Tomur Atagök: A Life Long Feminist Artist in Turkey

Jun 10, 2021 | Art Insights

Tomur Atagök in front of Çatalhöyük Goddess, 1996 in her home

Written by Susan Platt

Part I Biography

Tomur Atagök a leading feminist artist from Turkey, was born in Istanbul. After graduating from Robert College in Istanbul, she trained in the United States from 1960-1973, first at Oklahoma State University where she immersed herself in abstract painting and earned a BFA. She then went on to the California College of Arts and Crafts and the University of California, Berkeley for an MA. During her years in Berkeley, she experienced the Free Speech movement, then the civil rights uprisings, and third, protests by feminist artists .   

Madonna with Thousand Faces, 1989, acrylic on metal, 200 x 300cm, (79 x 118″) Collection Istanbul Modern

After returning to Turkey in 1973, she pioneered, first of all as a painter, then as a teacher, curator, and historian. In the 1980s her painting focused on contemporary women, often painting on a metallic surface. Several works featured Madonna as a contemporary icon.

During these same years she was the Assistant Director of Mimar Sinan University Museum of Painting and Sculpture , where she also earned a Ph.D. in Museology. She then moved to Yildiz Technical University where she founded and chaired the first Museum Studies Program in Turkey in 1989. Atagök has trained many of the current museum professionals in Turkey. At the same time she began collaborating on ground breaking exhibitions of contemporary Turkish artists with several focusing on women artists. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1993, she co organized the first exhibition of the history of women artists in Turkey “Woman in Anatolia” and “Contemporary Turkish Women Artists, organized by the Ministry of Culture.

Part II Feminism

Tomur states: “My approach has always been that of considering “feminism in art” from both artistic and activist points of view, and I have been concerned that women artists are unable to construct their identities despite their art. My mission was first based on making the women artists aware of the hegemony of the white-male artist of the Western world. Since I was working as the assistant director at the only art museum in Istanbul, it was relatively easy for me to research, give lectures, and later organize exhibitions of women artists. However, I must add that my attempts were often received with disinterest by all. Nevertheless, my own practice as an artist used “woman” as the subject from as early as the late 1970s.” (n. paradoxa, 2002)

Dance of the Robots and the Runner, acrylic on metal, 1986, 200x300cm (79 x 118″)

Tomur’s work follows several intersecting themes although feminism is a central focus throughout her career.  In her works of the 1980s, we see her assertion of the figurative in the midst of dynamic abstract expressionist brushstrokes. these dynamic paintings exude incredible energy of the brushstrokes and the figures.

M, acrylic on metal, 1987, 200 x 300cm (79 x 118″)

She began to paint on metal on 1981 and already by 1983 she won an award with a three dimensional work called Symmetric Altar with Madonna facing the Christian Mary .

The artist explains: “The pictorial reality and space on a metallic surface contains the hints the artist gets from the environment, the symbols and the descriptions she uses in making references to the outside world, the different realities of the materials and the techniques, the images reflected from the environment and the perceiver on the surface of the metallic work, and finally the interpretation of the perceiver each time create different subjective and materialistic realities of art.

On the other hand pictorial reality and real space, change physically with the reflections from the environment and the perceiver himself, and join with the physical environment and movement, creating a connection of life with art.”

 In 1990 the critic William Zimmer asked the artist about the frequent use of the color pink “It’s a color which she confided in me she cannot abide, but which also stands for humanity from a feminist perspective. Pink which traditionally connotes softness is applied to metal, meaning toughness.”

Part 3 The Goddesses

In 1996 Tomur was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to American University to study American feminist art. While there she had a meeting with Professor Norma Broude who made the suggestion that she look at feminism in Turkey through the lens of the goddess traditions from Anatolia. When she returned to Turkey she took on that challenge a produced a stunning installation on ten metal panels that alternate between various goddess images, abstraction and references to women’s bodies.

Goddess Series installed 1999, 10 metal panels each 200 x 300cm (79 x 118″) Collection Elgiz Museum, Istanbul
Goddess Series, detail, Anatolian Mother Goddess
Anatolian Mother Goddess, Çatalhöyük, 20 cm, (8″) 5700BC, Anatolian CIvilizations Museum, Ankara

Dominating this series is the great Anatolian Mother Goddess from Çatalhöyük. That twenty centimeter statuette, excavated from the oldest city in the world, dates from around 5700 BC. The small figure has enormous power: she is seated comfortably between subdued leopards as she gives birth. Her breasts, hips and buttocks swell to enormous proportions, further increasing her power. Far removed from the slender, even emaciated, ideal for a female body that is now common for some contemporary societies (notably the United States), this goddess proclaims her physical presence and her authority at the same time.

In the paintings by Tomur Atagök, the Goddess assumes much larger dimensions as she joins our world as a life size figure who stands as a guardian. Rather than a fertility symbol, she is now a symbol simply of the power of women. She is an affirmation of women’s energy and authority. On her head she wears a type of mechanical diadem/crown in one painting, and sits in front of a golden shower of sun in another.

Two of these large goddesses frame a third panel that makes reference to the interior of woman, specifically here, the vertebrae and ovaries ( see image at top of post). The woman’s interior, so often altered today by contemporary medical science, is here protected by powerful traditional forces.

