Nil Yalter: Turkish-French art pioneer emerges from exile | Arts | DW | 06.03.2019
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Nil Yalter: Turkish-French art pioneer emerges from exile

"Exile Is a Hard Job" is a spot-on title for the retrospective of Turkish artist Nil Yalter's oeuvre at Museum Ludwig in Cologne. For over 40 years, she has been exploring the situation of migrant workers.

Nil Yalter (born 1938) is an artist whose significant achievements have been recognized relatively late in life. Born in Cairo, she grew up in Istanbul and moved to Paris at the age of 27. There she quickly became politically involved and interested in sociological topics; and she tried to combine both in her art. Her special focus is the subject of migration, especially how women get on with life in exile. She filmed, drew and described the fate of people who had to leave their homes and find a place in a new society.

Today, Yalter's highly contemporary and timeless work is being celebrated in her first major retrospective titled "Exile Is a Hard Job," which is on show at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

DW: You were the first female artist in France in the early 1970's to take a video camera in your hand; the first feminist to document the repression in women's prisons; and you were the first activist to focus in your art on the living situation of migrant workers. Why is your name known only to insiders?

Nil Yalter: Yes, that's right. For the first time, I have a big retrospective in such a wonderful and significant museum. And I am now 81 years old.

In the 1970s you joined the Femmes/Art ("Women/Art") and Femmes en lutte ("Fighting Women") in Paris, two associations of female artists who insisted on the recognition of women in a sexist art world. How at this time did you become the first artist in France to utilize the emerging video medium?

At that time I discovered the Portapak, the first portable video machine. In 1973 I had an important exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art where I exhibited a replica of a nomad yurt. Someone brought me this Portapak and I began filming and taping. I was immediately fascinated by the possibilities. I did the first shots around the yurt and filmed children who came in and out of the tent, even babies. So I made a documentary video. And so that's how I started.

In your first video performance, you film your hand writing text on your stomach: It's a work dealing with the hatred of the clitoris in male Muslim culture.

The excerpt is from a publication by the historian René Nelli. It is a very political text. He talks about how women are physically and morally castrated from their pleasure and their sexuality. It is a very important text. I wouldn't call it a performance; I performed for a video art piece.

A work by Nil Yalter. portrait reproduced as drawing without the person's face (Nil Yalter/H. Cangökçe)

Yalter explores in her work the loss of identity caused by exile

From the mid-70s your work enters a new phase and you start interviewing migrant workers in France.

Not only in France, but also in Belgium, the USA and Germany. But also in the banlieues of Paris.

That sounds more like a sociological approach. Have you always wanted to make art out of this material?

Yes always. I always wanted to make art. The initial spark was an encounter with nomads in Anatolia who live in those roundhouse tents. They told me that every woman has a husband or a brother or a son or an uncle who went to the city and settled in the favelas or in the slums. And some of them went straight to Germany.

So I got interested in the economic refugees, wondering what will become of them. Why did they come to Germany or France? I worked a lot with the social workers, Turkish social workers who live in France and helped the immigrants. In Germany it was better organized. The immigrants could learn the German language while working in the factories, but in France it was not like that. So they mastered the language very badly. Even if they have tried to acquire some language through the social workers.

What did you learn about the female immigrants' situation?

For them, it's like a double imprisonment. The men go outside in cafes and they meet each other; or they are working so they're getting notions of the language. But women stay in social housing — huge buildings like cages. The children go to school, so they speak better French than Turkish. And women have their children to take them out and translate the language when they go once a week to buy food. They are otherwise sitting and looking at walls.

We are currently going through radical political changes in Europe and the world. But in contrast with the enthusiasm of the revolutionary movements of 1968, we are seeing a new aggressive form of de-democratization. How do you view these changes? 

I find the atmosphere very threatening. Last year my exhibition was shown in the center of Vienna, and someone complained about the poster, with its photos of migrants and the title, "Exile is a hard job." He didn't want to see photos of immigrants and he started shouting

Cologne - Museum Ludwig - Nil Yalter exhibition. Exile is a hard Job (Nil Yalter/H. Krause)

Nil Yalter hand-paints words on her exhibition posters

at the gallery owner.

You have been living in Paris for a long time. How do you interpret the revolts of the yellow vests?

It's an interesting movement. It doesn't have a head, there is no structure — it started out very spontaneously. Some of them are very sincere, perhaps half of them. However, the other half is very right-wing so it only helps Le Pen's party. So I must say I'm worried. Italy's prime minister is very interested in the yellow vests — and very friendly with Marine Le Pen [the Front National]. All this is getting to be quite worrying. I no longer feel at ease in Paris. I love Paris. I've been there for such a long time. But I feel menaced. How am I going to go on living in a city where Marine Le Pen says that to be French, you have to have been settled in France for five generations? It reminds you of certain things. 

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