“Tell me what it was like? To be hung up on a cross mostly nude?”
She says she never came down from that cross for the rest of her life. Even though the artist in front of me was not actually nailed to a wooden cross, she is used to being crucified for those who come after her.
Sukran Moral and I are sitting in some flashy, hip café in downtown Istanbul at the arty and bohemian neighbourhood of Galata – home to artists, and those who wish to be artists. Everyone in the café is buried in Sartre books, only looking up to fix their rounded hipster glasses and subtlety whisper about my companion.
Moral is performance art royalty, the living and breathing depiction of the word quirky; a feminist and feminine creature of the 90s. Her journey from a small town near the Black Sea coast of Turkey, through domestic abuse, to Rome’s art circle and international acclaim has every trait of the great biographies she grew up reading.
Death threats, feminism, violence, perseverance, and sex. An heiress of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic in the non-Western side of the globe, the first of her kind in Turkey. Also, the first female artist to pose as the crucified Jesus in the history of art.
“Do you want to share a pizza?” She asks me nonchalantly, lighting up a long, slim cigarette, utterly oblivious to her surroundings. She informs the waitress that she will be sharing a pizza with her friend whom she met in-person for the first time today.
The wild waves of dark brown curls that used to brush her spine have been replaced by a short, modern bob. Yet, she maintains the same tulle gloves, red lipstick, and playful aura which jumps between the spirit of a curious nine-year-old and a mature woman, who is fully aware of her charisma.
“Men can be playful and grin and be taken seriously. But a woman can’t.”
Moral fixes her leather skirt, getting as comfy as one can get on a wooden stool placed on a narrow pavement. She crosses her legs, covered in black tights despite the sweltering afternoon. The first thing she would have you know about her is that she is a woman who does what she wants to — regardless of the weather, the critics, the public and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
“I’m not someone who expects to be validated by other people,” she tells me, “I don’t expect people to like me.”
Her demeanour is of someone who has succeeded in life but also has been through so much that their strength is braided with disappointments and compassion. Her gestures are extravagant, a souvenir from three decades spent in Rome. But her smile rests modest.
Moral has done countless performances, videos, and installations which often depict violence against women or other underrepresented groups. You can find her works in collections ranging from The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum and The Istanbul Modern Art Museum. You might also run into her works if you walk into a brothel, the men’s section of a Turkish bath or a mental hospital.
She might decide to turn any place into a museum, disrupting their usual function by choosing to exhibit there. Whether it is violence, repression or the hypocrisy of society, she will find a way to bring you face-to-face with whatever it is that she thinks you should be facing.
Moral is a controversial, taken-for-granted rock star in the Turkish art scene. But a rock star nonetheless – and sometimes – as it is with most famous people, it is difficult to remember she is also a flesh-and-bone human, who is sitting across me. “Ugh, I have the flu, I literally have the flu, and I hate having the flu,” she says.
She is one of those people whose charm comes from appearing intimidating at first, but make you feel at ease the second they start to talk. My intimidation melts like snow under the sun when she looks up at me from the menu and chuckles like an amused child.
“I’ve been reading this great book,” she exclaims, shaking her Italian copy of Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists by Linda Nochlin in the air.
“Because women have been seen as second-class citizens for centuries,” Moral replies out loud to Nochlin, “and the patriarchy only wants to see the man as a genius.”
“I mean, you have to be a bit of a genius to do art, right? You have to step out the norms a bit to be able to create art; you have to be a little mad. That ‘mad genius’ status, however, is not easily attainable to women. The kind of eccentric behaviour that comes with being an artist. When men do it, it is superiority; it is quirky, he is a genius. But when female artists act the same way, people say what the fuck is she doing?”
She was recently in Germany, getting her photograph taken for a catalogue. Moral sat straight in front of the camera and did the unthinkable — smiled. The curator told her to pose without grinning. She should be serious. Moral asked why. She talks about tragic things in her work, the curator argued, she has to be serious. If you are playful, flirty, smiley, can you not talk about serious things in your work?
“If you are a woman, you can’t,” she declares, “men can be playful and grin and be taken seriously. But a woman can’t.”
