by Unsettling Wonder
An interview with Aikaterini Gegisian
by Defne Cizakca
Part 1 of 2
I met Aikaterini at wintertime, in a small amphitheatre at University College London where we were attending a masterclass on Ottoman Cosmopolitanism. In between a Kurdish woman singing Greek rembetiko songs, and academics investigating transcultural memories of migration, she gave a presentation on her latest installation: ‘Self Portrait as an Ottoman Woman.’ Her curation of the Ottoman persona through gestures was captivating in its original simplicity, her wit and thoughtfulness manifest in the way she responded to audience questions with ideas that led off to fresh enquiries. I was compelled to ask her for an interview.
Our conversation will be featured in the forthcoming Changelings issue of Unsettling Wonder. Below is a condensed excerpt.
Defne: ‘Self Portrait as an Ottoman Woman’ consists of postcards in which Ottoman women are categorized not according to their ethnicity as was typical, but according to their movements, the direction of their gaze and hand gestures. Could you tell me how you came up with this idea?
Aikaterini: The idea for ‘Self Portrait as an Ottoman Woman’ began with a memory. While in Armenia in 2011, I came across a postcard of a woman from Megri and I noticed that she was wearing her headscarf in a similar manner to that of my Greek grandmother. This realisation, combined with a long term fascination with national dresses, folk costumes and patterns, led me to research the links, similarities and variations of female clothing across the Ottoman and post-Ottoman landscape.
In the process of collecting the postcards, and after an initial archival fever, I began to notice the complex cultural and geographical positioning of some of the women. For example, I came across postcards featuring a Turkish woman of Cairo and a Jewish woman from Thessaloniki, eclectic identities that are no longer present in the new national states that were constructed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
As the collection of postcards gave visibility to a new collective body, my thinking departed from a documentary, historical or purely archival sensibility. I began to construct and deconstruct the category of the ‘Ottoman woman’ as a potential space for subjective identification. In that sense, my claim of the term ‘Ottoman woman’ is an attempt to address an aggregate female body that has hardly ever been visible. I bring this collectivity to the foreground through an ‘inappropriate’ regrouping based on gestures and postures, rather than ethnicity, religion or class which have hitherto been the typical denominators. This creates a new space of belonging, whilst questioning the complex and contradictory national, ethnic and social positions of these women.
It is without doubt that I place myself inside this new space of communal belonging, but I do so with caution. I do not want to rest in a single, fixed position. My desire for continuous movement mirrors the fluidity of social and subjective relations. This is why the organisational principle of ‘Self Portrait as an Ottoman Woman’ is a focus on gestures, hand movements and postures. If you look carefully, you can see me as part of this collective body with my head turned left and my eyes shyly looking up in order to avoid the gaze of the camera.
Defne: Your ethnic background is mixed, you are half Armenian and half Greek, and the cities you study reflect this heritage: Athens, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Yerevan. In your short film ‘The City/Game 1,’ the narrator recites Greek Poet C.P Cavafy’s ‘The City.’ Could you talk a little about its central notion, namely that a particular city always follows you where ever you go?
Aikaterini: The city is a central preoccupation in my work. Both as location and as cultural text: from the examination of urban planning and documentation of architecture and infrastructure, to the investigation of the historical traces and the layering of cultural memories in the city scape. I am also interested in the emergence of specific cities as cultural reference points. The urban environment and especially that of the post-Ottoman and post-Soviet context seems to haunt my thinking.
The performative video work ‘The City / Game 1’ based on Cavafy’s poem ‘The City’ forms part of my recurrent return to these themes. The initial impetus in choosing the poem was not a deep critical awareness of Cavafy’s work, but rather an autobiographical sensitivity.
I was approaching a time in my life, having been away from Greece for 7 years, when I was trying to find a place where I could belong.Thus, the specific poem and Cavafy’s work in general were resonant for me, more as cultural objects, linked in the popular imagination with specific themes such as the ideas of the journey, of longing and belonging.
Conceptually I wanted to avoid interpreting the poem and was determined not to create an illustration of it. That’s why I decided to focus on performance, rather than observation. Instead of watching the city (in this case Athens) with my camera – using claustrophobic framing to symbolise enclosure or utilising similar techniques – I opted for an action that was both separate from the poem, and created a distance from it: collecting cigarette buds from the streets of the city. Such direct, performative deeds were hitherto foreign to my work. Thus, there were several degrees of separation present in “The City, Game 1”. 1) There was me, separated from the world, 2) There was the estrangement from the performative action, 3) and there was the distance of the performance from the actual poem.
Unlike the enclosure of the city that Cavafy’s poem describes, unlike this inevitable city that always follows you, I offer another possibility. I invite the poet into a childish game, mainly, a different city can be constructed from the rubbish of its streets. In my work the poem is translated into a performative action of collecting cigarettes buds. In offering the possibility of another city made from the rubbish of the old, the voice-over whispering composes a cathartic act, an act of liberation, an opening up to the world.
Aikaterini Gegisian is a visual artist of Greek and Armenian descent who works across video, photography, installation and collage. She utilizes location footage, popular films, found images, tourist guides and archival postcards in her art. The Armenian Pavilion in which she participated in 2015 won the Golden Lion award in the Venice Biennial. Her work has been exhibited in the NARS Foundation, New York, Peltz Gallery, London, Vladikafkaz Fine Arts Museum, North Ossetia, Centre for Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki and Spike Island Gallery, Bristol, among others. She is currently a Research Lecturer in Fine Art at Teeside University, UK.