Artemis of Ephesus, Selcuk Museum, Turkey

Another of these grand paintings is based on Artemis of Ephesus. Artemis, later changed to a slender virgin hunter by the Romans, is here seen in her guise as Cybele, another Anatolian mother goddess.

Goddess Series, Artemis, acrylic on metal, 200×300 (79 x 118″), Giz Cagdas Sanat Muzesi

Her many breasts carry the power of nurturing and life. In place of the animals under her protection on the traditional statues, this painting has guns, tanks and other references to military warfare. Artemis also has black gloves and a contemporary face with bold red lipstick and blond hair. It was done in response the violation of sacred lands by military weapons, particularly during the Gulf War. This powerful statement could be about any war and its destructive effect on life as a whole

The collective presence of these goddesses is a powerful commentary on contemporary women and their connection to historical traditions. They are major examples of contemporary art in Turkey.

Part 4 Opposition to War and Violence

Uğur Mumcu’dan (From Uğur Mumcu), 1999, mixed media on paper,70 x 100cm ( 27 x 40″),

Atagok often inserts text into her work. One of her most famous is an homage to Uğur Mumcu an investigative journalist researching terrorism  in Turkey who was murdered in 1993. In her homage Tomur wrote on the painting in Turkish a quote from the journalist:

Translated into English it said:

There are those who have preferred a lifestyle of silence

pulling inward as a personal symbol.

Their freedom and weapons do not speak.

Every injustice takes strength in a way from their passivity.

Cover of catalog Games, Toys, Children,War, Love

The artist called the entire series dedicated to the journalist “Games, Toys, Children, War, Love,” completed in 1999-2000. In some works metal scraps seem to invoke the violence of Mumcu’s death. A complete heart in another offers a brighter tone. The heart is only partially visible as a double or single curve in some works. Against that motif emerge silhouettes of guns, toy soldiers, bones, paper doll cutouts, hands, dots, crosses, and crescents. In addition the artist uses stones, sticks, feathers, and glossy advertising images of beautiful people. Scattered throughout many of the works are poetic phrases, of various moods, hopeful, sad, cynical.

Games, Toys, Children, War, Love, detail of one work, 1999-2000, 70 x 100 cm ( 27 x 40″) mixed media on paper

The series as a whole is an homage to Mumcu, but also a response to him. Atagök has decided not to remain passively silent in the face of her own distress at his death and her support for his ideas.

Part 5 Nature

Nature’s Call Mixed Media installation 2011

Another theme that intersects with women both politics and women is nature. It takes many forms. Her home is filled with examples of recreating nature in the midst of her life–she even created a forest in her basement and had an exhibition in 2011 that featured an installation of branches, paintings, diaries and other pieces.

View of Tomur’s basement with forest and diaries

Her commitment to calling attention to the small details of branches or bones and repositioning them on the surface of her painting or simply suspending them in a frame results in a subtle relationship between abstraction and realism. In other works she takes random trash found in the woods and creates constructions.

When asked what is most important to her at this time in her life  (she turned 82 in May), she answered her nature installations. She lives in the midst of nature. She has been living and working in rural Demirciköy, Sarıyer, İstanbul since her retirement in 2006. It is close to the Black Sea and in the midst of trees and flowers. She is deeply concerned about climate change and the effects of humans on the destruction of the fragile ecosystem.

Part 6 The Diaries

In addition to all of these major works, Tomur has made hundreds of small works, part of her ongoing Diaries. Each one is composed of a the detritus of everyday life, a candy wrapper, a ticket to an exhibition framed in a small format with her signature expressionist gestures added. These small diaries tell the story of her life in collage. They have been exhibited on their own and in connection with larger works (such as perched on top of the goddess series). They tell us as much about who this  prolific artist is as do the large scale works.

As the Elgiz Museum described the Diaries in 2006 :

“a collage of over 1000 post card sized mixed media works produced between 1990 and 2006. Journeys through France, Germany, Italy, USA, UK, Macedonia, Greece, Azerbaijan, South Korea, Yugoslavia and Turkey represent the subjects for the artist’s reflection; instead of following the conventional literary format of a diary where passages are added simultaneously with the event, Atagök chooses to reflect on each event after a period of time has passed; this allows her to effectively fuse the past with the present. She chooses not to focus on isolated moments but on a collection of memories illustrated through everyday items such as tickets, wrappings and photos. ‘The Diaries’ does not function as a commentary on life but is intended as an accumulation of recycled materials intercepted by art. These works are more personal, informal and social compared to her recent series ‘Anatolian Goddesses’ and ‘War and Peace’ executed on metal and reflective surfaces.”

Part 7 Views of her house

Say your Word Well, ” Peace is the Prize of those who speak up” 2006, acrylic on paper,
self portrait to right
Gray Nature, 2005, 115 x 145cm (45 x 57″) , acrylic and mixed media on canvas

Tomur Atagök is an artist, a feminist, a pioneering writer and historian of art by women in Turkey, an educator of museum professionals, an activist. Yet all of these identities still do not fully encompass her accomplishments.

She is profoundly committed to continuity of art and life. She is above all a deeply feeling human being who when asked about her dream project stated: “ I would like to work more on the human equality with man and woman feelings of  separation.  We are all equal!”

The artist and the author, 2014