Moral enjoys being feminine, always, in all ages. And she is determined to continue being so — she will still be wearing tulle gloves and lipstick, even when she is 90 years old. She told the curator this was her character, that she always smiles, taking it out on all the years when she was not able to.
“Then don’t take me seriously,” she shrugs, fiddling with the corners of the menu, “I don’t want to live in a two-faced society. I don’t have to be like them, and I don’t want to be. If the ignorant people are the majority, what they say will be perceived as right. Even if it isn’t true, you become the one who’s not right because you’re the minority.”
Undoubtedly, Moral is someone who always speaks her mind and someone who is used to getting in trouble for it. Whether her audience is her friends or a journalist, she obtains the same calm, wise and awfully playful tone in her remarks. She has the guts to tell Der Spiegel journalist, Josh Ward, “you are a Catholic, I can tell, next question.” And the guts to tell her friends and fellow artists when she disagrees with them.
“The patriarchy only wants to see the man as a genius.”
“In the 90s, all over the world, it was suddenly out of fashion to say you are a feminist,” she reminisces.
Sukran Moral would proudly announce she is a feminist and Italian women would go “ma bastaaa” (enough), they would claim that they have alienated the men too much. Maybe in her country, there was a need for such a thing, but they did not need feminism, for sure.
“But the world started going backward socioeconomically. Women did not see the equalities they were hoping for in their lives, and the rise of the right and racism caused fear. And fear, now, made people take action,” she says of feminism being on the rise again.
“Buongiornooo,” she waves her hand which causes a waiter to think we want to order, but Moral is actually calling to the artists and friends from her past, asking them where have they been.
For a brief second, she becomes a regular woman, going through a scavenger hunt in her purse in an attempt to show me something.
“Wait, dear,” she mutters, pulling out something that resembles a chord decorated with tiny flowers. An unidentified object she apparently found on the road and made into a tiara for herself which she carefully places on top of her head.
“I’m just playing,” she chuckles, “I’d always play games when I was a child as well. I’d make up stories and do sorts of plays.”
Moral was not always a rebellious avant-garde artist. When she was born in the small Turkish town of Temre in 1962, she was merely one of the five Moral children. Little Sukran would gather the other kids at a place where the family stored the wood and coal, and she would perform plays and stories which were made up spontaneously.
“Like a theatre play?” I ask ignorantly.
“Darling, what theatre in Temre? I was doing theatre in my head. Those plays are perhaps the most pleasant memories of my childhood, to be able to play freely. I suppose that was what saved me.”
Moral understood the difference between women and men as a little girl, even before primary school. There was something strange, her and her sister were not equal to their brothers. When her brother would eat a dolma, a dish of vegetables or meat stuffed in vine leaves, her father would give him money. It was almost as if it did not matter whether his daughters ate or not. The daughters were not allowed to eat meat because it was more difficult to buy. Moral understood then and there that the girls were not important.
“Boys should eat more,” her father would say, “boys should eat meat.”
The Morals were conservative, with her father not wanting his daughters to continue education once primary school was completed. And that is when the burden of being a girl started. Evidently, she started menstruating.
“They told me that I’d grown up now. That I had breasts now. I was ugly as a child. Or perhaps I saw myself that way because now when I look at the photographs, I wasn’t particularly ugly or anything. But I felt ugly.”
Once she hit puberty, something weird happened. It was as if, suddenly, she had become pretty. That is when they told her she could no longer play on the streets. She had grown up. She is a girl, and they are boys.
“Something like an earthquake happened in me. And at that moment, I hated that I had bled. I hated being a woman.”
The little girl looked at her breasts and cried, cried and cried. She would look at them and cry “don’t grow.” She would put the smallest hazelnuts she could find in her bra because the superstition went if you put hazelnuts by your bosom, your breasts would be as tiny as they are.
It did not take Moral a long time to come up with a solution as she realised her big brother could still go out because he is a boy. So, she started wearing his clothes, and disguised herself as a boy, sneaking out, she could easily go anywhere and do anything. She could attend to her beloved 9:00pm open-air cinema again and dream of different worlds.
“All the official institutions are politely closing their doors on me. I can see it, I can feel it.”
I ask if her parents could really not tell.
She said no, because she would do it so secretly, and because anything that they were able to tell, she would get beaten for it.
“That is when I understood how much a transformation could change my life. The idea of becoming a transformation performance artist began in my mind there.”
