We made a pleasant interview with Fatma Batukan Belge, the ceramic artist who also works as a journalist and academician. We talked about her preferences regarding ceramic works, her art writing and her academic life.
We are now with a journalist and a ceramic artist. You also give lectures in the university. Which field do you feel attached to the most?
I am equally attached to each one of them and I fondly practice them. But in terms of time, journalism has a priority for it’s my first profession. I own a permanent press card. I served 25 years in every field of journalism such as newspapers, magazines and tv and took active part in every level from being a correspondant to editorship. For the last five years I have been writing art articles in the Aydınlık newspaper. As for ceramics, it came into my life in 2002. I have been giving lectures in a university as a part-time academic. I really don’t want to be unfair to ceramic artists who devote themselves to this profession. After all, I am splitting my energy into three fields. Although my main devotedness is for my daughter. Motherhood is above anything else. My daughter is now 7,5 years old and things will continue on their course until she grows up a bit more. Of course there are many mothers who are also successful artists and academicians. I have to admit that I can’t run them altogether. As someone who set back her child while concentrating on education and career, my daughter has the top priority.
How did ceramics come into your life?
Actually it was out of the blue. I wish I could say ‘When I was a child, I used to do these with mud and clay. It was obvious that I would become a ceramic artist’…But it wasn’t like that. After passing the aptitude test of Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts, I became entitled to attend the interviews of three departments: Painting, Sculpture and Ceramics. Until that moment, I was conditioned to study painting. In contrast to the attitude of the Painting and Sculpture jury who exclude the applicant students and try to talk them out of studying these fields; the positive, embracing attitude of Prof. Güngör Güner of the Ceramic Department Jury who was trying to reach to the students, deeply affected me. I enrolled myself in the Ceramic Department after passing the interview. My mother also used to practice ceramics in various studios for years. She encouraged me towards ceramics and tempted me by saying “we will open up a studio together”. In fact, I loved ceramics and I have never regretted my decision to choose this department. One thing that I am highly proud of is the fact that I gradauted with a first from the workshop of Prof. Güngör Güner. I had the chance to work with highly esteemed professors with Prof. Güngör being in the first place. I guess I won’t be exaggerating to say they ares legendary professors. Prof. Jale Yılmabaşar, Prof. Ateş Arcasoy…Of course Prof. Cevat Demir from the Painting Department, Çiçek Derman and Canan Beykal from Traditional Turkish Arts…And I also had the privilege of studying during the same period with a legendary dean, Prof. Hüsamettin Koçan. He used to love his college so deeply that he was shaking off tree branches when it was snowy so that they wouldn’t break off. I even saw that he was shoveling the snow which was piled up around the door. In all honesty, faculty made a great breakthrough during his tenure.
How did you establish a bond with art?
I guess it started when I was born. My mother Lütfiye Batukan is an artist who makes baby dolls with national uniforms. For as long as I can remember, I used to go to exhibitions with her. I used to participate to her exhibitions. I had talent as well. I actually wanted to study Fine Arts after high school. After becoming entitled to study İstanbul University Vocational School of Press (currently known as the faculty of communication), I felt tempted to study journalism. I started working as of the second year of college. While I was working in Hürriyet newspaper, I was also practicing the art of engraving in Mine Arasan Engraving Studio. But journalism was so intense and demanding, that I couldn’t spare time for engraving. Above all, when all the newspaper companies moved to İkitelli from Cağaloğlu, it became really difficult. Going to engraving studio by breaking away from the newspaper suddenly became a dream for me. This hiatus continued until 2000. I was in that exact rush where many journalists became unemployed. In the middle of this storm, it suddenly hit me. I asked myself “Do I really want to do this?”. Actually I wanted to perform art and I wanted to do this by getting a proper academic education. This process led me to go to the university for the second time. There were some people saying, “You are already a graduate. You should have gone for a master degree. Do you really want to study for four years again?”. However, I don’t think that a master degree is enough for someone who didn’t receive art education. Working with professors each day for four years in a studio and coming to classes for a couple of hours each week are completely different things. A master degree allows you to absorb and interpret the information you have received throughout your academic life. Honestly, I wouldn’t say no to directly study for doctorate (proficiency in art). Because it could work owing to two college degrees, years of journalism practices and being of a certain age. Regulations also allowed me to do so. But our Graduate School Manager of Fine Arts raised difficulties and stopped me from doing that. I still don’t know what he has achieved by doing that
How did you get back to journalism afterwards?
