The Art of Narrating Mobility: “Exile Is A Hard Job”

The Turkish Nil Yalter, who was born in Cairo in 1938 and grew up in Istanbul, has been living and working in Paris since 1965.

I was visiting Cologne for the weekend, and visiting Yalter’s exhibition was highly recommended by a friend of mine living in the city. The welcoming statement explains simply her enthusiasm: “Exile Is A Hard Job”; a quote from Nâzım Hikmet—the famous poet born in Turkey and died in exile, in Moscow.

Even though the exhibition title is directly linked to the concept of migration, Nil Yalter is concerned with mobility. She narrates the story of mobilization, in its very simple form of moving from one place to another. The reason for mobilization, its frequency, and the location in the national and international level might differ. 

Estranged Doors is part of the 1983 series Exile Is a Hard Job. Eight photographs, portraits of four Turkish immigrants, are arrange around a text block. The text is a Turkish poem by Hasan Hüseyin Korkmazgil. He uses the image of a door to draw attention to a transnational space: a door is passed through, the previous room is left behind, and the new room lies ahead. The feeling of leaving and having not yet arrived is comparable to the situation of migrants. In the poem, doors not only lead to the estrangement mentioned in the title but also to servitude. 

In a wide range of topics from the death penalty execution on May 6, 1972 in Turkey to the migration history from Turkey to Europe, and by applying various medium from painting and installation to video art, Nil Yalter tells a series of stories concentrating on mobility by putting forward the aspect of body, particularly female body. In her art, Yalter exposes female bodies from the perspective of mobility in various spaces. Additionally, she displays the similarities and differences of the female body’s mobility in different geographies.

For Neunkirchen (1975), Nil Walter accompanied two women from the village of the same—Ms. Meisel (a cleaner) and Ms. Schmidt (a worker at a dairy farm)—in their daily work. Yalter’s camera focuses on the simple jobs performed by the workers. The de-personalization makes the monotonous, servile, and disempowering activities visible. The jobs performed by women, including caring for the elderly, raising children, and household chores, often go unrecognized and unappreciated. They take place in the hidden, private space associated with the female sphere. This is contrasted with a video showing two men doing target practice. 

Nil Yalter – I am from on Vimeo.

The photographs in Algerian Marriage in France (1982) document the multi-day wedding celebrations of an Algerian immigrant family. The six photographs show the same group of women and children playing music, dancing, and laughing together in an elaborately decorated room. The traditional absence of men raises questions about gender-specific role models and spaces. Only at the wedding do the bride and groom finally meet. It seems as if the artist has removed the originally rich colors from the scenes and transferred them to the frames inspired by the wall decorations in the photos. She uses geometric shapes and bold colors, as in her abstract paintings from the 1960s. 

Nil Yalter traveled to the Anatolian region of Niğde in 1973. She captured her impressions of nomadic lifestyles in nine collages with drawings, photographs, found materials, and handwritten labels. In a collage, four photographs document how sheep’s wool is processed to make felt. Another collage shows a container for transporting fragile teacups. Other collages describe the structure and dimensions of a yurt. Finally, Yalter built what at first glance seems to be an authentic Topak Ev (1973) (Turkish for “round house”). The portable tent, which can be assembled and disassembled, allows people to move around flexible to search for food and water. On the tent are lines from a novel by the author Yaşar Kemal, which deal with the continuing exile of nomads. Land-owners and governments forced them to abandon their nomadic lives and move to the suburbs of Turkish cities, where they began to work in factories. 

In Topak Ev, with the yurt Yalter shows a private space associated with the female sphere. As young girls, the nomadic people living in the Anatolian steppe begin to make their own yurt as well as the decorations and tools for their future household. These make up their dowry, while the husband contributes a herd of cattle as capital to the marriage. The tent is the limited space in which the wide lives and works and which, with few exceptions, she is not allowed to leave. She determines who enters it. Topak Ev is a symbol of both female empowerment and oppression. 

Nil Yalter’s concern with mobility showed itself as an outdoor activity of the exhibition, and she made murals with her exhibition’s poster. In the last part of the exhibition, eventually, the artist narrates the mobility from the experience of her own feminity and body from the perspective of mobility in the city of Cologne. Consequently, by calling visitors to mobilize, by preparing—in three languages—free exhibition guide, and by making a documentary film on the (her)story of the artist and her show in Museum Ludwig, the exhibition was absolutely inspiring. 

  • All quotations are from Exhibition Guide 
  • Photos by ecartan 2019