Art from the Periphery

text: Catherine BayarTurkey is a country blessed with an abundance of art and handcrafted heritage, endowed by its geographic location as a melting pot of culture, ancient and modern. All too often Istanbul, the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions get all the attention. The focus in these most populated areas tends to art as trend with a global outlook or traditional crafts as fodder for touristic commerce. With 81 provinces, one like Bayburt along the historic Silk Road can get easily overlooked in the middle of the Anatolian plain, north east of the capital Ankara and near the Black Sea. It’s certainly not the first place to come to mind when looking for a novel approach in the concept of museums. Yet, the Baksı Museum combines an offering of contemporary Turkish art partnered with the preservation and continuation of ethnographic handcrafts of the region under some unique architectural roofs, while further bucking the convention of an easy central location by being situated at the end of a breathtaking impassible mountain road.

The desire to be at the center means that life is confined to the centers. The Baksı Museum takes a position against everything being dragged into the center, proposing that the center be perceived from the periphery.

“Baksı” (ending with the Turkish undotted letter ı, pronounced BAK-suh) means “shaman” in the Kyrgyz dialect of Turkish. The name was chosen for its meaning “as ‘healer’, ‘helper’ and ‘protector’, all of which sort well with the museum’s mission”: to “create an original center of cultural interaction involving traditional and contemporary arts for the benefit of artists and researchers, to revive a cultural environment shattered by migration, and to contribute toward the sustainability of the cultural memory.”

The first question Turks will ask each other upon meeting for the first time, even in a megacity like Istanbul, is “Where’s your memleket?” which translates to homeland. As Turkey has modernized, rural regions have emptied of their inhabitants, yet nostalgia remains for the place of their birth. Traditional skills like weaving, folk painting, embroidery and pottery making have been mostly discarded, no longer needed in the urban centers that draw Anatolia’s rural populations looking for a better way of life. “Migration in the region has led to the loss of traditional culture and to cultural alienation.” Those remaining in their homeland, especially the women, are often at a loss to create a livelihood beyond subsistence farming.

The Baksı offers multiple ways to local residents as well as the larger Turkish population to counteract this cultural alienation, in three main categories: by showcasing contemporary artists who view their culture through new eyes, and by fostering projects which teach sustainability and entrepreneurship through traditional fiber arts. The museum also acts as a protector against the loss of local culture, via its ethnographic exhibits.

Every year, the museum puts out a call to contemporary artists countrywide to be guests in the region, producing works to be exhibiting the following year. One such exhibit, entitled Distance and Touch “proposed works…classified under the categories of ‘migration’, ‘creation’, ‘nameless masses’ ‘uncanny’ and ‘alienation’.” The underlying theme examines: “While the distance created by seeing and knowing helps us understand the world, touching designates our allegiance to places and things. Discovering and shaping the world depends on our contact with it.” This social interaction takes place in various disciplines, with the goal to combine tradition and art. In a time in which people are disconnected from their origins not only through migration, but may only connect and learn via the very non-tactile realm of the Internet, exploring the bigger picture that distance brings, balanced with the nearness touch requires, helps to ease and make sense of alienation from each other and our increasingly hybrid cultures.

Using local materials is a focus for another series displaying the works of Turkish designers, a different one each year. The museum’s opening exhibit featured clothing made by fashion designer Özlem Süer using ehram, the sacred white hand woven cotton worn by Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, as a fabric, thus connecting trend and tradition, reminding us that what we wear can and does hold clues to a collective past. The featured designer chooses the designer for the following year.

Pottery is nourished by the depths of the earth, ehram by the nomadic way of life.

While Bayburt may be off the beaten path, it was an intersection of the Silk Road with the Black Sea region. This rich heritage is evident in the ethnographic collection of folk paintings, including paintings on glass, lithographs and embroideries. The works display a cross-section of both religious and shamanistic belief, expressed in various forms. Also represented are the local traditional arts collected in the region: the ornamented cotton ehram weaving, earthenware pottery and metalwork.

The third category of exploration the Baksı offers is the most interactive social support. “Weaving a Future on the Loom” offers 20 students practical experience on ehram looms, along with “theoretical and applied instruction” along with entrepreneurial education, for 5 months at a time. Some students are given assistance in opening home weaving workshops. The project concentrates on bringing the production of a traditional fabric into line with the trends of today’s modern market, helping an additional 75 women in local villages in the first phases of the project “become producers and thus part of economic life”.

More sustainability can be found in the project “Anatolia in the Loom’s Warp,” which focuses on kilims, the traditional utilitarian weavings of Turkic peoples. Including nearby regions Erzurum and Erzincan which have similar issues of migration and underemployment, the project strives to revive a tradition devastated by urbanization and the predominance of machine woven rugs produced for the domestic market. “The goal is to increase the number of weavers in this region while developing new channels for marketing, thereby enabling the spread of kilim weaving as an alternative source of income.” A worthy endeavor, though one made increasingly more difficult by the vast number of kilims and carpets now woven in neighboring countries to the east for the tourism industry that dominates trade in Turkey’s overpopulated west.

The Baksı Museum is the brainchild of Hüsamettin Koçan, an artist and educator born in Bayburt. For many years he taught at the Marmara University School of Fine Arts, where he served as dean from 1997 to 2005; he is also the founder of the Istanbul Art Fair. Preparations for the Baksı began in the year 2000, with exhibits held in various galleries in Istanbul to bring awareness of the project and support from artists. By 2005, these artists numbered 125, and Koçan gifted 125 of his own paintings to the museum in thanks for their support. By 2005, projects in affiliation with the Baksı Culture and Art Foundation helped to open the doors of the museum and introduce it to the general public.

Many thanks to Gulin Tasdelen for providing additional information and photos. For more info:

Catherine Salter Bayar is a California native living in seaside Samatya, old city Istanbul, where she and her husband Abit own Bazaar Bayar, a handcrafts workshop and café.