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An album of engravings by Antoine Ignace Melling (1763-1831), titled “Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople et des Rives du Bosphore”, was printed in Paris in 1795. Melling, who was invited to Istanbul by Sultan Selim III, painted Istanbul with great love and compiled an album about the city in which he spent eighteen years. An engraving in the album, titled “Harem”, is a picture of a place through which strange women wander. Contrary to the orientalist conventions of the period, we do not encounter any dramatic or alluring expressions. These women, who are depicted with an almost scientific precision, seem to have been flung outside of time. My interest in “Harem” was to free these frozen women from the state of being objects of information, to cause them to regain their own voices and to force them to reveal their secrets. What happens when these women move into action?

I think that with a degree of intervention these women, imprisoned by the painter’s scientific skill, can reveal the self-seeking relationships underlying the duality of truth and fantasy.

The Harem, concealed from the gaze of men, is a mystical space that belongs to the other, to the object of curiosity and study, and resembles the culture of the other, the nature of the other. Consequently, this is why Western individuals, whether men or women, are always interested in the veil and the harem, that is, in the women’s space, their bodies and their truths. Melling only knew about the harem from hearsay; therefore he recreated the “Harem” from his own imagination with his skills as a painter. This picture, informed by a combination of the notion of perspective as a provider of knowledge and a conception of Cartesian perspective and rendered with a precision that leaves no room for doubt, seems to be made to deliberately conceal the part of the unconscious where dreams, images, desires, fantasies and anxieties exist and locks them within themselves for eternity.
The orientalist discourse and the knowledge it produces emerge before us as a means of creating the east. The contemporary woman is crushed by the discourses, either Western or Eastern, that are imposed on her. Is it possible for a woman, as the subject of all these ideological discourses and social contracts, to position herself as a subject? I think that at the very least it is essential to displace the possibilities of representation, iconography and mythos.

I am attempting to reach my face, which is unrecognizable within my own culture, through a variety of discursive allegories, depictions and images that Westerners created to represent and know the East. I want to sneak into the Harem, give movement to that which could not be domesticated and to create the possibility of resistance by causing the frozen images to move.

İnci Eviner 2008

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