Actually I wasn’t planning to. Journalism also had its share from the corruption in the other layers of society. Idealism, principles and the spirit of journalism were long gone when compared to the period I started the profession. The old journalist profile has turned into a living creature that was becoming extinct. So I completely devoted myself to my school while studying in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Afterwards, I took the master degree in the same school through the encouragement of my professors even if it was further from my mind. Then I started my doctorate in Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. In the meantime, my love towards writing reappeared when an offer came from the Aydınlık newspaper. The attitude and character of this organization and their commitment towards presenting a wide coverage of art convinced me. If we become offended and give up, we can not cope with problems that corrode journalism such as the restrictions regarding the freedom of press, monotony, unemployment and bestowing privilege on friends. Writing no matter what, serves as antidote against these issues. As a cherry on top, it’s a great opportunity to include ceramics, even though it’s perceived as an ignored discipline, into my articles about art.
Can we say that you, as an art writer, take affirmative action towards ceramic artists?
I think there is no harm in it. Somebody needs to do this. Art galleries are not willing to open up ceramic exhibitions, art collectors do not buy ceramic works. Art writers belittle ceramics for its artisanal aspect and they do not write about it. While I was writing my doctorate thesis, I wanted to take an opinion from an important art writer and academician. He evaded me by saying “I don’t understand anything from ceramics”. As if ceramics is not a part of contemporary art… Whereas many active ceramic artists create highly successful works and make arguments in favor of social criticism. Why ignore them? Prof. Güngör Güner once told me something that made me extremely happy: “The fact the someone like you who has a serious journalism and ceramic background, writes articles about our field,is a great opportunity for us. Ceramics is now in good hands!”. This statement is the greatest achivement of my life; I wouldn’t be happier if I have received the Pulitzer award.
Let’s talk about your ceramic works…What kind of a frame you would draw for your artistic understanding?
Just as my writings…It means that I have a simple style which is far from larding and going all round the houses all the time. Texture, form and context are three elements that I care about. Regarding the form I created to make a certain concept visible, it’s important for it to be effective. It means that even though there is no subtext, that form needs to express itself. As you all know it’s not that easy to make a statement in conceptual art without a manifesto. We all witness it in biennials or contemporary art exhibitions; it’s difficult to resolve and interpret the context of the work without a text. I never forget that many years ago we went to the opening of a biennial exhibition in AKM. A friend of mine who describes herself as an “art writer” since her academic years, checked out a carpet in the foyer area and said: “Oh…Whose work is it?”. Even if you put a garbage can in the exhibition area, you can potentially see it as a piece of art if your perception tends to evaluate it as a work of art. Even those who say “I know all about art” will cease to understand it. What I am trying to say is that you need to create such a thing that expresses itself without any subtext or manifesto. At this point, I want to mention Eduard Trier who is known for the claims he raises about form and void. According to him, form transmits the message of the artist and achieves its goal. How and in what way a piece of art emerges with its figural aspect, has a crucial importance for revealing the interpretation and information hidden inside it. Therefore ceramic works can be handled as sculptures in terms of three dimensionality, of course if it’s not a functional object. Additionally, the word of Prof. Güngör stating “Without missing the target of ceramics”, is a principle for me. I am in favor of doing something that will lift effectiveness when created with clay, not something that I could easily do with some other material. Plus, “firing” condition is also very important. Raw clay can not turn into ceramics, it has to be fired. The adornment on top of it also has to be fired and fixed. I have been seeing this since my academic years; some professors only focus on the context of conceptual works. There are those who make prints and stickers with paints. Perhaps it can not be noticed when looked from the outside but you will know it. This is against the spirit of ceramics. Ceramics stands for a discipline that becomes integrated with technology. In the lack of technology, some things will eventually be missing.
What do you think is the importance of context in works of art?
