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The Book of Streets


The Book of Streets is my latest project influenced by the miniature painters of the Ottoman and Persian dynasties and my life in Istanbul. Its origins grew during my time researching and making work around the 14th century miniaturist and storyteller Siyah kalem (The Black Pen) - a fifteen-year inquiry that inspired several series of sculptures and paintings, culminating in my solo exhibitions: The Black Pen, A Nomads’ Story and Şeytan Tüyü, both in Istanbul, and significantly, Nomadic Tales, my monumental 2020 installation at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield.

Whereas with Siyah Kalem, where my focus was on the characters found in his work, using them to create frames into which new narratives and a more contemporary process were made, with The Book of Streets I am stripping away the characters and focusing only on the landscape and architecture. Once again, the work appropriates from the texture of the city, street art, graphic design, and traces of human intervention in the urban space. The Book of Streets will be a series of large-scale wall hangings, intended to take the viewer on an immersive and intimate journey through the streets and stories of Istanbul.

The Book of Streets, as I have said, focuses on the architecture and landscape of contemporary Istanbul. However, at its core, the work is also an inquiry into the hierarchy and methodology of the miniaturists’ studios, producing their books in a very linear process. First the Sultan or patron would commission the book, often based around festivals, significant political meetings, or folk narratives. The next phase was the master who would arrange the poets and the artists and plan and write the book itself. Once conceived, the book idea was given to the paper-makers and marblers, the border painters, and the calligraphers. Finally, the studio would begin its work illustrating the stories, which also had its own method and hierarchy: the composition planner was the first person in the processes, followed by the draftsmen, who were often organized into the border painters, and the illustrators of plants, animals, and people - known as the black pens. Then eventually, the colorists, who would embellish the designs apply rich colors and patterns. Along the way the illustrations and pages would be handed to the gold beaters and the sprinklers who would illuminate where required with gold leaf. Finally, the book was given to the binders.

The studio itself was organized into a strict hierarchy: the masters, the journeymen, and the apprentices, who were often beaten into learning their craft. The studio followed strict codes about composition and the depiction of nature too, based on Islamic rules about representation - the creation of natural feeling forms with perspective and an artist’s idiosyncrasy was seen as creativity, and creation was seen as solely the work of Allah, even the Sultan would have the same face as everyone else! The process of making a book was laborious, highly profitable, and often very competitive, even within the studio.

As with all my work previously, The Book of Streets is a performative concept, in this case based upon the hierarchies and methodologies mentioned above. I am the commissioner and the writer of the stories, these being about my life and wanderings through the streets of Istanbul. I am the master, the one who makes this happen. I am the paper-maker, the sewer together of the hangings, the tie dyer, the ironer, and the primer of surfaces. I am the composition planner, the border painter, and the drawer of the elements - perspective flattened out and as objective as I can be. I am the colorist, and the gold sprinkler - following my own process of making. And, I am the calligrapher, tapping into the fluid language of street art and graffiti to find my typeface, overlaying and hiding the text in palimpsest layers. Finally, I am the binder, the presenter of the work in its together form. The work is based on tradition, and yet contemporary. It references the street, the graphic designer and the history of art. I am the Sultan - the commissioner of my own album.

The Book of Streets is funded by The Arts Council of England.