Blurring borders: A Chicago-based Turkish artist explores changing identities, gender-based art

"Untitled Easterners" by Hale Ekinci. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

Hale Ekinci’s portraits don’t have faces. Her life-size paper images depict blank-slate figures surrounded by collages of Turkish culture: military lineups, women’s protests, wedding celebrations. In other pieces Ekinci obscures already blurred faces in textile-mounted family photos with small black dots. And in more than a dozen of her creations, a traditional Turkish embroidery style called “oya” colorfully traces the borders. When brought together, these artworks leave Northwestern University’s Norris University Center exhibition room filled with people surrounded by cultural symbols yet without clear identities. To Ekinci, that’s the point.

In “Oya: Borders of History,” Ekinci observes social developments and conflicts in Turkey and explores how she — a Turk who has lived in the U.S. since 2002 — sees her own identity evolving as it spans two continents. Here, the North Central College professor of art and design discusses the inspiration behind her exhibit and what she has learned about possessing a “transcultural” identity. The exhibit opened on Jan. 9 and runs until Feb. 9.

(Courtesy of Imani Thomas)

What is oya, and how do you use it in your art?

Oya is crocheted trimmings that are usually on the edges of headscarves in Turkey, and it’s a very long tradition. It used to be that each region had their own patterns, and each pattern meant something and symbolized something. I’ve read a lot about women who would get married and then move into their husband’s house; they didn’t really have much say, so they would communicate through the patterns in the oya. Things like that inspire me, using symbols as communication and how women use their crafts to communicate.

How did you take these different art forms — the tapestries, the paper portraits, the dresses hanging from the ceiling — and make them into one coherent exhibit?

I’m glad you thought they were dresses. They’re ambiguous forms, inspired by the body and women’s silhouettes, like the pencil skirt.

I think the connecting thread is the photos from families or traditional settings or protest — these things that tell stories about people in different levels — and how they communicate the identity of someone like me. But it could also be an immigrant or someone who lives in different cultures.

Visually, they’re all very pattern-based, very colorful, vibrant, and lots of textures and patterns happening at once. It’s a big space, but I chose to hang the large ones all concentrated into this one wall and overwhelm you with colors and all these things going on. There’s a big contrast both in size and density of imagery in all the other pieces.

“Untitled Christian Girls” by Hale Ekinci, suspended from the ceiling. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

You obscure the faces in your portraits with a blurring treatment and small black dots. What’s the significance of creating portraits with unrecognizable faces?

I think it started as an instinct to make them anonymous because it was my family, it was my mom, and I didn’t necessarily want to make it too personal. But as I started applying that to other ones, I realized how it made them all more universal. I’ve been told that they could be anyone’s family, from anywhere, and I like that idea, both to comment on as an immigrant, how we feel like we’re so different, but actually we’re not. All families, anywhere in the world, have posed for photos like that, and that’s why I only used ones that are posed, where you come together and take this portrait. It didn’t matter whose family it is if I made that.

You work a lot with both Turkish and American culture. What do you mean when you describe your art as transcultural?

It’s the things that make us human and connect us across cultures. It stems from my personal experience; as I said, I’m not fully a Turk anymore, but I’m not really American either, so I’m this transcultural identity. It’s almost hybrid: It’s a new thing, it’s neither one. I try to bring it into my work, that mix of cultures and transition between cultures.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

“Feisty Women: Headscarf Issue” by Hale Ekinci. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)
Photo at top: “Untitled Easterners” by Hale Ekinci. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)