Just like in all works of art, the context is important for ceramics as well. Of course there are different reasons behind the motivations of artists and what drove them to produce art. Some of them acts through various inner motivations and some of them are just sensitive about social developments. Context is all about the choices and the stance of the artist. I get the feeling that all of the art works that have been created in the frame of conceptual or contemporary art, were directed from a single source…It’s a natural outcome of globalization; forces that run the world steer the art scene in the same way. When you sit at the feet of contemporary art, you eventually move away from national values and shut your ears to national problems. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that our ceramic artists keep up with social criticism when compared to other disciplines. There are many artists who bravely address issues like the Gezi Park Resistance, coups, cultural corruption and values of our Republic. I myself give thoughts about these subjects since my pupilage. I was in the second grade when I created “A Nation for Sale”. I created this work to criticize the sell out of our coastline by auction, to foreigners during the privatization rush. When my mother saw it, her blood pressure went down saying “Is your country negotiable?”…Of course it’s not but again, that was the effect I wanted to create back then. Although I am not really sure if those who do, tear their heart out. For instance, there is a matter that I am working on at the moment: The Saturday Mothers. These mothers rally each week at the same spot for years with a never-ending determination to question the fate of their lost children in a silent and dignified manner. At times, they fall of the agenda but we all know that they are at that exact spot every Saturday. Even if no one writes about them or make news about them, they are still there. Even if they are forgotten, they will be there.
Do you think that artists should be the witnesses of time?
I can’t say that everyone should. Like I said before, it’s up to the artist. From my standpoint, artists with social sensitivities are more estimable. Time may be the best medicine but only with the permanence of the work of art, memories can be refreshed. Even if the society forgets it, someone will eventually remember it if that work of art is tangibly there.
Textures you obtain from spirals and goats are some of the works that you can not abandon for years. Am I right?
I already said that texture is important. Yes, textures I have obtained from spirals are kind of my signature. At times, these spirals turn into form beyond being merely a texture. I have been using them since my pupilage. It’s an element that I usually use for creating contrasts upon simple forms. Pearl, Nothing is what it Seems, and its antithesis, Everything is what it Seems, are some of my spiral works. As for goats, they are there since my pupilage. What inspired me within this sense was the novel of Luan Starova which is entitled “The Time of the Goats”. These animals are the most stubborn, free spirited creatures of the world that hate being dependent on people. They took place in every civilization as important figures. It’s no surprise that there are figures of goats in the Anatolian civilizations. Although not yet certain, it’s estimated that domestic goats came to Anatolia from Asia through Capra Aegagrus. Being accused of destroying nutritional sources and doing more harm than good, the real reason behind the exclusion of goats is maybe the fact that humanity is jealous of their freedom, independency and determination. While for me, they represent a symbol of these concepts of which I admire. I am not really sure if that is because my mother pet capricorns when she was pregnant with me or I am just too stubborn as a mule, they are the animals I feel closest to. The first goat I made was a garden sculpture. I see solid lines and pleasant curves when I look at a goat not only in a conceptual sense but also in a figural one. That’s why I create my goats without passing over the curves, through a form that gets their feet on the ground. I can even say that they evoke an architectural structure. I have never given up on creating goats for years. Besides, the concepts that are symbolized by goats will take place at my future exhibition. These works will be assembled under the title of “The Time of the Goats”and they will be dedicated to those who maintain their efficiency through determination, persistance and tenacity. Just like the Saturday Mothers…
Don’t you like to use any colors while creating your works?
It’s true, especially during the recent years, I love working with black clay. I only prefer to use black and white clay. I even don’t want to use glaze, which is one of the substantial elements of ceramics. Colors may offer endless possibilities for those who like to use them. To tell the truth, I am not really keen on chasing colors lately. I worry about light and shade values on the form to be pushed towards a secondary position. In fact, ceramic artists are not like many sculptors who are afraid of using colors in their works. Glaze is a significant element that makes ceramic what it is, protects it from the abrasive effects of the external world and gives different colors to it. While the whole world names this material with words that have the meanings of “glass” or “varnish”, it’s interesting to see that it’s defined as “sır (secret)” in our language. There aren’t any exact informations about the etymology of this word. However, it’s very likely that it bears this name for it’s something that you shouldn’t tell anyone and keep it as a secret. It’s just like defining wash which is being put on mirrors, as glazes. That glaze is the material that keeps all the secrets of the mirror. In ancient doctrines, ‘sır’ stands for what is closed, not hidden. It’s a notion that can be seen from the outside but not showing its true essence. In the past, glazes were transferred from masters to apprentices, from father to son, through a strict discretion. They didn’t document, archive or classify the formulas. Isn’t that the same discretion that prevented İznik pottery, one of the artefacts defining Turkish culturein the best way possible, to reach our day? Fortunately, the ceramic technologies now allow us to reach any kinds of colors including the legendary coralline.