Moral’s eyes, almost turning into dark pools of determination, stare directly into mine when she questions why little girls have to experience such things. Why has she experienced such things? She believes it was so that she could talk about these experiences, that she now must do so.
There is also a bit of survival in it. She reveals that she often wonders how she would have lived if she was not telling these things and speaking about them. Telling these stories gives her, and others, strength. To her, the only way to be strong is to tell.
“Telling, as you know, is the purpose of art.”
Even though her father did not want his daughter to go to middle school, Moral went secretly. Despite the domestic abuse, she graduated from high school and went off to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to study fine arts. She subsequently moved to Rome in 1989 to eventually graduate from the painting section of Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma.
While she is Turkish, Moral is an artist that made her name in Rome, having her big break in Italy. She says there was a bit of hustle and bustle in Rome then, which is gone now. A liveliness in the art scene all over the world in the 90s. She had peace in her little studio and was right at the heart of the “art intelligensia”.
In 1994, she produced The Artist, a self-portrait of her crucified like Jesus. “When I think of Sukran Moral, the first thing that comes to my mind is a textbook photo of her work The Artist, where she is posing as if crucified, nude, with her eyes piercing directly into mine,” Dea Dzankovic, an artist who also interviewed Moral, tells me.
“I will never forget the first time I saw that image,” Dzankovic recalls, “the first thing it conveyed to me was a kind of pure defiance, a female rebellion.”
It was taboo-shattering work and Moral claims that the initial shock of the art world was followed by silence. That year, they did not even talk about it. She could only exhibit it once or twice and then; they chose to ignore it.
Since then, Moral had many solo exhibitions around the world, doing work around identity, immigration, anything and everything that she felt needed to be talked about. She did Il Matrimonio con tre (Married, with Three Men) which depicted her marrying three young men.
“Well, that one, they talked about,” she tells me as she takes a drag from her cigarette with a half-smile, “because apparently, some journalists thought I actually married three people. The art circle, again, ignored it though.”
What Moral wanted to portray was the idea of one bride and many grooms as opposed to one groom and many brides. To draw attention to the very young girls who are being forced to marry old men and being swapped between a family’s husbands in the south of Turkey.
In 1997, she did Museum & Morgue where she transformed The Museum of Contemporary Art Workshop at Sapienza University of Rome into a morgue. She performed at a women’s asylum and in the men’s section of a Turkish bath in Hamam, both in Istanbul. The video of Hamam which was shot secretly was and still is one of the most influential works on the contemporary artists of the world.
“I’ve transformed a museum in Rome into a morgue, did performances on a gynecology table in Speculum, and the art circle ignored such potent works and were disturbed by it.” Moral’s art is indeed, intended to disturb you at times, which some Turkish people on forums described as how “she beats you up with her art.”
The same year, Moral did Bordello in which she turned a brothel in Istanbul into a modern art museum, stating she wanted to attract attention to the society’s hypocrisy and false morality, and show the realities of the city that they live in.
Holding up a “For Sale” sign across her exposed breasts, she criticised the sale of women like a commodity which she sees in a way as a modern slave trade.
In her Der Spiegel interview, she said what is scandalous was not the nudity, but the fact that here she was, an intellectual woman, who proposed doing something scandalous. She said it would have been no big deal if she really had been a whore, so just being a female avant-garde artist was scandalous.
When asked whether she would do a performance such as Bordello again in the Turkey of today, she replies she has never regretted the things she has done. But she does think that if she were to do it now, she would be late, it would be more appropriate to do it at the time in 1997.
Moral went on to do other controversial works, exhibiting around the world; Apocalypse, Despair, Jesus&Muhammad, Love&Violence. Through her art, she could defy all the wrongs in the world; she could speak up and shock and confront.
For the 51st Venice Biennial in 2007, Moral did The Adulteress. Covered by a pure, white veil, you could see her being buried in dirt, a fate many young girls have faced in her hometown. She recalls being faced with horribly racist comments when she did The Adulteress. Who the hell was she to do this? They have told her that they don’t bury women and that she should go and do that kind of thing in her own country.
