Female bodies are entwined on an intricately woven Turkish carpet. Thighs loop around arms, hair mingles and each woman appears to stare off languidly into the distance. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the seductive centre of ‘Lamentations’, a photograph by Turkish artist Nafiz Topçuog˘lu.
But beside these bodies are three figures that we could almost miss – two are tearing their hair out, while the other raises her hands in divine appeal. ‘The image began from the photograph of prisoners piled on top of each other at Abu Ghraib in prison in Iraq,’ Topçuog˘lu tells us. ‘It also draws on elements from ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ by Théodore Géricault.
I took something of the arrangement from that painting, then I had the lamenting women on the right-hand side. And them tearing at their hair – this was a common sight in Iraq, but then you can see a similar thing in Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’. So even though it’s topical, it’s universal also – images like this have been happening throughout history.’
Topçuog˘lu’s solo show at Green Art Gallery includes works from collections that the artist has produced in recent years. They present scenes of biblical drama – we see Cain about to strike Abel, who falls down a flight of stairs. We see Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, while angelic figures look on. Yet these scenes are entirely made up of young Turkish women in either school uniform or strange nightwear, in what appears to be a vaguely baroque library.
It’s undoubtedly bizarre. ‘I’m trying to imagine a world with only women in it, with women taking male parts,’ Topçuog˘lu explains. ‘I have a female Jesus, a female Abraham. There are so many men in important roles in history and in the history of pictures. It’s a very male-dominated reality. In a sense, I’m showing a reversal of history, where men would take female roles in the old theatres.’
The recent works collected here continue a mythos that Topçuog˘lu has been developing since 2001’s ‘Early Readers’, a run of photographs depicting young girls (again in school uniform) in a state of blissful harmony, reading books together. It’s unnervingly twee. But with each new series, we see that begin to break down – scenes of simmering violence, struggles for dominance among the other women and, finally, the strange biblical scenes included here. The most recent work, a triptych shot in a former power station in Istanbul (below), forms the next stage in this drama. ‘It’s like a judgement or a trial; there are two separate groups of girls – one group is more conformist, wearing school uniforms, while the other is more adventurous. The conformists are scrutinising the others. It’s almost allegorical, very old fashioned. They have suffered for their choices for being non-conformist and still they are struggling, or enjoying it.’
Topçuog˘lu reflects on the various series in his portfolio. ‘It started as girls studying and reading, united and educating themselves, so to speak. But gradually they differentiate, and begin to separate in power plays. It’s ironic; what I’m saying is that an entirely female society would still have all these power games. It’s a very dystopic vision.’
Back in the ’90s, Topçuog˘lu emerged into a Turkish art scene that was unprepared for the photography he was presenting. ‘It was hard to make them accept my work as art. When people thought of photography at that time, they immediately thought of reportage.’ He tells us that one of his earliest series from 2000, ‘Colour Offal’, was intended to shock people enough into giving a photograph the time of day. The works, which remain viscerally repulsive (and a nice play on words), feature chunks of animal innards reappropriated as decorative objects – lambs’ brains are nestled among petals as a simultaneously revolting and oddly pleasing rose; a sheep’s head in a tripe hat and wrapped in fairy lights is a sickly table centrepiece.
But this engagement with how we apprehend – and perhaps easily discard – images continues into his recent work. ‘An audience is conditioned to look at women as sexual objects in pictures. When they see a girl in a picture, they assume its purpose, as an erotic image. I’m interested in the way women are represented in images, and the way people look at images of women – with the expectance that pictures of girls must always be sexy. But if you look at them a little more, you find that something else is going on.’
Consolation continues at Green Art Gallery until January 21