Currently, you are giving lectures in Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation University Faculty of Fine Arts Tile Art Department, is it correct?
Yes. It’s called Tile Art Department but I don’t consider tiles different than ceramics. Tile Art is a field that resides under the umbrella of ceramics. There is a huge disconnection between traditional tile artists and ceramicists. Modern ceramic artists belittle tiles and traditionalists tackle ceramic as a different discipline. Each side marginalizes the other. I believe that this understanding needs to come to an end and each side needs to respect each other. This is the first statement I make to my students in the first lesson of the educational year. If they want to create tiles, then they have to learn the basis, raw materials, firing and glazing techniques of ceramics. Tile is a gift to the Mediterranean culture from Islamic ceramicists. It’s the first product that comes to mind in the West, when you speak about Turkish art. It left traces on ceramics of different countries through acculturation. I personally don’t like ordinary and marketable tiles as well but I value tiles that took a fair amount of labor and that have unique designs. Besides, don’t we have contemporary artists who took inspiration from traditional tiles but present extremely unique works? We have organized a panel in our faculty last year, entitled “Turkish Tile Art from the Perspective of Ceramicists”. To let the chips fall where they may…I think it turned out to be an eye-opening and uniting event. These kinds of endeavors need to continue. Not enough importance are placed upon tiles in the ceramic departments of fine arts faculties. In the department of Traditional Turkish Arts, there are studies mainly based on patterns and design. There aren’t enough lectures about basis, raw materials, clay, glaze and firing techniques. It means that there are inadequacies regarding both sides. A graduate of tile art or ceramic department, needs to know how to create a tile from scratch.
You are a Board Member of Turkish Ceramic Society. Could you please tell us about the latest studies of the society?
We started off to realize this year’s conference of European Ceramic Society (ECerS 2017) in Istanbul. However, with coup attempt, acts of terrorism and the incident of Syria, it turned out that we would be unable to hold this event here, just like all the other cancelled conferences. Through conducting a mutual study with the Hungarian Scientific Society of the Silicate Industry, it has been decided to host the event in Hungary. For the first time, two societies organize a conference altogether. The event will be held in Budapest between July 9-13. The co-chairmen of the event will be Prof. Servet Turan and Csaba Balazsi. The presidents of Art and Ceramics Department are Prof. Beril Anılanmert and Wilhelm Siemen. This is our most important event of the year. I have been in the Board Member of Turkish Ceramic Society for almost ten years. It’s a complete volunteer work. Someone who didn’t set their heart on ceramics can not do this job. If Turkish Ceramic Society didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be possible to realize ceramic conferences and similar events that have been carried out until today in Turkey. We are talking about a union that has no income besides limited membership fees. Despite this, we organize important conferences that manage to gather art, science and industry altogether through devoted efforts. As a member of the artistic side, I can easily say that we try to treat everyone equally and be fair, throughout the artistic activities we organize such as exhibitoins.
You are also in the Editorial Board of our Seramik Türkiye magazine and you are one of the art editors. As our final question, can we ask how do you like our magazine as a journalist? I think this was the most difficult question. We need to give credit for everyone who subedit the magazine. Besides, we are also grateful for the Turkish Ceramics Federation for keeping the magazine alive. This is a service for the industry. Because the Federation does not make money from the magazine, on the contrary, it spends money. However, it fills an important gap in the field of ceramics. It’s the only medium especially for ceramic artists to be heard. It’s a magazine that also publishes scientific articles and it’s registered to the index. Of course there have been many studies in the previous years regarding this issue. Therefore it needs to steadily stay on its course. It applies to art, science and industry, meaning that it applies to all three aspects of ceramics and it’s not easy to find the balance in such an organization. The only problem is that it’s being published only twice a year. The six-month gap in between is too long. Months pass after the publishing of the news. It would be better if it gets issued four times a year. Magazine publishing in Turkey is not an easy task and the magazines usually don’t last long. Therefore we need to appreciate the quality of the Seramik Türkiye magazine. I also thank you for your efforts.
Thank you for the informations you have provided.