However, the backlash Moral was getting accustomed to provoking, went to another level after a cold December night in 2010. There was a dry, slapping cold outside, whereas inside of the gallery Casa dell’Arte in Istanbul, there was a heat radiating from the crowd, covered with anticipation.
There were 147 viewers, mostly from the art world, and a bed in which the performance would be happening. Between them, a thin, tulle, see-through curtain. Moral performed Amemus (Lovemaking) which was her and a female actress just making love for about twenty minutes.
Amemus became such a big controversy on the street as well as in the art world that Moral announced she was stopping the production process and leaving Turkey due to the number of death threats she was receiving — from people who viewed her performance as pornography.
Moral suddenly found herself isolated; institutions were not giving her support, and even her friends were scared to give her a call. People in the art world told her she should not have done Amemus, after all, nothing was happening to the other artists who have done other works in the country.
She gazes into her tea, boiling, and scarlet, in an hour-glass-shaped traditional Turkish tea glass. Moral remembers that nobody wanted to stand by her side and defend her in 2010. She told them that this was not about her doing something which was deemed “forbidden,” the issue was about freedom. She still thinks the people who have to defend democracy in Turkey do not have a full understanding of what it means, and they can only speak up when the same thing happens to them.
“That is what democratic rights mean,” she says almost spilling her tea, “you defend me, not because you stand by my particular choices, but because you stand with democracy. What they don’t understand is that if you had spoken up when this had happened to me, it would not be happening to you today.”
In today’s Turkey, Moral views conformism and populism as very dominant defence mechanisms. Her current problem is not being able to exhibit her projects in her hometown.
“All the official institutions are politely closing their doors on me. I can see it, I can feel it.”
She pauses as if she suddenly remembered something. “Darling, I am so sorry I can’t talk about more sophisticated things with you, the things about art that should be talked about. I suppose that is the faith of artists from Turkey; we’re still debating some things that are almost medieval; miniskirts and ripped jeans.”
Whenever she speaks about Turkey, Moral is baffled by being criticised for representing her country in a bad light. “How are things supposed to go for the better if we don’t criticise our negatives?” She asks, going a few octaves higher and gaining a few more listeners in the café now.
“Anywho dear,” she goes back to a calm, almost chipper tone as if she is wary of discouraging me, “don’t be upset about it.”
Regardless of acceptance in her own country, Moral goes on to exhibit her works around the world in solo and group projects. In which language shall I tell my story… in The Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam. Bodies of Silence at the Royal College of Arts, in London. Light From The Middle East at Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. She is relentlessly pursuing the themes of gender inequality and violence against women because she believes there is still a lot of work to be done.
Moral thinks we have talked a lot about Turkey because it is where we are from. However, she stresses, violence against women is an international issue. When she did an exhibition in Norway, one of the most modern and improved countries in the world, the women there were able to identify with her work as well. They too have been subjected to violence.
And the same applies to Italy where she spent most of her adult life; they are a macho country, she claims. Whether it is the US, the UK, or anywhere else in the world, to Moral, it does not matter, because there is still no gender equality in the world.
Change happens slowly, she says putting out her umpteenth cigarette, but she would like to believe that she has, or the sum of her life’s work has contributed to it.
The sum of her life is one tumultuous tale of art and repression. And I would like to think, a triumph. A woman that cannot be shut up come what may. An artist who cannot be dismayed or discouraged. How was she not discouraged, I ask. Has she never felt in despair?
“There have been so, so many times when I felt in despair,” she says with a disheartened laugh.
Moral admits she would be lying if she said she never questioned what she was doing or thought about why these things were happening to her. Somehow, she overcomes them. Maybe because she has confidence in herself, she offers. She has to depend on herself. And biographies.
“I love biographies you know, they really help. Whatever feeling you go through has happened to other people in history. One needs a sort of comparison. There are such few books, such few films about female artists. And I think women really need that.”
Despite it all, Moral knows she can overcome things because she is someone who can be happy with very few things. She is the type of person who will walk out the house to get a bouquet of flowers, et voila, she will be happy.
“When I say very few things, I mean fewer than fewer,” she tells me. “I was a child who would talk to the patterns on the curtains; I guess because I had no toys or because I was so lonely. I can console myself for anything that might happen. Because thankfully, today I have a lot more than those patterns on the curtains.”
All images courtesy of Sukran Moral