The Last Orientalist*
* This text is published in the catalogue "Sarp Kerem Yavuz - The Last Orientalist" in 2021.
The geographic location in which we were born, grew up or chose to live afterwards determines our perception in life, our ideas and what we produce. The time we are born into shapes our view of the past and the future. Our stories are as diverse and original as the space we occupy in the world. Likewise, Sarp Kerem Yavuz looks at his culture, gender and history based on the individual stories of himself and others. He critically, boldly and ironically examines his surroundings. He tells provocative stories about big issues while colliding pieces he has torn from his own perception and thought with tradition and social norms. He reveals his own perspective on issues he has been subjected to, such as the way the East and the West see each other, the masculine roles in these societies and homosexuality. The series, which are conceptually intertwined with each other, offer a variety that constantly renews itself visually and structurally.
Based on his own relationship with his father, the artist’s first series “Substitutes for my Father” begins by having various men with different cultural backgrounds tell about their memories with their fathers. This installation, which consists of polaroid portraits of the participants hanging above anonymous quotations on the wall, gains a sociological aspect due to the diversity of these memories as well as the universal attributes the father-son relationships have in common. This work, which the viewers associate with their own families and memories, presents firsthand testimonies on the gender roles taught to us in both private and social life.
Yavuz's practice of thinking about defined gender roles continues in his series titled "In the Closet". During his university education in the USA, he took photographs in the locker room of the college football team. On the one hand this setting seems familiar because of the TV series and movies he watched in Turkey while growing up, and on the other hand it is something he is foreign to. In these photographs, he recreates this environment the way he sees and imagines it. With the influence of the athletes' nakedness and body language, this highly masculine environment becomes ambiguous and loses its boundaries. Scenes set with references to heroic paintings or orientalist odalisque paintings as seen in Western art history, shift this supposedly masculine environment to different ends. Yavuz's early series "In the Closet" continues with new photographs in which he stages the social relationships between men in Turkish baths. Through private spaces shared by fellows such as locker rooms and baths, the artist reflects on the similarities and contrasts between two different geographical locations and societies.
In his “Mashallah” series which came to life after the Gezi protests in Turkey in the summer of 2013, he uses traditional Turkish arts as a material to exhibit an attitude against the political imposition of religious and cultural preferences in the region. In these photographs, bodies that could not be shown due to the figure ban in Islam come to light under the Iznik tile motifs. Today, a fake veil of tradition and nostalgia is draped over these formerly prohibited bodies. The artist depicts this hidden body not as a female figure as usual, but as aestheticized erotic male figures. In contrast to the times in history when homosexuality was normalized as a demonstration of power and an effort to dominate rather than a romantic relationship, these bodies themselves physically rebel against this order.
In these works, Yavuz reverses the language and technique used in the orientalist paintings in which the East was portrayed the way Western painters imagined it to be. Based on his life in both cultures, he reciprocally breaks the mold with his male bodies dressed in Iznik tiles and resemble ancient sculptures, as well as with his photographs where he reinterprets the American lifestyle created through visual culture. Performative gender roles attributed to men are destroyed by the hesitation or courage of these characters and lose their reality.
In his more recent works, Yavuz uses the language and irony of popular culture to revive the longing for the Ottoman era, which is lately being ideologically created in Turkey. Thus, he creates a parody about the dream of never-ending power. In his series called “Curse of the Forever Sultan”, Yavuz constructs a fantasy Ottoman universe and mythology, constituted of cursed notables of the palace. In this underground universe, in order to maintain his power, the Sultan sells his soul and the souls of the notables and soldiers and thus becomes immortal. But for those characters, who, in spite of having their own personalities and lives, cannot get out of the sultan's order, immortality is a curse that only makes them pathetic and ridiculous. Similarly, the series named “I think the Sultan knows about us”, which consists of light boxes, completes this 'cyberpunk' Ottoman universe and creates an epic dystopia.
The recreation of an imagined and conceived past through art and media is a method commonly used by totalitarian regimes. In response to this unquestioned praise of the past and the nostalgia created, Yavuz brings the icons of the past to the present. Using the colors and aesthetics of comics and computer games, he transforms the heroes of the past into necromantic figures. These characters, who try to be immortal for the sake of status and power, become a caricature in today's world and lose their significance.
At the beginning of his career, Sarp Kerem Yavuz physically distanced himself from the environment in which he grew up. He faced the new culture as a stranger, and later took a look at his own estranged culture and began to question the values that have become social norms. Based on his own experiences in the East and the West, his homosexual identity and his cultural perceptions, he breaks and reconstructs the familiar patterns that societies create against each other. Although taking different shapes in each environment, he carries the fundamentally similar male roles, sexual taboos and traditional structures to the present by means of bodies that have been shown or could not be shown throughout the history of art.