mockingly decorative. “Zenci Orgusu” (Negro Braids), acrylic nails, streetwear, rap culture, afrobeatz - osmosis is prevalent on the streets of Istanbul but where these cultural tokens were able to sneak past those iron gates and windows, the people whose culture they come from are still left on the other side. The question is, how sustainable are these practices without the acknowledgement and thriving of their stakeholders?
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
- excerpt from Audre Lorde’s ‘A litany for survival’
It is important to recognize that this experience of the diaspora is not unique to Turkey. The exhibition takes place in two countries that have a loaded and violent history with African people. As Angela Davis said, “no history unfolds on its own.” In truth, the exhibition could take place nearly anywhere and still in some way reflect the realities for the existing diaspora. The religious iconographies and implications in some of the paintings are a hard-edged signal representing the echoes of neocolonialism perpetuating within and without the continent. An irony too, in that the remnants of neocolonialism, like religious faith, becomes the very thing that binds Africans together abroad, further complicating histories and cultures and further compounding the idea that even a shared faith does not translate to a shared humanity - an idea represented in Deniz’s work “A Loss of Faith” (shown in Istanbul), where a crow, a known symbol of death, carries a tesbih or prayer beads.
“Blood Memory” is taken from a quote by the late, revered American playwright and poet August Wilson: “When your back is pressed to the wall you go to the deepest part of yourself, and there’s a response–It’s your great ancestors talking. It’s blood memory.” The works are not just simply about what is seen on the canvas, but also about the history behind them, what is insinuated; the paintings are as much about the a piori as they are about the present.
Deniz Pasha (b. 1985, Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates), lives and works in Istanbul. She studied at the Chelsea College Of Arts and Design (University of the Arts, London). Previous exhibitions Include: 2015 ‘OHNE’- Mekan68, Vienna Austria; 2016 ‘Design Bay’ Istanbul, Turkey; 2018 ‘Animal Side’- Mixer Gallery, Istanbul, Turkey; 2019 ‘Dancing into One’- Martch Art Project, Istanbul, Turkey; 2019 ‘Flesh and Bone’-Operation Room, Istanbul, Turkey; 2019 ‘Denizens’ (with Leyla Gediz)-The Pill , Istanbul, Turkey.